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Decision Making and the Brain

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Image courtesy of Paul Glimcher.


On Thursday, January 20, neuroscientist Paul Glimcher of New York University and Rob DeSalle, curator of Brain: The Inside Story, will discuss the interdisciplinary field of neuroeconomics and how the brain enables humans to evaluate decisions, categorize risks and rewards, and interact with each other. Glimcher, whose books include Neuroeconomics: Decision Making and the Brain and Foundations of Neuroeconomic Analysis, recently answered a few questions about the discipline.

What is neuroeconomics?

Neuroeconomics is a highly synthetic and interdisciplinary effort to understand how both humans and animals make decisions.

What role does neuroeconomics play in our daily lives?

Decisions — the events that neuroeconomists seek to understand and predict — are embedded every aspect of our lives: what to have for breakfast, who to marry, or where to invest our retirement accounts. We make these choices effortlessly, but how? Over the last decade the basic outlines of the answer to that question have begun to become clear and the answers are surprising, exciting, and at times even troubling. It now seems clear that every day, at every action, our brains unconsciously compute and store the values of every event that befalls us. So I would have to say: neuroeconomics is our daily lives.

In your book Neuroeconomics: Decision Making and the Brain, you write about decision-making in nonhuman primates. What are the differences between how humans and other primates make decisions? Are there any similarities?

I think in general that the mechanisms of decision-making in humans and in other mammals are much more similar than we had expected. Let me give one example. My old student Michael Platt recently showed that male monkeys will give up fruit juice treats in order to look at pictures of other monkeys. But even more interesting is that they will give up more, they’ll pay more, to look at high-ranking monkeys than to look at low ranking monkeys. I can’t help but notice that humans are much the same. Have you seen how much a copy of People magazine costs these days?

What role does money play in decision-making, and why?

Money is one of the great puzzles in decision-making. Money is a recent invention that has swept before it almost all of human society. Even some species of monkeys can be taught to use money. Why is money so easy for us to use? A couple of theories have been proposed. One is that money taps into pre-existing neural circuits that play a role in social valuation. Another is that money activates dedicated brain circuits that evolved to trade off different kinds of rewards like food and water. In essence that theory proposes that the mammalian brain evolved a common currency of its own, and that money arose in human society precisely because our brains incorporate that feature.

What are the long-term goals of your research?

The single long-term goal of my work is to develop what we call “The Standard Model” of human decision-making. What we are trying to do is to combine economics, psychology, and neuroscience into a single descriptive model that explains how we make choices. Of course such a model would also have strong predictive power and significant policy implications. Perhaps surprisingly, I would argue that we are already making good headway towards this end. Under some conditions, to take one example, we can use brain scanner data to predict the individual choices of consumers with an accuracy approaching 90 percent.

Tags: Brain

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