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mr05_Article 1 3/28/05 3:25 PM Page 9

Journal of Economic Literature Vol. XLIII (March 2005), pp. 9–64

Neuroeconomics: How Neuroscience Can Inform Economics
Who knows what I want to do? Who knows what anyone wants to do? How can you be sure about something like that? Isn’t it all a question of brain chemistry, signals going back andforth, electrical energy in the cortex? How do you know whether something is really what you want to do or just some kind of nerve impulse in the brain. Some minor little activity takes place somewhere in this unimportant place in one of the brain hemispheres and suddenly I want to go to Montana or I don’t want to go to Montana. (White Noise, Don DeLillo)

1. Introduction In the last two decades,following almost a century of separation, economics has begun to import insights from psychology. “Behavioral economics” is now a prominent fixture on the intellectual landscape and has spawned applications to topics in economics,
∗ Camerer: California Institute of Technology. Loewenstein: Carnegie Mellon University. Prelec: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We thank participants at theRussell Sage Foundation-sponsored conference on Neurobehavioral Economics (May 1997) at Carnegie Mellon, the Princeton workshop on Neural Economics December 8–9, 2000, and the Arizona conference in March 2001. This research was supported by NSF grant SBR-9601236 and by the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences, where the authors visited during 1997–98. David Laibson’s presentations havebeen particularly helpful, as were comments and suggestions from the editor and referees, and conversations and comments from Ralph Adolphs, John Allman, Warren Bickel, Greg Berns, Meghana Bhatt, Jonathan Cohen, Angus Deaton, John Dickhaut, Paul Glimcher, Dave Grether, Ming Hsu, David Laibson, Danica Mijovic-Prelec, Read Montague, Charlie Plott, Matthew Rabin, Antonio Rangel, Peter Shizgal, SteveQuartz, and Paul Zak. Albert Bollard, Esther Hwang, and Karen Kerbs provided editorial assistance.

such as finance, game theory, labor economics, public finance, law, and macroeconomics (see Colin Camerer and George Loewenstein 2004). Behavioral economics has mostly been informed by a branch of psychology called “behavioral decision research,” but other cognitive sciences are ripe for harvest.Some important insights will surely come from neuroscience, either directly or because neuroscience will reshape what is believed about psychology which in turn informs economics. Neuroscience uses imaging of brain activity and other techniques to infer details about how the brain works. The brain is the ultimate “black box.” The foundations of economic theory were constructed assuming that detailsabout the functioning of the brain’s black box would not be known. This pessimism was expressed by William Jevons in 1871:
I hesitate to say that men will ever have the means of measuring directly the feelings of the human heart. It is from the quantitative effects of the feelings that we must estimate their comparative amounts.


mr05_Article 1 3/28/05 3:25 PM Page 10


Journal ofEconomic Literature, Vol. XLIII (March 2005)
drug consumption limits pleasure from future consumption of other goods (dynamic cross-partial effects in utility for commodity bundles) and how environmental cues trigger unpleasant craving and increase demand. These effects can be approximated by extending standard theory and then applying conventional tools (see Douglas Bernheim and Antonio Rangel2004; David Laibson 2001; Ted O’Donoghue and Matthew Rabin 1997). The radical approach involves turning back the hands of time and asking how economics might have evolved differently if it had been informed from the start by insights and findings now available from neuroscience. Neuroscience, we will argue, points to an entirely new set of constructs to underlie economic decision making. The...
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