The Biological Basis of Preferences and Behaviour conference


Jason Collins


May 6, 2012

I have just attended The Biological Basis of Preferences and Behaviour conference at the Becker Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago. It was a good conference with some high quality presentations. I will post on some of them over the next few months once I digest the presentations and papers (or they exit embargo).

In the meantime, the conference has triggered some thoughts on how economics will contribute to the evolutionary sciences, and how biology will be integrated into economics.

Most work generated by economists on the evolution and biological basis of preferences uses beautiful (to some beholders) but complicated mathematical models. As a gross generalisation, most presentations at the conference consisted of multiple slides of equations and proofs. Many questions and clarifications were required as the presenter progressed through the slides. The presentation usually ended with an attempt to explain the intuition of the model in plain language.

After being walked through one of these models, the first question to ask is whether the finding of the model might be true (noting the problems of defining truth). Are the assumptions even ballpark realistic? Is there any evidence that the process described in the model occurs or has occurred?

The next question is about insight. Did this model, even if not “true”, provide useful insight into the process or phenomena being explored?

Finally, does the model communicate the idea in a way that will be understood by people who might care about or should know about the work?

My impression was that many of the conference presentations fell at the first two hurdles. I sense that in many instances this was because the presenters were more interested in the mathematical dynamics and game theory than the final application of the model. This is, of course, a broader issue through much of economics, where the incentives push researchers towards beautiful but complicated models. Generally, these models will not be subject to testing and as a result, do not face the threat of being discarded if they are not supported by the empirical evidence. Having robust mathematics that supports the story being told has greater weight than the truth of the model or the manner in which it might communicate an insight. There is little direct competition between models.

Even where the first two hurdles were cleared, I am uncertain how often the product of the research is likely to be consumed outside of a small circle, generally consisting of other members of the field. Mathematical models are an excellent way to communicate to some people (my impression is that many in the conference audience prefer this approach), but simple, verbal explanations are the way most communication occurs.

In contrast, at last week’s Consilience Conference there was barely an equation in sight. The presentations provided me with a mountain of ideas that I have communicated in various ways ever since. Those presentations from this week’s conference that were based on a detailed mathematical model, while providing some fodder for thought, are unlikely to feature in many conversations. I am not sure the models presented are true or insightful, and even where they are, my first thought is how to come up with a different way of communicating the point. My posts over the next couple of weeks will largely feature those presentations that were the exception to the rule.

Having dug myself into a hole through some broad, over-generalised criticism, this critique is not to say that there are no useful and important ideas coming out of this work. My economics and evolutionary biology reading list has a sample of what I consider to be some of the more important contributions. Rather, my critique reflects my instinct that the field will remain a world unto itself, without being a significant contributor to the congruence of biology and economics. Research into the biological basis of preferences and behaviour has massive potential to affect the broader field of economics. It would be disappointing if this research did not achieve that result.

*The videos are many of the presentations are now up.