I opened up my morning paper to discover that, counter to all of my intuitions, the recession is good for us. Really good. Neuroscientists Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang summarize their self-described “pioneering study” to argue “that in the long run, buying less now may improve our ability to achieve future goals.” The end result of the consumer credit crunch, rising oil costs, and the collapse of the real estate market will be an improved “ability to resist impulses and delay gratification.” It’s a new version of the old saw that poverty can be ennobling. This time though, it's not couched in moralistic Victorian prose. It’s wrapped in the mantle of breakthrough science.
Social scientists are in love with neuroscience. Although the study of the brain is still very much in its infancy, sociologists, political scientists, economists, and even a few historians have embraced neural determinism. Over the past several years, we have learned that voters’ reactions to candidates can be divined by showing subjects political ads and then scanning their brains. Social psychologists, testing the physical reactions of people viewing photographs of people of different races, have updated race relations scholarship by arguing that prejudice is not a problem in the “hearts and minds” of Americans, a la Gunnar Myrdal, but rather a problem in the amygdala. Pity those who believe that we have finally entered a “post-racial age” when they discover that our reptile brain is Jim Crow’s hideout. Even historians, who are more immune to determinism than most social scientists, are now dabbling in neuroscience.
Economists are even further out on the neuroscientific frontier. Over the last few years, a growing movement of neuroeconomists have jettisoned their faith in rational choice theory for what could be called irrational choice. Jettisoning rational choice is not a bad thing, for it is so reductionist that it ultimately explains everything and nothing. Any self-respecting historian will tell you that human behavior cannot be reduced to simple calculations of self-interest. But what is replacing it—a new unified field theory of homo economicus—is scarcely better. Simplistic psychological tests, framed narrowly (or, as the economists would prefer to say, “parsimoniously”) and the use of brain scanning technology puts a scientific patina on the study of the obvious. I recently heard a cutting-edge economist present a paper, based on elaborately constructed, two-player computer games, that offered the paradigm-shifting challenge to reductionist arguments about economic actors’ “utility maximization.” His finding: people’s altruistic preferences are heterogeneous. Wow. Now I know that for the last several centuries, historians have been right.
Anyhow, thanks to my encounter with neuropolicy this morning, I’m hoping that we will have a long, deep recession and then, in a few years, another. And then another. A recession every few years will toughen my frontal cortex, improving my ability to plan, and help develop my anterior cingulate cortex to bolster my cognitive control. And then, finally, I will find Aamodt and Wang’s holy grail: “success in life.”