Chapter 4: Neuroeconomics and Economic Methodology
Don Ross 4.1 INTRODUCTION Paul Zak, a leading researcher among self-described neuroeconomists, declares without qualification that ‘economic decisions are made in the brain’, and ‘the brain is an economic system’ (2008, p. 301). These propositions can usefully be regarded as the two basic operative assumptions that drive the subdiscipline of neuroeconomics. As I will show in the present chapter, the relationship between them, and the empirical research programs that they underwrite, are more complicated than is generally appreciated. Many commentators take it to be self-evident that economic decisions are made in the brain. Zak signals this view when he adds ‘(not the toe or elbow)’ after the first quoted remark above. However, I will argue that on its most interesting interpretation, the claim is a contingent empirical one that might or might not be true; the second foundational assumption, I will maintain, looks safer and may better underwrite a distinctive and fecund research program. Neuroeconomics as a sociological phenomenon arises from three distinct intellectual currents: computational learning theory, behavioral economics and functional neuroanatomy. Most current neuroeconomic research emphasizes only one or two of these influences, and in that way the subfield remains disunified. I will organize the coming discussion in terms of the first two of these distinguishable threads, weaving the third through both of the others. At the end, I will assess prospects for stronger synthesis. Because of this organization, my methodological survey of neuroeconomic research will be out of chronological order. The historically earliest – and, I will...
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