Neuro-psycho-economist, but the mindset of a historian?

The new book of Paul Glimcher is out. Glimcher (based at NYU) is the promoter of neuroeconomics, a young field which studies the neural basis of decision-making.

There are few, if any, consensual historical narratives on neuroeconomics. Glimcher and co-authors wrote a short historical piece two years ago, but in my opinion it tried too hard to gather all possible antecedents (experimental eco, behavioral eco, signal theory, cognitive psycho, brain imaging, etc, etc) to give a comprehensive view.

And this is why I like Glimcher’s books. To convey an interest for neuroeconomics, he proceeds to re-read and interpret the long history of science in biology and medicine, pyschology and economics – if I remember well, his book of 2003 went back as far back as Gallienus, and evoked the writings of Pascal, Bernoulli, Laplace, …
Same deal for his new book: we are told the recent history of choice theory in neuroscience, psycho and eco. This exercise permits him to show that the separate disciplinary views on decision-making each suffer from espitemological deficiencies which could be remediated by making them dialoguing. And this is not a rapid rhetorical brush in the first chapters, before proceeding to “really interesting analytical stuff”. I mean, I am at page 188 and we just arrived in the late 1990s, when the first papers in the neuroscience of vision introduced economic variables in their experiments (uncertainty, intensity of reward).
Glimcher is trying hard to break the Chinese walls separating neuroscientists, psychologists and economists. The title he chose for the book suggests that he cares specially to reach economists – because they are the most insulated, I’d bet. But as an unwanted by-product, he makes neuroeconomics very interesting to historians of science too!

Pop Economics

It’s quite unlikely that the highly influential rock snob web-zine Pitchfork has anything to say about economics. Hence my surprise to read this in one of their latest columns:

But in a low-trust and low-money environment, behavioral economics is politically irresistible: It’s simple, it’s barely noticeable, and it’s cheap. More, it promises a kind of psychological judo. We could batter ourselves senseless and penniless again st people’s irrationality and selfishness while trying to change their behavior. Or we could use those very traits to “nudge” them in a desired direction. No wonder business people, as well as politicians, like it so much– it seems to offer solutions to all kinds of sticky behavioral problems.

The rest can be read here.

Besides, it seems that people interested in indie pop music are increasingly driven toward economics, as exemplified by Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party people, 9 Songs) and Mat Whitecross’s (Sex & Drugs & Rock’n’Roll), recent adaptation of Klein’s Shock Doctrine. After all, Mick Jagger was at the LSE and he retained Robbins’ lessons.

Did the economists miss the cognitive revolution?

I am currently reading a fascinating book, “The Cognitive Revolution in Psychology” by Bernard J. Baars (1986).

With a long introduction, it provides informative material for an outsider like me on how the cognitive turn played out in psychology, and presents a clear historical background getting back to Wundt and the early experimentalists, and the origins of the behaviorist revolution. Then it is followed by a series of interviews of participants in the cognitive revolution: from the opponents (Skinner and others) to the enthusiasts, and the followers.

Baars (1986)

On the substance, I was struck by how much behaviorism, which is the methodological orthodoxy that was overthrown by cognitive psychology, shares features with today’s textbook economics. Both share the status of a well-guarded orthodoxy: in their interviews, psychologists remember that behaviorism in psychology was exclusive, displaying a “nothing but” attitude: variables should be related to nothing but observable behavior, which disqualified the discussion of concepts like “memory” or “representations” ! Those words were taboo in psychology at least until the mid-1950s.  Looking back, psychologists consider that the methodological rigorousness of behaviorism, which insisted that each concept be operationally defined and testable, had the effect to strip psychology from its substance: the study of cognition, consciousness,  emotions and rational behavior were discouraged, virtually banned indeed, because these concepts did not readily translate into tightly defined behavioral variables that could be observed in an experimental setting.

I could not help but be reminded of a similar taboo in today’s economics, where the formation of preferences, or how the process of choice unfolds, is declared “out of bound” right from the introductory chapters in microeconomic textbooks: only an individual’s observable behavior, as it is instantiated in the outcome of the choice it performs, is to be taken into account.

The cognitive revolution in psychology crystallized around the mid-1950s, early 1960s. Forty years later, nothing of that sort happened in economics, it seems to me. With behavioral economics and neuroeconomics, maybe that economics will jump directly to the next train: the neurocognitive turn. Or will it miss that one also?

Post-script: on an approaching topic, Wade Hands has a paper forthcoming in the CJE, which is a nice read.