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Neuroeconomics: How the brain makes decisions?

From the point of view of Taoism, there is a strong relationship between Taoist libertarian principles and the new fields of Neuroeconomics, which may support important ideas previously put forward by Austrian economists.

In this article, we are going to analyze the main contributions of Neuroeconomics to our understanding of how the brain makes decisions. Secondly, we are going to assess these contributions from the point of view of libertarian political Taoism. Finally, we are going to discuss the possible relationships between Neuroeconomics and Economics (especially with Austrian School of Economics).

  1. Contributions of Neuroeconomics

By definition, Neuroeconomics is not the same as Behavioral Economics, even though both are closely related. Behavioral economics study effects of psychological, social, cognitive and emotional factors on the economic decisions of individuals and the consequences for market prices[1]. Meanwhile, Neuroeconomics is an interdisciplinary field that seeks to explain human decision making, the ability to process multiple alternatives and to follow a course of action. It studies how economic behavior can shape our understanding of the brain, and how neuroscientific discoveries can constrain and guide models of economics[2].

As you may notice, Neuroeconomics is an interdisciplinary field, that derives from neuroscience, economics and psychology. Neuroeconomics is less focus on psychology than behavioral economics. The purpose of neuroeconomics is to understand how brain makes decisions, which brain areas are activated (receive more blood flow) when individuals makes certain decisions, how these areas are related one another, how neurons transmit information and when people finally make a choice or not[3].

Obviously, Economics is also concerned about human choices, as the subject of study is the human being. Even Ludwig von Mises called its own theory praxeology, a study of human behavior. In the same regard, Psychology share the subject of study: the human being. Neuroeconomics analyze the functioning of human brain to draw conclusions on human behavior.

For example, the ultimatum game. Neuroscientists conducted an experiment, with two participants. The first will receive an amount of money and he will decide how to share the money with the other player. He can decide whatever he wants. The second player will receive the sum decided by the first player, and he will decide to accept it or not. If the second player reject it, none player will be paid. It turned out in the experiment, that most of the unfair deals were rejected and even though the second player would be better-off he would reject his little money, considering the unfairness of the game. Moreover, the brain scanners confirmed the correlation between rejection and the brain regions related with unfairness[4].

In addition, as knowledge improve, and society develops, new interdisciplinary fields spring up[5]. An interdisciplinary field is nothing that a specialization in the knowledge that share two or more fields of study. It is important for society that those interdisciplinary fields can be developed, because otherwise these relationships (which exist) will not be analyze by experts with comparative advantage in these areas.

The main contributions of Neuroeconomics are to provide a solid scientific background to psychologists and economist to understand how brain works when deciding. For example, perceived costs are in the amygdala region. Animals with no amygdala would show a riskier behavior. On the other hand, perceived benefits are associated with nucleus accumbens. The decision will be made according to the differences between perceived benefits and costs, located in those brain areas, that would be different for each human being.

The understanding of human brain is improving and any economics or psychologist who do not include these ground-braking improvements in its own analysis will be out-of-date, as other specialist may better understand how human beings behave, which is, how the brain makes decisions.

It goes without saying that Neuroeconomics is new discipline, with few experts and building its own language and programs, even though it is evolving quite rapidly and offering quite inspiring and promising contributions.

  1. Neuroeconomics and Taoism

A very long time ago, some Chinese thinkers already discovered the basic patters of human behavior. We are going to analyze these patterns.

 

道之尊,德之貴,夫莫之命常自然。

This Dao and De veneration does not come from any instruction but from the spontaneity

Tao De Ching, Chapter 51

 

善數不用籌策

A good plan has neither calculations or strategies.

Tao De Ching, Chapter 37

 

These sentences, which appears in the Tao De Ching, shows the superiority of spontaneity over instruction, as spontaneity is based on consent and not in violence. According to Taoism, things based on consent are superior to things underpinned by violence, which are unstable. The same findings are achieved by Austrian Economist, who believe in a society base on individual freedom and contracts rather than on the monopolistic use of violence (State). Interestingly, the same findings can be found in Neuroeconomics, when analyzing the brain activity when deciding based on consent and when deciding based on violence. As the behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman pointed out[6], praising somebody how made a good job is more useful than blaming somebody how committed a mistake.

 

道常無為而無不為

Dao is always non-action, and there is nothing that it does not do.

Tao De Ching, Chapter 37

 

Again, for Taoist thinkers, Dao is based on the limit to the reason, as reason may be identified with the overuse of action. In this sense, Taoism is against the control of reason over senses, which is action. On the other hand, action is when reason control everything and senses are suppressed. In this sentence, Taoism is against rationalism. In the same way, Neuroeconomics discovered that brain could be divided in two systems: system 1 and system 2. The first is the spontaneous system (emotions, fast decisions, etc.), while the second is more rigid, slow and rational (computations, math, reason, etc.). It turned out that the spontaneous system can process significantly more information in a significantly less amount of time, which is in line with the Taoist principles.

 

人之生也柔弱,其死也堅強。萬物草木之生也柔脆,其死也枯槁。故堅強者死之徒,柔弱者生之徒。是以兵強則不勝,木強則共。強大處下,柔弱處上。

When man is alive is soft and mild, when die it becomes rigid and hard. Living plants are also tender, when die they become dried and withered. Rigid and hard is what follows to death, soft and mild is what follows live. Therefore, an army without flexibility never wins a battle. The hard and strong will fall, the soft and weak will overcome.

Tao De Ching, Chapter 76

 

Here, Tao is also highlighting the role of spontaneity and flexibility, above violence and rigidity. Tao is spontaneous and flexible and can achieve anything. In this part, we can also identify a connection with recent discoveries about how the brain works. Human beings when they are young have a more plastic brain, which allows then to easily adapt to any circumstance and learn more easily. As human beings grow up, the brain will lose its plasticity. Flexibility and adaptation are closely related with live and youth, both in Neuroscience and in Taoism.

 

五色令人目盲;五音令人耳聾;五味令人口爽;馳騁田獵,令人心發狂;難得之貨,令人行妨。是以聖人為腹不為目,故去彼取此。

The five colours blind the eye. The five tones deafen the ear. The five flavours dull the taste. Racing and hunting madden the mind. Precious things lead one astray. Therefore the sage is guided by what he feels and not by what he sees. He lets go of that and chooses this.

Tao De Ching, Chapter 12

In this part, Taoism is defending the superiority of simplicity. Complexity and abundancy can distract human beings from the main purpose. Moreover, in it says: the sage is guided by what he feels. Again, here there is a strong connection with the recent findings of both Neuroeconomics and Behavioral Economics. It turns out that system 2 (the rational part, mainly the prefrontal cortex) can only deal with a certain number of items or ideas at the same time (5-6 at most). For example, it is impossible driving, studying and solving a math problem at the same time. The rational part is limited and slow and it is unable to deal with much information. Therefore, simplicity and the use of the spontaneous system (system 1, bases on emotions and feeling) is what Taoism suggests overcoming the blockage of the reason when it deals with information.

Even more interesting, this part is also related with the Theorem of Impossibility of Socialism, created by Austrian School of Economics, which says that it is impossible to deal with the significant amount of information necessary to rule a country as the information is impossible to process by a single human being. Even more, the information is subjective and impossible to transmit, which is also related with other discovery of Neuroscience.

  1. Neuroeconomics and Economics

Recently, the Nobel Prize in Economics was given to the behavioral economist Richard Thaler, which generated controversy among Austrian Economists and Neoclassical Economists. This fact arose some argument in favor to traditional Economics and against traditional economics. In this part, we will analyze these facts in a separated way.

  • Argument 1: Neuroeconomics and Behavioral Economics are trying to put together things that are from two different fields of expertise.

Answer: Reality is enormous and complex, and the division of sciences is artificially made by human beings to better understand the world, which is chaotic and ever-changing. Philosophy evolved and appeared science which was a specialization in an area of knowledge, which brought incredible results in terms of evolution in the knowledge. However, as specialization keeps on going, many new fields will spring up, including fields specialized in the interconnection between pre-existing fields (for example, neuroscience and economics). The division of sciences is not given, but it is dynamic and it will change as circumstances make it appropriate.

  • Argument 2: Neuroeconomics and Behavioral Economics are not revolutionary.

Answer: This argument was used many times recently by different Austrian Economist, including Peter Klein[7]. They argue that Neoclassical Economics failed since the beginning and that Austrian Economics already highlighted that long time ago. Both schools are right at criticizing Neoclassical Economics assumptions as unrealistic, however, Neuroscience provide the evidence from the point of view of how brain works, while Austrian School of Economics provide the evidence from the point of view of logic, argument and theory, that fit in with the discoveries of Neuroeconomics. Both Schools are in the same direction.

Peter Klein has several articles in the matter and he is arguing against Behavioral Economics (not against Neuroeconomics), and in a very superficial way. He says that some principles of Behavioral Economics are not new, but he does not say whether they are wrong or not. Moreover, disciplines are built upon previous discoveries and scientist does not start from the scratch. Even more, if the findings of these new disciplines are in the right direction, what is the matter of criticizing them? I think the only legitim critique within science is demonstrating why something is wrong. The rest is opinion and philosophy.

  • Argument 3: There is no distinction between subjectivism and psychology.

Answer: Again, this is not a legitim scientific critique. Where is the demonstration that something is wrong? In fact, subjectivism and psychology are closely related and they are going in the same direction, which is a sign that both fields have points in common and reinforce each other. A paper called Austrian Economics Meets Behavioral Economics: The Problem of Rationality by Mario J. Rizzo, argues exactly that, but it did not deep into the details of why Behavioral Economics is concluding something that it is not true. Since the positivistic point of view of science (what something really is), there is not refutation at all. Even more, like Peter Klein, it does not mention the recent discoveries not Neuroscience, its techniques, etc. It seems that they are defending Austrian Economics rather than arguing from an objective point of view.

  • Argument 4: The conclusion of behavioral economists like Thaler suggests that State should rule society using paternalism.

In another article from the same source (Mises Institute)[8], it is argued that Thaler’s books suggest that “libertarian paternalism” recommends State to rule society. Again, this is a normative point of view, how society should be. From a positivistic point of view, there is no refutation, again.  Even though libertarian paternalism is a contradiction (because human beings are all biased, including those who rule society). On the other hand, a researcher could publish many articles and some of them would be brilliant, some would be awful, etc. We cannot judge the theories based on the researcher, but the theories in its own. Some publications of Thaler would be brilliant, while other not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. References

 

  • Dao De Ching
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow. Daniel Kahneman.
  • Introduction to Neuroeconomics, Vasily Klucharev
  • Does Behavioral Economics Offer Anything New and True? Peter Klein
  • Thaler Wins Nobel Peter Klein
  • Libertarian paternalism David Gordon
  • Austrian Economics Meets Behavioral Economics: The Problem of Rationality by Mario J. Rizzo

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Behavioral_economics

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroeconomics

[3] https://www.coursera.org/learn/neuroeconomics

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultimatum_game

[5] For example, biotechnology is an interdisciplinary field whose purpose is to use biological knowledge and technical knowledge to improve the recent developments in those fields. Cheminformatics would be another example.

[6] Thinking, Fast and Slow. Daniel Kahneman.

[7] https://organizationsandmarkets.com/2010/05/21/does-behavioral-economics-offer-anything-new-and-true/

[8] https://mises.org/library/libertarian-paternalism

 

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