The Shortsighted Brain: Neuroeconomics and the Governance of Choice in Time

Zaloom, Caitlin; Schull, Natasha Dow
Social Studies of Science

The young field of neuroeconomics converges around behavioral deviations from the model of the human being as Homo economicus, a rational actor who calculates his choices to maximize his individual satisfaction. In a historical moment characterized by economic, health, and environmental crises, policymakers have become increasingly concerned about a particular deviation for which neuroeconomics offers a biological explanation: Why do humans value the present at the expense of the future? There is contentious debate within the field over how to model this tendency at the neural level. Should the brain be conceptualized as a unified decision-making apparatus, or as the site of conflict between an impetuous limbic system at perpetual odds with its deliberate and provident overseer in the prefrontal cortex? Scientific debates over choice-making in the brain, we argue, are also debates over how to define the constraints on human reason with which regulative strategies must contend. Drawing on ethnographic and archival research, we explore how the brain and its treatment of the future become the contested terrain for distinct visions of governmental intervention into problems of human choice-making.