Neuroeconomics: Paving the way for interdisciplinary research programmes in the social sciences

Written by  Hanna McLean Wednesday, 20 June 2012 13:43

The Neuroeconomics programme at Maastricht University is about to make a big impression. A specialisation within the Research Master in Cognitive and Clinical Neuroscience, it boasts a challenging curriculum combined with an interdisciplinary approach, and it intends to live up to the high expectations. Course coordinators Arno Riedl and Teresa Schuhmann aim to help future graduates get into top universities, such as MIT and NYU.

“The Neuroeconomics specialisation brings the brain to economics and economics to the brain”, explains Riedl. Traditionally, economics is only interested in behaviour, or the way that people act in certain situations. It pays no attention to why they might be acting in the way they are. In Riedl’s view, bringing neuroscience to economics can help to fill this gap. “If you can understand how decisions are made, taking into consideration not only the psychological processes, but the neuro-processes as well, you can build better models which can predict behaviour more accurately. This is one of the goals of this programme.” 

Standing out from the crowd 

The Neuroeconomics specialisation stands out because of its interdisciplinary nature and because few comparable programmes, if any, exist in Europe. It combines both theoretical and empirical research methods as well as techniques from neuroscience, economics and psychology into a unified approach. This helps to avoid the shortcomings that may arise from a single-perspective approach and aims at an integrated understanding of human decision making, from explaining decisions in complex social situations, like helping strangers, to the very foundations of decision making. 

Some might wonder, why combine everything? Why not take economics and neuroscience separately? “It has to do with languages”, says Riedl. “We have a common basis, which is our interest in scientific research. We have research questions and particular methodologies, but I speak economics, Teresa speaks neuroscience, and other people speak psychology. The key advantage of this specialisation is that students are taught right from the outset to speak and understand all three languages at a high level. This will give them a head start in their PhD research, for example. No other research master’s specialisation that we know of does this.” 

The focus of the specialisation is on uncovering the neuronal basis of individual and social decision making, with a view to developing more accurate economic models. According to Riedl, “There was mounting evidence that the traditional economic models didn’t work well in predicting people’s behaviour, so something had to change. This prompted the introduction of psychology in economics, leading to behavioural economics, which called for new and improved models. Today, technological progress allows us to go a step further and look into the living brain while people are making decisions. We’re confident that this will improve our models.” 

Do you have what it takes? 

Neuroeconomics will be a selective, challenging specialisation. A maximum of 12 students out of the many expected to apply will be accepted. “We want students who are smart, ambitious and talented. They have to know what they want and should be hard workers”, says Schuhmann. “They may come from various backgrounds, because we’ve seen that if someone is interested enough, they can learn everything they need to know in the first two years. But this is not easy; the students selected will have to work hard in order to succeed.” 

A different way of thinking 

That a brand new programme already has such high standards seems to bother neither Riedl nor Schuhmann. “Content-wise, it’s experimental”, says Riedl. “Students have to change their mindsets in this specialisation, because so many different areas of expertise are involved. But this is precisely the idea.”

“One of the strengths of this specialisation is that it is comprised of small groups and students have close contact with staff. We have an opendoor policy and if something goes wrong, it can be fixed quickly”, Schuhmann adds. 

The Neuroeconomics research master’s specialisation, offered jointly by the Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience and the School of Business and Economics, starts in September 2012.

Arno Riedl
Arno Riedl (1964) works at the Department of Economics in the Maastricht University School of Business and Economics. He received his PhD in 1997 from the University of Vienna. Before joining UM, he worked as a lecturer at the University of Vienna, the Institute for Advanced Studies in Vienna and the Center for Research in Experimental Economics and Political Decision Making (CREED) at the University of Amsterdam.

Teresa Schuhmann
Teresa Schuhmann (1979) works at the Department of Cognitive Neuroscience in the Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience, as well as the Maastricht Brain Imaging Center. She received her PhD in 2012 in cognitive neuroscience with a special focus on transcranial magnetic stimulation. She is currently working as a postdoctoral fellow and co-coordinator of the Neuroeconomics research master’s specialisation.

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