Economics can explain us odd humans

Ben Bushong

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

KAI RYSSDAL: Today, the final installment of our series featuring young economists. We've asked three of them the same simple question: Why?

When curious Gen Y-ers can do almost anything they want, why subject yourself to a whole lotta number-crunching and cost-benefit analyses?

Commentator and economics graduate student Ben Bushong says these days economics is a lot more than that.


BENJAMIN BUSHONG: Growing up, I wanted to be something interesting and exciting -- like an astronaut or a doctor. I never even considered pursuing economics. The idea of poring over numbers and statistics for hours a day didn't really pique my interest. And I actually failed high school economics.

But once I got up to higher levels, I found in economics a fascinating and dynamic field. Behavior is immensely complicated. And as economists, we try to boil it down to one or two simple equations.

And increasingly, we're utilizing new and innovative techniques to ask some of life's most fundamental questions. For instance, instead of GDP numbers and labor statistics, I actually use brain activity to ask questions like how do we choose to buy something?

We now have the capacity to analyze hormone levels to measure trust between people. Or utilize tools such as MRI imaging to figure out motives for giving to charity. Or even gene sequencing to look at the genetic basis for altruism. We're using ideas developed by psychologists, sociologists and political scientists. All of this allows us to examine these questions in nearly limitless ways.

With the economy the way it is right now, people might wonder why I focus on something like brain activity. It's one thing to examine how and why the price of food has spiraled out of control, but quite another to be able to use MRI scans to predict which foods a person will buy.

To me, current economic policies aren't based on this solid understanding of people's behavior. For instance, in a down economy like we have now we often see proposals for the expansion of social welfare services. But in order to tailor those policies correctly, shouldn't economists consider the thoughts and feelings of people who receive these types of aid? These new techniques can allow us to probe these questions.

And it's questions like these that motivate me to study economics and hopefully build models that make sense for all sorts of seemingly odd behavior -- including my own.

RYSSDAL: Benjamin Bushong is a doctoral candidate in economics at the California Institute of Technology.

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