Wednesday, 13 May 2009


Why are you reading this? Perhaps you found the Oxford Student in the JCR and are trying to take your mind off that all-too-nearby exam. Or maybe you spotted someone else reading it intently. Or, more likely, you picked it up as it was there, and, as we all know, anything free is good. It may surprise you that how we make such decisions is engaging some of the finest minds in three disciplines - economics, psychology and neuroscience – resulting in the invention of a new field of study: neuroeconomics.

Economists have long thought that we calmly weigh our decisions, thinking out all possible short- and long-term consequences, and always choose the option that will give the best results. Homo economicus drinks in moderation, never smokes, does the laundry and ironing, and never wakes up next to someone who only seemed attractive the night before, right?

That's where psychology – or common sense – comes in to point out that this is a terrific model of a saint/robot but might fall down for you or me. But psychologists themselves do not always seem attached to the real world, spending their time researching fractional differences in response times, for instance, when your hear the name of a dog if your arms are crossed – hardly everyday occurrences for us or homo economicus. And with neuroimaging, psychologists now demonstrate that certain parts of the brain (rather than say the liver) light up when hearing dog names if your arms are crossed too.

But, put these ingredients together and something exciting occurs. Economists and psychologists start to consider how real people might make irrational decisions. Neuroscientists look in the brain and find reasons why this may happen.

Here's one example. I shop on eBay, and am often willing to pay more than I ought. Why am I so irrational? Neuroeconomists show this is perfectly natural; in a social context we never want to lose out. No way someone else is going to run off with my shoes! And for this we can blame our brains: a small clump of cells which values the important things in life (food, drink, sex) tells us that winning against competitors is worth more than the shoes themselves.

But does wanting to win make us losers? Perhaps. As someone once said, “Success is getting what you want. Happiness is wanting what you get.” Neuroeconomists are well on the way to making our irrationality seem logical - even if our logic may forever remain irrational.