Economic Decision-Making as Energonomics

30 March 2008 at 10:06 pm Leave a comment

Read Montague’s 5th chapter of Why Choose This Book? is about “The Value Machine” and discusses the brain as a system that assigns value.  For Montague, “Once life has started, valuation mechanisms were an inevitable consequence. . .” and every decision becomes an economic decision.  He traces such valuation even back to E. coli, which he uses as a simplified example of the human capacity to care.

Even single-celled E. coli are capitalists; they follow the money.  They follow the asparate, a source of energy and raw materials. . . .E coli has committed a large number of its internal resources to build, value, and respond to a model of the “aspartate world” around it. (120-21)

He then posits a hypothetical dumber version of E. coli (playfully called D. coli) that just consumes aspartate whenever it comes upon it.  Which would survive?

If aspartate were always available in excess, D. coli might well be more adaptive than E. coli, since it doesn’t waste energy trying to build “aspartate models” and control its behavior to run toward gradients of this energy source. However, D. coli is “dumb” because the real world is simply not that accommodating. External energy sources aren’t uniformly distributed, nor are they always plentiful. E. coli’s energetic investment into model-building is sensible, and amounts to splitting the net energy from each aspartate molecule consumed into two separate streams:  one for fuel and one for information to be used to build a better model of its “aspartate world”–a modeling stream. (121-22)

Now if a little single-celled creature is doing all that, imagine the energy that big-brained humans are expending!  In fact, I recall reading that the complexity of human brains emerged as a result of the complexity of surviving among a social species.

The challenge in studying human decision-making is in understanding how the economic decisions we make “follow the energy” in the same way that E. coli does.  A further challenge–the ultimate challenge?–is in getting people to make the right decisions, ones that lead to optimal physical and mental health.  An article in today’s Boston Globe addresses this challenge among the poor.

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Entry filed under: complexity theory, economics, energonomics.

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