Neuroeconomics is an exciting and promising field that blends insights from economics, neuroscience, and psychology to help explain human decisions. As an economist who is interested in human decisions, and whose past academic research in financial economics and behavioral finance has drawn heavily on the field of psychology, I am naturally drawn to this multidisciplinary approach in hopes that it might eventually help us better understand at a biological level what motivates people to make particular financial choices.
An unfortunate feature of some neuroscience research is that projects often incorporate the invasive study of non-human animals, typically rats or monkeys. Researchers often claim that while it would be grossly unethical to place a probe in the brain of a healthy human, or to “sacrifice” a human at the end of a study, they feel justified in subjecting non-humans to such treatment, ostensibly in the name of scientific progress.
What invariably emerges from studies of non-human animals (both non-invasive studies and those employing horrific vivisection methods) is how strikingly similar humans are to other animals. Just like humans, many animals undeniably experience fear, pain, and a rich range of emotions. Ironically, the similarities across species are cited by many researchers as justification for using non-humans as a model for humans—we study them precisely because they are so akin to humans. But such striking similarities give me pause—if non-humans are so comparable to us, including in their capacity to suffer, how can we justify subjecting them to experiments that clearly cause hardship and often death?
It is worth noting that in medical circles, scientists are increasingly remarking that the study of non-humans is a failed and obsolete approach in the pursuit of legitimate scientific progress. As much as animals are like humans in terms of their capacity to feel, and as much DNA as we may have in common with some species, even small biological differences between species can render results completely inapplicable to humans. One medical researcher summed it up concisely when he remarked "The drugs cure the mice and keep failing when we try them on humans." A couple of recent books (Animal Models in Light of Evolution and FAQs about the Use of Animals in Science) make the more general case that results based on medical research using non-humans is far less successful in predicting human outcomes than flipping a coin! That is, studying animals to cure human disease is actually causing more harm than good overall.
If the futility of studying non-humans is increasingly becoming an accepted point of view in medical contexts, it should be especially obvious in the field of economics. Rats and monkeys, so far, haven’t developed sophisticated monetary economies, and so it’s hard to fathom why we would study them to learn how humans behave in financial settings.
Researchers can be slow to change their ways, but we may be witnessing a shift in attitudes surrounding animal testing. At the turn of this century, New Zealand became the first country to have a blanket ban on the use of five non-human species of great apes in research, testing, or teaching. And earlier this year a creative group of researchers in the U.S. gave novel rights to canine participants in a non-invasive research study; those rights were comparable to the rights normally granted to human research subjects. The study aimed to gain insight into how dogs think. The research employed dogs that live as companion animals in human households rather than “testing” beagles reared specifically to participate in scientific studies for the duration of their lives. In fact, a strict guiding principle in this particular study was that the dogs should come to absolutely no harm. The canine participants were accompanied by a human member of their family while they underwent harmless MRI scans (of the same variety humans encounter in medical diagnosis) and they were unsedated and unconstrained for the duration of the study, in contrast to the typical extreme treatment of animal research subjects. Additionally, and this is important, no negative reinforcement was employed in this study (only positive treats were provided) and the dogs themselves were free to withdraw from the experiment at any time without adverse consequences. For comparison, this study published in Nature examined how monkeys make decisions, utilizing macaque monkeys whose brains were intentionally surgically damaged by the researchers. And in this study published in Science, rats had probes surgically inserted in their brains so their neural signals could be measured. These Science and Nature studies are typical of those that are certified by university research ethics committees every day, and I think it’s fair to say that neither study led to path-breaking insights.
If it makes sense for researchers to offer dogs rights comparable to those offered to humans in research contexts, and the authors of the canine study mentioned above claim it does, then why limit our circle of compassion to dogs? We know many other species routinely employed by researchers are just as sentient as dogs and humans, and yet those species are subjected to cruel treatment year after year. (Many tens of thousands of primates are experimented upon every year in the US alone. Total numbers across all species are not reported or tracked in any country.) For instance, allegations recently surfaced that researchers at the University of Wisconsin did unspeakable things to cats to keep up “a productive publication record to ensure constant funding”. Unfortunately, this case is not exceptional. Instead it is representative of the type of research being done in campus research labs and in pharmaceutical companies around the world, shielded by a curtain of secrecy and the public’s implicit faith that scientists have everyone’s best interests at heart.
The day has come for researchers put aside their sedation darts, scalpels, restraints and cages. Causing harm to animals under the guise of advancing human well-being has passed its expiry date. It is time to put our collective minds to replacing invasive research methods with the growing selection of cruelty-free alternatives, including human trials, in vitro methods, genetic studies, and computer-aided modeling. This would surely yield more meaningful insights for humans than our current worse-than-a-coin-flip approach and would furthermore be kinder and more compassionate toward non-humans. And unless there exists a credible threat of monkeys convincing humans to switch to a currency backed by yellow bananas, the prospects for advancing our understanding of financial economics will improve as well.