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!

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.

@ EIPE 2008 – Police Brain

panopticon1Day three is also the last day. The temperature dropped outside, hail fell yesterday, but since it’s still above zero, the ice melted overnight and under the warm shoes of the morning travelers. The conference mood has also turned south, tamer, more sleepy, less angry.

The paper that caught my attention today was Joel Anderson‘s discussion on the political theory of Sunstein and Thaler’s Nudge Parternalism. The hook was to think of policy implications as architecture. Sinapses snapped and to my mind came the image of the Panopticon and M. Foucault’s argument on how human sciences of the 19th century were projects of disciplinary intervention. Anderson does not offer a model building of the Sunstein and Thaler’s paternalism, instead he turns scaffolding (of the individual!? brain architecture?), and plumbing (of collective action?!), further and further away from Foucault’s exemplar.

The Foucault story is so good because it illustrates this surprising outcome that social science’s interventions into the human, the individual, the soul, the brain, are/can be physical interventions. The Bentham’s designed the corridors of prisons. Sunstein and Thaler will talk about the contents of supermarket aisles and shelves. It is the mind-body distinction and the social-physical paradox suddenly subverted.

@ EIPE 2008 – Sexy brains

mindcontrolFirst day of the Rotterdam Conference on “Neuroeconomics: Hype or Hope?” I found the meeting hall walking down the Westersingel, right turn twenty minutes from the Rotterdam Central Station, on a breezy Thursday morning. The whitewashed modern room is on the first floor of a Church community center, an otherwise heavy building of old dark wood. The room was well packed and I got stuck on a wooden bench for the whole morning. The first talks went quickly and didn’t hatch to my mind or my notebook. They blended into lists of objections, philosophical, religious, or personal.

The first session of the afternoon was more alarming and arresting. Ariel Rubinstein presented behavioral data drawn from his game theory website. The results of Rubinstein’s large data sets are less interesting than his closing anecdote. After publishing his results in the Economic Journal, he was enlisted by the journal to write a press release. In the text, he played out a conventional tale of behavioural economics that fairness comes out automatically without rational control, and in an ultimatum game reasoning will result in a less fair distribution of endowments. The Guardian liked it and in sight of the collapse of Northern Rock in November 2007, made connections between Gordon Brown’s appeals to calm and public interest and the economists’ findings.

Rubinstein’s punch line was that all this was wrong. It was wrong to be quoted in a Guardian editorial. It was wrong to have economics connect to current events in such sudden fashion. Neuroeconomics was suspect because it was easy to indulge in these excesses.

To me the reason for the sexyness has nothing to do with brains or neuroeconomics (there were no brains in Rubinstein’s paper). Journalists, in media like the Guardian, are writing political narratives, about characters and their feelings and decisions. Journalists are trained in the humanities with no prudishness towards talking morality and justice. Hence, it is holds no mystery or shock when they pick up “soft” economic research, about people’s inner conflicts and irrationality.

What is surprising is how such use can be distressing to some economists. They seem anxious about this attention, when journalists dare to speak in their name, in the name of economics.