GREGORY BERNS M.D. / Ph.D.
For decades, neuroscientists, psychologists, and economists have studied human decision making from different perspectives. Although each has approached the problem with different theories and techniques, the basic question is common to many fields: why do humans make the choices that they do? And, given that humans sometimes exercise poor judgment in their decisions, what can we do about it?
Economists have developed simple theories of decision-making, for example, that are used to understand the movement of asset prices in markets. The basic theory says that people make decisions in such a way as to achieve outcomes that maximize their benefit. Although more mathematically precise, it has much in common with psychological theories that say that people tend to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Although these theories describe basic tendencies of all animals, they often fail to account for decisions in common circumstances. For example, when individuals must make decisions in which an immediate benefit must be weighed against long-term consequences, they usually choose immediate gratification. Diet and preventive health care often fall prey to this temporal myopia. So do retirement savings.
The idea behind neuroeconomics is simple. The brain is responsible for carrying out all of the decisions that humans make, but because it is a biophysical system that evolved to perform specific functions, understanding these physical constraints may help explain why people often fail to make good decisions.
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