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Mindful : April 2015
We used to think economics was all math and rationality: now we know better. Sharon Begley explains the latest research in neuroeconomics, which finds that just glimpsing a wad of cash can make us anxious, selfish, paranoid, and even a little crazy. One by one, 50 French men and women walked up to the ATM, slid in their card, punched in their PIN, a nd walked away with a fistful of euros. Another 50, not needing cash, walked past. But none of the 100 simply went on their merry way. Instead, half were stopped by a woman who asked them to answer a short survey on “children and authority,” while half saw a stranger accidentally drop her bus pass a few feet in front of them. Then the researchers started taking notes: who would help the stranger by a nswering her sur vey, and who would call out to the woman that she’d dropped something? Of those who had just with- drawn money 34% were willing to stop to answer the survey, but 62% of those who had not handled money gave their time to the survey taker. Similarly, while 60% of those who’d withdrawn cash told the woma n she’d dropped her bus pass, 96% of those who had not just handled money did. Funny thing, money. It can come between friends, tear apart families, trig- ger ma rital blow-ups, open doors or slam them shut, a nd buy (limited) happiness. But there is one thing money handling is not: rational. For a very long time, you could be a distinguished, creative, discovery-mak- ing economist simply by being a master mathematician. That may not be enough any more. These days, you’d better know something about the difference between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, not to mention the Big Five Personality Traits, for economics is, more and more, incorporating neurobiology and psychol- ogy. Economics’ centuries-old arche- type, the rational actor whose economic decisions a re driven by computer-like calculations—homo economicus—has left the building. In his place is a sometimes irrational and even infuriating decision-maker, the focus of research by a new breed of behavioral economists and → Crazy, Stupid Money 18 mindful April 2015 Illustration by Sébastien Thibault brain science Sharon Begley is the senior health and science correspondent at Reuters, author of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, and coauthor with Richard Davidson of The Emotional Life of Your Brain.