Saturday, February 7, 2009

Neuroeconomics…and greed

I am a fan of the discipline that has become known as neuroeconomics. It has enlisted gifted neurobiologists and is probing highly interesting questions such as the neural parameters of decision making, the representation of reward and the relationship of neurotransmitter activity to reward expectation. I am sure that it will continue to give us many insights into brain organization.

Yet there is a cardinal area which it seems not to have explored so far, namely greed. Greed is currently on everyone’s lips, for it is principally greed that has brought us to the current economic crisis, not economic policies; or, if it is economic policies, then it is economic policies governed by greed. It is a word on everyone’s lips except the economists.

Greed is defined in Webster’s dictionary as inordinate and reprehensible acquisitiveness. This is a neurobiologically interesting, and almost certainly wrong definition. To the practitioners of this greed, there is nothing reprehensible in what they have done or are doing. To those brilliant strategists who advised that a policy of selling mortgages to those who are unable to repay makes sound economic sense, there was nothing reprehensible in their advice. To those inept economic policy-makers, there is nothing to be ashamed of or to regret in what these policies have brought about, the ruin of many families and businesses. To those bankers who, brandishing the begging bowl for economic bailouts from governments, are now re-brandishing the begging bowl ever more insistently for bonuses, there is no feeling of shame, nor are they ashamed of the luxurious beachside conferences arranged in elegant resorts to discuss their bankrupt policies.

Nor is greed limited to them. It also characterizes, for example, those who signed on to mortgages which they knew they could never pay back.

Why should this be so?

I believe that like love and hate, greed probably has neural correlates; it is likely that, as with hate, the degree of activity in relevant brain area(s) will be found to correlate with the intensity of greed experienced. Greed is also probably regulated by neurotransmitters and the receptors for them. It almost certainly depends upon a host of other, as yet unknown, factors as well. But there is one neurobiological prediction that I want to make about greed now – namely that it de-activates those areas of the brain, if any, that control shame and regret and, up to a point, judgment as well.

We have found that the frontal cortex (along with some other cortical areas) is de-activated in those who are passionately in love. It is for this reason, that those in love tend to be less judgmental about their lovers. It is also probably for this reason that it is pointless to try to convince one who is deeply and passionately in love about the folly of their action. Hence, in Pascal’s words, “The heart has its reasons, which reasons knows nothing about”.

And this brings me back to greed. President Obama has now joined the swelling number of people who are angrily condemning the greed of bankers and the incessant demand for bonuses from those who have brought us to this economic abyss. These cries mean nothing to the greedy; they are of no avail. They do not see the shame and have no regrets. This is because, I conjecture, greed also inactivates those parts of the brain that control shame and regret. But, when inactivated, neither shame nor regret are felt. The greed system of the brain then operates uncontrolled according to its own laws, which is that of acquisitiveness, but one which is never seen as reprehensible. Hence the inadequacy of the dictionary definition.

Like love, greed also has its reasons, which reason knows nothing about.

I shall be interested to see if my predictions about greed and the brain come true.

3 comments:

Halewyn said...

You do well mentioning Picasso in relation to this kind of thick creativity (with origins in overcooked ideas that at the end tends to destroy the work, as I understand it) because he's one of the inflection points in respect to this question.

But I'm not so sure if the way you mention its relation with Balzac's work leaves to a possible misunderstanding.

Reason is that he was a thinker (rather than a painter) that tried to make an art of what so many artists consider scraps ready to be wasted, even nowadays where it's supposed to be that way from the beginning. And by doing so, the richness of concepts in his brain didn't find it that difficult to find their way..

He focused on the evolution of his paintings instead of each one in particular from early on, and faced this phantom of creativity (as I would call it) by going much farther than what could be initially interpreted as a subtle way of abandon or finish a work.

He made not only an art of it, but its mainstream work -continued work over work- by changing "gratefully" so much the original idea while painting again and again over the original draft or image.

So in reality he did not destroyed so much, because he was somehow trying to paint backwards, or to create from a very dinamical point of view, hoping always that the real object of his desire would appear like a magic trick at some stage of the creative process.

I think this attitude can be seen better in Picasso's filmed performances, as well as in some of his own quotes.

Anyway. This romantic view of suicide is not really necessary to attain this richness of concepts, at least if you're in the dispossal of letting your original ideas flow a little bit more while not waiting to find the perfect transition from your head to the artwork.

Perhaps this ideas could not avoid "the mechanisms that drive an artist to want to create", but could help him to do it less desperately.

Tao masters talk about this many centuries ago, and although their echo still resound as loudly as before, many artists still fear in one or other way creativity.

As crazy as it sounds!

Halewyn said...

¿Would greed dissapear if we think about doing our best instead of trying only to do the minimum, this is.. to have the goal of do it just lightly better than the other person, company or whatsoever?

Difficult.

But what I'm sure is that a society and its economy would be stronger if its members keep insane rivalry for themselves.

We need other way of thinking about competitiveness.

Neuroeconomists should point this out as soon as possible!

Otherwise we all lose...

Halewyn said...

¿Would greed dissapear if we think about doing our best instead of trying only to do the minimum, this is.. to have the goal of do it just lightly better than the other person, company or whatsoever?

Difficult.

But what I'm sure is that a society and its economy would be stronger if its members keep insane rivalry for themselves.

Neuroeconomists should point this out as soon as possible!

We need other way of thinking about competitiveness.

Otherwise we all lose...