What is Social Neuroeconomics?


At the INSOSCI book symposium we discussed various suggestions for the title of our volume of collected papers that will be published by Routledge. We ended up with: ‘Social Neuroeconomics: The Integration of the Neurosciences and the Social Sciences’. So, what is Social Neuroeconomics?

There is already an occasional use in the literature of that term, but the meaning is not settled. This can be found in the specific context of neuroeconomic research on social preferences (Fehr and Camerer 2007). This research has produced the insight that social preferences may be rooted in mechanisms of choice that correspond to individual preferences in activating the same dopaminergic reward circuits. That means, acting with a social orientation produces rewards in the same way as, say, experiencing satisfaction from consuming positively valued goods. Hence, the motivation for using the term ‘Social Neuroeconomics’ is that the analysis of social behaviour builds on the basic neuroeconomic model of choice.

It is remarkable that this view seems to reinstate Adam Smith’s notion of ‘fellow feeling’. In his ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments’, Smith distinguishes between ‘sympathy’ and ‘fellow feeling’. Sympathy is very similar to the modern term ‘empathy’, especially in the cognitive meaning, and may be conceived as a capacity to generate social preferences: Sympathy enables us to take the position of others, and thereby develop moral judgments that take into account their interests. Sympathy does not mean that we really ‘feel’ like others: We can imagine the pain of others, but we do not feel that pain. However, we have ‘fellow-feelings’: That means, we enjoy the plain fact that we can ‘sympathize’ with others. That means, if we sympathize with their pain, that goes along with a positive feeling (even though pain is a negative feeling for the other). That seems very similar to the modern neuroeconomic analysis of rewards gained from socially oriented behaviour.

We consider this use of the notion of Social Neuroeconomics as too narrow: That follows from well-known criticism of neuroeconomics in focusing too narrowly on mechanisms of choice, thus following a similarly narrow definition of economics as a science of choice: That is dubbed ‘neuroclassic’ analysis in Camerer’s (2013) review of Glimcher’s ‘ Foundation of Neuroeconomic Analysis’. In the alternative view, neuroscience would also contribute to rethink standard conceptions of economics, as it happened with behavioural economics and psychology, too. Indeed, the intellectual field is complex and messy: Neuroeconomists often do not support the views of behavioural economists, as far as the standard model of choice is concerned. For instance, they often refute the ‘dual systems’ approach that many behavioural economists maintain in opposition to the standard economic model.

Our concept of ‘Social Neuroeconomics’ differs fundamentally from this narrow use, although it can include it, in the Smithian sense. To a certain extent, we approach it as integration of social neuroscience and economics, and even beyond this, as an integration of the social sciences and the neurosciences in dealing with economic phenomena. The integration often allows for better and more adequate theories of social and economic phenomena, and it occasionally leads to a substantial reconception of the previously described phenomena. At the same time, the social and economic context is often indispensable for the identification, localization and understanding of specific brain mechanisms. Their specific role remains opaque if not related to a social or economic environment. In this sense, what we call Social Neuroeconomics is a general methodological approach that has multiple directions of explanation.

One case in point is the analysis of emotions (which Camerer also emphasizes). Emotions do not play a prominent role in neuroeconomics as practiced so far, especially in terms of foundational theoretical concepts. In our understanding of social neuroeconomics, we would assign emotions a central place in the theory, as it is done in social neuroscience. The theory of emotions often goes along with a modular view on the brain, rejecting ‘general purpose’ rationality as a model for mechanisms, as in the theory of choice. Another important difference is the explicit recognition of the flexibility and context-dependence of neuronal mechanisms: This implies the analysis of media that connect the brain with its social environment, such as language. In both cases, ‘social neuroeconomics’ would not simply mean that neuroeconomics, as it stands, is now applied on social phenomena, but that a genuine integration of social science theories and neuroscience would be aimed at when understanding certain behavioural phenomena in the economy.

Let me give another example from the INSOSCI workshop. One of the headline-making insights from early neuroeconomics was the role of oxytocin in triggering trust among people. Trust, after all, is an important concept in understanding successful economic interaction and cooperation. In her contribution, Carolyn Declerck analyses the new literature and own research on the ‘metafunctionality’ of oxytocin which reveals that it can work both in a pro-social and an anti-social way, depending on how test persons perceive their environment, especially along the lines of in-group/out-group distinctions and degrees of perceived threats from others. Clearly, this implies that in order to understand the role of oxytocin in the real world, we would have to include a theory that explains the emergence of such perceptions in the social environment. One cannot reduce the phenomenon of trust to the level of neuronal phenomena but needs a combination of neuronal and social mechanisms in order to achieve a full explanation. This is where the multi-directional character of what we call “Social Neuroeconomics” research becomes visible.

We believe that philosophy has a role to play here, and this belief is a major aspect in the book that comes out of the INSOSCI symposium: Genuine cross-disciplinary integration presupposes reflection on the way how various disciplines define their methods and design explanations, and to figure out how conceptual bridges can be built. We think that mechanistic philosophy of science offers a promising starting point.


Camerer, C. 2013. A review essay about Foundations of Neuroeconomic Analysis by Paul Glimcher. Journal of Economic Literature LI (4): 1155–1184.

Fehr, Ernst, Camerer, Colin F. (2007): Social neuroeconomics: the neural circuitry of social preferences, Trends in Cognitive Sciences,  Volume 11(10): 419-427

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