Estranged parents and a schizophrenic child: choice in economics, psychology and neuroeconomics

Journal of Economic Methodology 18 (3):217-231 (2011)
Gul and Pesendorfer provide the best-known and most strident of a set of recent backlashes by economists against methodological revolutions promoted by some behavioural economists and neuroeconomists. Philosophers are likely to read these responses as merely reactionary, especially as their rhetoric goes beyond what their explicit argumentation validly supports. The present paper identifies the accurate insight on Gul and Pesendorfer's part that explains the impact of their philosophically ragged polemic. This centers on importantly different concepts of choice in the psychological and economic literatures. The psychologist's idea of choice descends from a culturally familiar folk construct generally thought to lie within everyone's unreflective personal acquantance. By contrast, the economist's concept of choice refers to abstract sensitivity of behavioral patterns to changes in incentives, typically at the statistical level of populations. It is reasonable to regard this abstract idea as the basic subject matter of economics, just as Gul and Pesendorfer assert. Appreciating the difference between psychological choice and economic choice is crucial for understanding the methodologically schizophrenic character of neuroeconomics. Much of it merely identifies neural correlates of elements from models in the psychology of valuation. However, the neuroeconomics worthy of the name, as constructed by Glimcher and his collaborators, aims to unify economics and neuroscience. It so far fails to do so in an entirely satisfactory way because it falsely assumes that the conception of choice in psychology and economics is already shared.
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DOI 10.1080/1350178X.2011.611024
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