Richard Thaler has just won the Nobel prize for economics for his work explaining how human choice can be influenced. The insight that people make decisions for all sorts of reasons, not all of them based on a cool assessment of the consequences, led Professor Thaler to global acclaim as the slayer of homo economicus.
Homo economicus was an entirely fictional character who decided whose turn it was to put the bin out on rational grounds. Thaler was, among his lesser achievements, David Cameron’s favourite economist, his nudge theory credited with encouraging people to stop smoking and eat more healthily.
What Professor Thaler, in his moment of glory, may not yet realise is that his insights may already be on their way to extinction, just like homo economicus. He is being nudged out of the future by biology: to be precise, by neuroeconomics, which like his is an interdisciplinary science but one that studies brain activity, or the lack of it, to draw conclusions about why people behave as they do.
Today comes news from this new frontline: a paper in the esteemed Nature Human Behaviour journal that shows that women’s brains make them nicer than men. Women’s biology makes them a soft touch! Putting the bins out is, as the prime minister once claimed, a boy job, but that’s only so they don’t have to do the washing up. So we can reconcile ourselves to being good team players and doing the housework, because once again science has shown that that is what we are predisposed to do.
At least, that is one way of looking at it. Another way is to say that men are mean: the University of Zurich research actually found that women divided equally between those who would share a wad of cash and those who would keep it for themselves while men were slightly less likely to share. Many women are actually just as mean as most men. Deprive both groups of the neurotransmitter dopamine, however, and women became less generous and men slightly more. The scientists insist that this is about dopamine (their paper is entitled “The dopaminergic reward system underpins gender differences in social preferences”) but in the wider, more prejudiced world, it will look like one more justification for keeping women away from the brute hurlyburly of a man’s world.
There are few more entrancing subjects than the way brains work and why. The connection between behaviours and chemical actions and reactions is astonishing. The scientific method is awesome. So in this sceptical age where no one is trusted at all on anything however admirable their qualifications I am reluctant to question any finding that has, as this one does, the imprimatur of Nature. But really?
It’s not the thoroughness of their work that I question. I’m not for a moment doubting that neuroeconomics is a proper area of research that is capable of illuminating important aspects of behaviour. Why people behave as they do, particularly when they appear to behave against their own self-interest, is a subject of enduring fascination. It is also potentially useful.
What I am finding harder to understand is this particular use of neuroeconomics. Behavioural economics, with its interest in how to influence choices through environmental factors such as the way the choice is presented, has obvious applications. But this kind of neuroeconomics? The role of dopamine in making people behave more generously feels interesting in the way that all knowledge is interesting, but then what?
The practicality of research is relevant not because it is desirable that research should always have some clearly understood purpose – which would obviously be a terrible limit to discovery – but because nowadays, unhappily, it almost always does. Not far behind most research stands a drug company eager to find ways of applying in an innovative way the molecules for which it already owns the patent.
The team behind the Nature Human Behaviour paper that suggests men are meaner than women may have such a backer. Maybe one of the giant Swiss-based drugs companies has a drug discovery department tasked with creating a whole new market to transform the proverbial stinginess of men.
On the other hand, it may be something less imaginatively challenging. Perhaps the paper doesn’t only appear to play into a tediously familiar trope which might be called the Mars/Venus thing. Or why girls like pink. Or that women are a soft touch. Maybe that is what it is actually doing. I just can’t quite work out why.
As a recent book by Angela Saini, Inferior, argued, every piece of research points in one direction: that neurological differences that can be unquestionably attributed to gender appear to be vanishingly small, and (as the Zurich paper clearly acknowledges) intensely difficult to separate from the other powerful societal and cultural influences that divide boys and girls from the pink and blue cot blankets onwards.
So here’s an idea for another study. I’d be interested – I’m not sure if it’s a work for a behavioural or a neuroeconomist – in research that tried to find out why reputable scientists who could be, say, finding a cure for Alzheimer’s, instead go for yet another trot along the familiar avenue that seeks to explain gender difference as our neurological destiny.