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Tuesday 6 June 2023 8:58am

Trent Smith - image
Associate Professor Trent Smith's interest in endocrinology started during his undergraduate studies at Stanford University.

Economics and neuroscience may seem like an unlikely combination.

But Associate Professor Trent Smith, of the Department of Economics, is delving into the world of “neuroeconomics” in his latest literature review, published recently in the Journal of Economic Psychology.

He says studying the body's neurotransmitters and hormones may be key to understanding human behaviour.

Economists and other behavioural scientists have been scanning the human brain in fMRI machines for decades to try to crack the mysteries of the human mind.

However, while some progress has been made, previous studies failed to produce deep insights because they did not account for the complex mix of hormones and neurotransmitters that actually govern human thought and emotion.

“An increased emphasis on endocrinology – the science of hormones and other information molecules – can generate insights into the ways in which humans have achieved their special genius, as well as an understanding of when we should expect human frailties to hold us back.”

Humans' “special genius” relates to our abilities – unique in the animal kingdom – to accumulate lifetime knowledge, form strong bonds with friends and family, and absorb the norms of local culture.

“In a world increasingly governed by artificial intelligence and boutique pharmaceuticals, a fundamental understanding of the biological basis of human behaviour is more important than ever.”

Associate Professor Smith's interest in endocrinology started as an undergraduate student when he studied biology at Stanford University before picking up economics as a second major.

He was “deeply inspired” by American researcher Professor Robert Sapolsky's lectures.

“Professor Sapolsky is an expert in endocrinology and a superb orator, and the picture he painted of the complex and interdependent system of signalling molecules that govern human behaviour and physiology was so elegant.

“These molecules are clearly the stuff of human experience: they ebb and flow moment by moment in response to social and environmental cues and life experience.

“If you feel angry, or sad, or hungry, or lonely, it's because that's what your hormones are telling you to feel.”

Associate Professor Smith has linked this with his economics research, as he says economics is, at its core, a behavioural science.

“The model of human behaviour often presumed in economics – and in popular discourse about economics – views people as self-interested automatons who never make mistakes.

“But, of course, we are very much social animals with the capacity to love and to hate, and everyone makes mistakes. In many ways the modern marketplace seems designed to exploit our evolved predilections.”

- Kōrero by Adviser Media Engagement Jessica Wilson

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