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Oec Magazin (A1-b)

From Classical Economics to Neuroeconomics Gaining a better understanding of how people make decisions has gathered pace in economics as researchers challenge traditional theories and assumptions about human behaviour.The still young discipline of neuroeconomics is trying to find the way.Haig Simonian A person lies flat in the core of a magnetic resonance imaging machine. Monitors in a neighbouring control room flash up visual slices of his brain. Yet this is not a traditional hospital radiology unit examining stroke or head in- jury victims. It is an offshoot of the University of Zurich’s Department of Economics, created jointly with philanthropist Branco Weiss and Zurich’s University Hospital. All the «patients» are volunteers whose brains are being tracked dynamically to see how they choose between two different stimuli. Welcome to the world of neuroeconomics, the vibrant young field bringing together be- havioural economics, psychology, neuroscience and more in an interdisciplinary confluence of academic streams all trying to understand in- teractions between behaviour and mental pro- cesses. The search for empirical evidence «Economists – behavioural economists in particular – wanted to learn more about why people don’t always act rationally in order to challenge some of the traditional economic the- ories about thinking and decision making. They wanted to find empirical evidence if possible», explains Philippe Tobler, Assistant Professor of Neuroeconomics and Social Neuroscience. The idea was to use new scientific tools to enrich economics by moving beyond the simplified model of rational, self-interested decision-mak- ing, where utility is maximised, to trying to better understand what in fact takes place inside the brain. The research would build on breakthroughs made in behavioural economics and try to link those with actual processes in the brain. Zurich has assembled a pool of international talent to pursue this goal. Tobler arrived in 2010, after working as a research fellow in experimen- tal psychology at Oxford. A year earlier, Christian Ruff was recruited from University College London as Assistant Professor for Brain Stimulation in Neuroeconomics. And in November 2010 Todd Hare of the California Institute of Technology came to join them as Assistant Professor of Neuro- economics. «Neuroeconomics is a young field», explains Hare. «It started in the early 2000s as people, mainly from neuroscience, started pick- ing up ideas from psychology and economics. Since then, computational scientists have joined in as they’ve endeavoured to expand their own interest in artificial intelligence and build more sophisticated models.» Making Zurich special The interdisciplinary background is reflected in Zurich. Hare’s original degree was in biology and psychology; Tobler read psychology, while Ruff studied psychology and cognitive science. Ernst Fehr – a father of the project – was trained as a classical economist before broadening into behavioural economics and beyond. Together, they have made UZH a top centre for neuroeco- nomic research. In the Department of Econom- ics, neuroeconomics stands on an equal footing with macroeconomics, microeconomics and econometrics, with four professors or assistant professors out of the 24 in total. Actual student numbers are relatively smaller, because there is no undergraduate teaching. But neuroeconomics does have a postgraduate programme alongside its intense research activities. «Several US Universities such as New York University, Duke and Caltech are doing similar Oec. Juli 2015 13 FOKUS Oec. Juli 201513