Another Step Towards a Neuroeconomics: Combining Neuroscience and Game Theory

Alan G. Sanfey in Science:

Our lives consist of a constant stream of decisions and choices, from the everyday (will I respond to this e-mail?) to the highly consequential (will I have a child?). Essentially, the study of decision-making attempts to understand our fundamental ability to process multiple alternatives and to choose an optimal course of action, an ability that has been studied by various disciplines with different theoretical assumptions and measurement techniques, although with relatively little integration of findings.

The emergence of an interdisciplinary field, popularly known as neuroeconomics (1, 2), has begun to redress this lack of integration and offers a promising avenue to examine decision-making at different levels of analysis. Its proponents seek to better understand decision-making by taking into account cognitive and neural constraints, as investigated by psychology and neuroscience, while using the mathematical decision models and tasks that have emerged from economics.

Most experimental studies of decision-making to date have examined choices with clearly defined probabilities and outcomes, such as choosing between monetary gambles. Given that we live in highly complex social environments, however, many of our most important decisions are made in the context of social interactions, which are additionally dependent on the concomitant choices of others—for example, when we are deciding whether to ask someone on a date or entering a business negotiation. Although relatively understudied, these social situations offer a useful window into more complex forms of decisions, which may better approximate many of our real-life choices.

As part of the neuroeconomic approach, researchers have begun to investigate the psychological and neural correlates of social decisions using tasks derived from a branch of experimental economics known as Game Theory.