Analyse & Kritik

Journal of Philosophy and Social Theory

Mind and Economy: Methodological Problems of Neuroeconomics

2007 (29) Issue 1


Among the most current 'neuro'-subdisciplines, neuroeconomics is perhaps the one with the most interesting genealogy. It seems to be not only one, but two steps away from classical economics, being itself a specialized form of behavioural economics, a field of research which for some depicts the psychology of actors more than their market behaviour. Neuroeconomics means inspection of the role the brain plays during actors' decisions, the categorizing of risks and rewards, and of social interaction. Some neuroeconomists simply want to render scientifically transparent what goes on within the single player during her economic decisions—something of little interest to 'revealed preference'-oriented economics. Other neuroeconomists, however, wish to reactivate the unity-of-science dream of the Vienna Circle philosophers by suggesting, even if only playfully, that knowledge of the biological basis of behaviour in combination with advanced game theory could provide a common platform for the presently incommensurably disordered social sciences.

Due to its interdisciplinary character, neuroeconomics raises a host of questions for economics, both of a professional and of a methodological kind. Are economists, who are not interested in the psychological and neural processes behind economic behaviour 'bad' economists? Could one really expect classical economic theories, as consumer or welfare theories, to be corroborated, specified, or extended by visceral information concerning neural normality? Have "risk", "utility", "economic rationality", "stability", "choice", etc. become under-defined terms, now that the visibility of their neural correlates looms on the horizon? As these questions relate to central theorems of economics, opinions unsurprisingly differ whether neural information is capable of providing additional relevant cues for economics, or whether it merely introduces naturalist complements, precious rather to neurologists, brain-scientists, and psychiatrists. These questions raise many problems within the methodological and disciplinary matrix of economic theory—among economists. Philosophical correlata of this disciplinary delineation discourse can easily be found, and may perhaps be formulated in a way that would be of interest to economists as well.

Philosophers are quick to point out that what is dealt with in terms of psychology and neurology is part and parcel of the notorious 'mind-body-problem'. Philosophers are generally impressed by the dualistic articulation of the problem and typically struggle against or for one version of dualism. So they see, whether rightfully or not, problems where naturalist scientists such as the neuroeconomists perceive none, and they are prone to rephrase the economists' delineation problem just mentioned in different terms, and with a different motivation. Typically, they are inclined to diagnose the ontological strata behind thoughts/mind and neurons/brain as the very reason behind the classical economists' and neuroeconomists' efforts at delineation, and easily detect in the latters' position another attempt to unify science. Instead, how a science defines its central concepts depends on its empirical fruitfulness alone, embedded, of course, in the social conditions and interests of the day. Nevertheless, given the background of their own painful development of thinking about the mind, philosophers may be more capable than others of helping with bridge-building between irreducible 'ontological spheres'.

In the present issue, Andrew Brook and Pete Mandik start by reminding us that, though neuroscience goes back at least to Descartes, it became a ma jor factor in cognitive and behavioural research only with the development of fMRI and other brain imaging systems starting in the 1980s. Since then, as they report, neuroscientific research relevant to understanding cognition and behaviour has grown exponentially. There is now quite a large group of researchers with advanced training in both philosophy and neuroscience. Brook/Mandik give a nuanced description of how neuroscientific work has even shaped traditionally 'philosophical' topics such as consciousness. Yet, according, there is still room for work to be done by philosophers.

In distinction to them, Michael Pauen tries less to synthesize theory and neuroeconomical applications than to warn against reductionism. Similarly to Brook and Mandik, he sides with the merely relative autonomy of the different disciplinary perspectives, seeing rather a complementary relation between consciousness and brain. Ralph Schumacher agrees with Pauen in stressing the irreducibility of the mental, which he illustrates with the help of the creative force of symbols within learning processes. Irreducibility comes from the symbols' dependence on content, and the content's dependence on environment. The environment cannot be in the brain, so neuroscience, strictly understood, cannot include cognitive learning, strictly understood. As can be seen, in sum, philosophers may posit themselves either more on the naturalist or more on the cognitivist side, by this somehow redoubling the inner-economic methodological struggle.

Jang Park and Paul Zak see neuroeconomics as the most advanced form of a biologically understood program of economic theory. Accordingly, they give a list of recent findings, explaining how behavioural economics corrected standard thinking about rationality, emotions, altruism, etc. Even if not explicitly, theirs seems to be an unmitigated reductionist position. They think that, for example, trust is 'caused' by influences on the brain state and that firing rates of the brain can be used to predict risky choices or consumer purchases, even fashion trends. Against the critics of neuroeconomics they think that brain-science is suited to make economics a 'modern science'. Bernhard Neumärker follows the same line of reasoning as these economics colleagues, reconstructing the successes of recent behavioural economics and legitimizing its neural subsection as adding reality to economics' hypothetical 'as if ' assumptions. Against the reductionist neuroeconomists, however, Neumärker wants to introduce 'neuroeconomic constraints' arising from types of action, situation, beliefs and outcome. Cohering with Schumacher's externalism-critique, these constraints would restrict the relevance of brain-findings. Daniel Houser et al. and Shu-Chen Li et al. devote themselves to more detailed work, suggesting both improvements in econometric methodology and reward-based decision making.

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Table of Contents

Title: The Philosophy and Neuroscience Movement
Author: Andrew Brook / Pete Mandik
Page: 3-23

Abstract: A movement dedicated to applying neuroscience to traditional philosophical problems and using philosophical methods to illuminate issues in neuroscience began about twenty-five years ago. Results in neuroscience have affected how we see traditional areas of philosophical concern such as perception, belief-formation, and consciousness. There is an interesting interaction between some of the distinctive features of neuroscience and important general issues in the philosophy of science. And recent neuroscience has thrown up a few conceptual issues that philosophers are perhaps best trained to deal with. After sketching the history of the movement, we explore the relationships between neuroscience and philosophy and introduce some of the specific issues that have arisen.

Title: Neuroökonomie - Grundlagen und Grenzen
Author: Michael Pauen
Page: 24-37

Abstract: According to a widespread view, neuroscientific basic research tells us more about the essence of the mind than psychology and may, in the long run, even replace those higher level approaches. Contrary to this view, it is demonstrated that many features can only be observed and explained on a certain level of complexity. This is particularly obvious in the case of neuromarketing and neuroeconomics. In both cases, neuroscientific methods depend on behavioral paradigms. Still, neuroscientific research in these fields may enhance our understanding of the underlying neural mechanisms. In addition, neuroeconomics provide excellent conditions for the study of human decision making.

Title: The Brain Is Not Enough. Potentials and Limits in Integrating Neuroscience and Pedagogy
Author: Ralph Schumacher
Page: 38-46

Abstract: The desire for founding educational reform on a sound empirical basis has coincided with a period of impressive progress in the field of neuroscience and wide public interest in its findings, leading to an ongoing debate about the potential of neuroscience to inform education reform. But is neuroscience really suited to provide specific instructions for improving learning conditions at school? This paper explores the educational implications of neuroscience.

Title: Neuroeconomics Studies
Author: Jang Woo Park / Paul J. Zak
Page: 47-59

Abstract: Neuroeconomics has the potential to fundamentally change the way economics is done. This article identifies the ways in which this will occur, pitfalls of this approach, and areas where progress has already been made. The value of neuroeconomics studies for social policy lies in the quality, replicability, and relevance of the research produced. While most economists will not contribute to the neuroeconomics literature, we contend that most economists should be reading these studies.

Title: Neuroeconomics and the Logic of Behavior
Author: Bernhard Neumärker
Page: 60-85

Abstract: Recent neuroeconomic studies challenge the conventional economic logic of behavior. After an introduction to some starting points of brain research in 'classical' economics we discuss the final and contingent causes of rational and irrational behavior in neuroeconomics and standard economics and present the concept of expanded rationality models (ERM) which imports neuroeconomic elements like emotions, beliefs and neuroscientific constraints and exports improved testable predictions. The typical structure of neuroeconomic proof of economic models and the imprecise neuroscientific measurement let us suggest a feed-back structure of economic research. We apply Hirshleifer's conception of macro-/micro-technology and contrast it to the neuroeconomic black box critique on economic theory. Furthermore, instead of direct adjustment of preference structures we propose the auxiliary creation of neuroeconomic constraints like action-dependent or outcome-dependent neuroeconomic belief constraints (NBC) and emotion compatibility constraints (ECC). This prepares the ground for our examination of neuroeconomics and ERM as two different paths towards an analytical unification of behavioral sciences.

Title: Combining Brain and Behavioral Data to Improve Econometric Policy Analysis
Author: Daniel Houser / Daniel Schunk / Erte Xiao
Page: 86-96

Human behaviour may be governed by rules, but it is possible that these rules simply encode preferences. [...] Many psychologists argue that behaviour is far too sensitive to context and affect to be usefully related to stable preferences. However, if there are underlying preferences, then even if the link from preferences to rules is quite noisy it may be possible to recover these preferences and use them to correctly evaluate economic policies, at least as an approximation that is good enough for government policy work.
Daniel L. McFadden (Nobel Prize Lecture 2002)

Abstract: For an economist, ultimate goals of neuroeconomic research include improving economic policy analysis. One path toward this goal is to use neuroeconomic data to advance economic theory, and productive efforts have been made towards that end. Equally important, though less studied, is how neuroeconomics can provide quantitative evidence on policy, and in particular the way in which it might inform structural econometric inference. This paper is a first step in that direction. We suggest here that key forms of preference (or decision strategy) heterogeneity can be identified by brain imaging studies and, consequently, linked stochastically to observable individual characteristics. Then, recognizing that brain-imaging studies are substantially costly, we derive conditions under which the probabilistic link between observable characteristics and type, a quantity critical to policy analysis, can be estimated more precisely by combining data from traditional and brain-based decision studies.

Title: Aging and Neuroeconomics: Insights from Research on Neuromodulation of Reward-based Decision Making
Author: Shu-Chen Li / Guido Biele / Peter N. C. Mohr / Hauke R. Heekeren
Page: 97-111

Abstract: 'Neuroeconomics' can be broadly defined as the research of how the brain interacts with the environment to make decisions that are functional given individual and contextual constraints. Deciphering such brain-environment transactions requires mechanistic understandings of the neurobiological processes that implement value-dependent decision making. To this end, a common empirical approach is to investigate neural mechanisms of reward-based decision making. Flexible updating of choices and associated expected outcomes in ways that are adaptive for a given task (or a given set of tasks) at hand relies on dynamic neurochemical tuning of the brain’s functional circuitries involved in the representation of tasks, goals and reward prediction. Empirical evidence as well as computational theories indicate that various neurotransmitter systems (e.g., dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin) play important roles in reward-based decision making. In light of the apparent aging-related decline in various aspects of the dopaminergic system as well as the effects of neuromodulation on reward-related processes, this article focuses selectively on the literature that highlights the triadic relations between dopaminergic modulation, reward-based decision making, and aging. Directions for future research on aging and neuroeconomoics are discussed.

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