Forbes Magazine recently published an article with the title "Your Brain on Shopping" describing some joint research done by people at Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, and MIT. Basically, people's brains are scanned with an fMRI while they're shown pictures of things they might like to buy and prices. The people are actually given the chance to purchase the goods they are being shown, to be delivered later in the week. Essentially, the researchers now have fMRI scans of the brains of people shopping on line. The results show three different areas of the peoples' brains are active while they shop. This is really neat. An area typically associated with the anticipation of pleasure (getting a good), and area associated with the anticipation of pain (having to pay for it), and another area that's though to be involved with decision making, all show up as active. One of the researchers involved claims this work "challenges the orthodox economic view of consumer decision making."
I say, not really. The basis of all economic decision making (at least according to most economic theories I know of) is a comparison between costs and benefits, typically at the margin. This research actually supports this view. The anticipation of pleasure (remember the goods aren't going to be received immediately) is essentially benefit (expected benefit anyway), the anticipation of pain is cost. The third area could, in this example, be re-labelled the "economics center" as it is involved in comparing costs and benefits.
What's really interesting is that people sitting around thinking about economic behaviour long before an fMRI was even conceived, basically had it right. I expect we'll be seeing a lot of this type of research in the future and economists will have to stop treating preference structures as a "black box" and start worrying about some of those details.
The more subtle issue is going to be how more humanities-based disciplines deal with physical science approaches to what, until recently, has safely been the realm of the humanities scholar.