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Hannah Bailey

December 6th, 2017

What can neuroscience teach us about the social world?

1 comment

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Hannah Bailey

December 6th, 2017

What can neuroscience teach us about the social world?

1 comment

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

By Philipp Ershov
(BSc Government and Economics)

It is easy to forget that the social sciences as we know them now are a relatively modern phenomenon. Economics was, even in the time of the father of modern ‘textbook’ economics Alfred Marshall, still called ‘political economy’. Political science, prior to its inclusion in the name of the London School of Economics and Political Science, was largely absent from the intellectual arena of the United Kingdom, a major centre of human academic progress since the Enlightenment. Game theory, the tool that many microeconomists and political scientists rely on in their models, was only invented and popularised in the early 20th century by figures like Von Neumann, Morgenstern and Nash. Throughout all of these developments, the social sciences have still not succeeded in developing an accurate predictive capacity, relying rather on analysing and explaining the potential causes of events ex post.  Partly because of this, many within the academic community continue to insist on the distinction between the so called ‘natural sciences’ and the ‘social sciences’. Perhaps, therefore, the widespread consensus as to how inquiry into the various social sciences is carried out is, at least in part, unfounded.

A paradigm shift, not much unlike the types described by Thomas Kuhn in his ‘Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ (1962) may already be beginning. This revolution is rooted in the insights of brain sciences.

Back to basics

It is clear that the current dominant paradigm in most social sciences is full of drawbacks. This is to be expected, given the youth of the modern social scientific disciplines. Yet, this must not prevent certain inquisitive minds from looking for ways to overturn the limitations of existing paradigms.

Some of these inquiring minds, such as Paul Glimcher, have turned to the natural sciences to tackle the most basic of assumptions on which almost all of the social sciences stand: those of the basis of human decision-making. Their working assumption is that human decisions originate in the brain, a fundamentally biological entity. Hence, understanding how these decisions are made requires an understanding of the biological processes within the brain and how they differ in response to changes in context. This is where neuroscience comes in.

Evolving approaches

Standard textbook assumptions in economics were often inadequate in explaining the vast complexity and inconsistency of human action which, at times, was seemingly irrational. The field of behavioural economics, epitomised by the work of psychologists Kahneman and Tversky with the famous two-system view of the human mind, was devoted towards uncovering the incompatibility between standard approaches to economics and real-world observations. Behavioural economics was the first stage of an important paradigm shift in the social sciences.

However, behavioural economics fundamentally rests on observing past human behaviour in order to induce future behaviour in similar situations. Often, this is what many social scientists and real-world practitioners need and want to do. Yet, it leaves many questions unanswered, whichare fundamental in nature. One such question is why people behave the way they do. Put differently, which processes are responsible for creating the data behavioural economists base their models on? Answering this question is, perhaps, the only way to come up with ‘predictions’ akin to those in the ‘natural’ sciences, and would enable us to deal with the fundamental issue of causation.

The question of human choice and action is the subject matter of many disciplines. Psychologists have attempted to create axioms based on observations; neoclassical economists have composed elaborate mathematical models of expected utility to come up with an idealised framework of decision-making; cognitive neuroscientists explain variations in human behaviour and emotions through various brain-imaging techniques. It was only a matter of time before these fields would start coming together. Two psychologists, Kahneman and Tversky, brought choice theory and psychology together in 1979.

Newsome et al investigated the relationship between neurons in the middle temporal area of the visual cortex and the decision-making of monkeys in 1989. This paved the way for the marriage of the aforementioned disciplines, which was formalised with the creation of the Society for NeuroEconomics in 2004, with Paul Glimcher as its President.

Broadening scope

The effect of the brain on decision-making has been documented at least as far back as the famous example of Phineas Gage, a man whose brain was pierced by a steel rod and experienced sudden drastic changes in his personality and decision-making ability in 1848. Ever since then, neuroscience has made significant leaps, effectively tackling the ‘mind-body’ problem which has plagued philosophers over the world for millennia, and leading some scholars to talk of the potential for a future ‘brain supremacy’ (Taylor, 2012). It is highly doubtful that this ‘brain supremacy’ will leave the social sciences untouched.

We are still far from having a full understanding of how the human brain impacts decision-making, yet indications of its central role are plenty at every level. Molly Crockett (2015) investigated how neurotransmitters such as serotonin influenced the morality of her subjects, finding that higher serotonin levels correspond to a more deontological (rule-based) system of moral judgement. Kanai et al (2011) found links between brain structure and political ideologies. Damasio (1995) described how patients with damage to their pre-frontal cortex made poorer decisions when gambling. Caspar et al (2016) studied how coercion and institutions of authority influence our neural processing of actions and outcomes by making it resemble a state of passivity, thereby reducing our sense of agency. This has real implications in fields like criminal law, for example on how we view the “Nuremberg defence”. These studies form only the tip of the iceberg of existing and potential research linking neural processes to decision-making, morality, emotions, political dispositions, human agency and information processing.

All of the above have clear applications across the entire spectrum of the social sciences. Understanding neural processes occurring under uncertainty and in competitive environments may be essential for the creation of a successful deductive economic model with accurate predictive potential. Understanding how brain chemistry and structure affects our morality and ideology may change the way we view the development and behaviour of political systems, institutions and cultures, creating strong incentives for various actors to use that for their own purposes. Similar findings may also impact our anthropological understanding of culture and human social existence. The commercial application of using brain imagery to optimise marketing material has already been discovered, and the field of neurolaw is increasingly being used by judges to ascertain whether criminals had any control over their actions.

A remark on the paramountcy of ethics

Without doubt, many of the avenues of research described above will grow and thrive in the future. It will revolutionise the social sciences and potentially the social world, as neuroscientific knowledge is exploited for the creation of technologies allowing human behaviour to be manipulated and thoughts to be monitored. Thus, the progress of research in the fields will be inexorably linked to conclusions of various academic ethical boards, a necessary stalling given the power such knowledge may have. After all, who would not want to augment themselves or their children to endow themselves with superior intelligence and various other abilities? Would these opportunities exist only to those who can afford them, thereby exacerbating social inequality? What is to stop governments or corporations from utilising brain monitoring and technologies such as DNE (Digital Neural Experience) for espionage, thus violating privacy and interfering with market competition? What about manipulating the brain chemistry of citizens so as to alter their political preferences? Such consequences are too many to list and have the ability to change our world into something few science-fiction writers could imagine. Ethics, therefore, are as important to consider as the neural findings themselves in identifying and controlling the implications our understanding of the brain can have on the social sciences and the social world.

This is something that members of this society and scholars at the LSE, whose Philosophy Department has long been involved in questioning the ethical implications of scientific discoveries, can play a part in.



Caspar, EA; Christensen, JF; Cleeremans, A; Haggard, P., 2016. Coercion Changes the Sense of Agency in the Human Brain. Current Biology , 26 (5), pp. 585-592.

Crockett, M.J. et al., 2015. Dissociable Effects of Serotonin and Dopamine on the Valuation of Harm in Moral Decision Making. Current Biology, 25(14), pp.1852–1859.

Damasio, A.R., 1995. Descartes’ error: emotion, reason, and the human brain, New York: Avon Books.

Kanai, R. et al., 2011. Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults. Current Biology, 21(8), pp.677–680.

Kuhn, T.S., 1962. The structure of scientific revolutions, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Marshall, A. & Guillebaud, C.W., 1961. Principles of economics, London: Macmillan for the Royal Economic Society.

Newsome, W.T., Britten, K.H.& Movshon, J.A., 1989. Neuronal correlates of a perceptual decision. Nature, 341(6237), pp.52–54.

Politser, P.E., 2008. Neuroeconomics: a guide to the new science of making choices, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Taylor, K.E., 2012. The brain supremacy: notes from the frontiers of neuroscience, Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D., Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Judgment under uncertainty Heuristics and biases, pp.3–20.

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Hannah Bailey

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