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Arminius - 20 Sept 2008

Arminius - 20 Sept 2008

The conference organized by the EIPE in the Arminius Centre, Rotterdam was well attended – about 40 people in the audience for each of the 3 days. Speakers where mainly philosophers, and the audience was a mix of economists, philosophers, and neuroeconomists. So, hype or hope?

Speakers and members of the audience seemed to make a distinction between two kinds of neuroeconomics, to start with. One of them is the “Camerer – Glimcher” variety, and is supposed to  represent a solid extension to behavioral economics.

Arminius - 21 Nov 2008

Arminius - 21 Nov 2008

This got some praise, which was not the case of the second brand of neuroeconomics – loosely if ever defined, but criticisms often seemed to include in it Paul Zak’s way of doing neuroeconomics: brash claims, fMRI scans all over the place, amateurish statistics and no clear scientific agenda but a well-rounded rhetoric. Zak was attending the conference and surely seemed himself hype, with his looks of young and sportive Californian athlete.

Paul Zak

Paul Zak

So when he presented his talk on Saturday morning, surprise: not an fMRI image in sight, but plenty of measuring of blood samples. Many subjects (around 80) for every task, and a simple-steps way to describe his experimental protocol and conclusions. Strong conclusions, by the way: in the experiments (dictator’s game but not only) this oxytocin stuff demonstrates a clear influence on trust in simple monetary transactions. Suddenly, this brand of neuroeconomics looked much less hype (does it generate hope or fear is another issue). You could almost feel the audience reckoning that after all, that kind of neuroeconomics was indeed sound and interesting science.

This left me with the impression that listening to and actually frequenting neuroeconomists (or any scientist for this matter) is a healthy prerequisite upon commenting on their work. Reading reviews about their work and programmatic statements is not enough, and can actually be misleading. The conference talked a lot about the neuroeconomic approach to empathy – more empathy is surely needed before pronouncing final judgments on neuroeconomics.

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