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See Inside June/July 2008

Smokers' Choice

Certain people make decisions differently

Smokers tend to resist antismoking efforts that rely on “rational” approaches such as taxes, and researchers have pointed to confounding influences, including social factors and addiction. But differences in smokers’ decision-making processes may also be at play.

A recent study from the Baylor College of Medicine found that smokers and nonsmokers react differently to news of how much they could have made in a stock-market game. The feedback was purely incidental: it offered no financial incentive to adjust one’s investment strategy, yet nonsmokers were swayed by what might have been and changed their tactics. Smokers ignored the input, even though they processed the information in the same part of the brain as their nonsmoking peers did.

The study does not address whether smokers’ behavior is a cause or an effect of their addictions but rather adds to a growing list of ways in which human beings sometimes ignore reason when it comes to decision making. In the book Predictably Irrational (HarperCollins, 2008), behavioral economist Dan Ariely of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology catalogues a bevy of errors, biases and otherwise illogical human behavior. Other behavioral economists are doing the same on the premise that these absurdities are understand­able, and they are just beginning to team up with neuroscientists to try to tease out the roots of decision-making biases in the brain.

The hope is that this knowledge will one day inform policy. To combat smoking, for example, policymakers could “use evidence of what brain areas are active during the [decision-making] process to design other strategies” more nuanced than taxation, says behavioral economist Colin Camerer of the California Institute of Technology.

The field of neuroeconomics is in its infancy, however. Neuroscientists agree with behavioral economists that in the future it will be possible to use our irrationalities to our advantage, but as for whether their work could soon steer policy, “I think it’s just too early” to make a decision, Ariely says.

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