Executive Director’s Column

The Fuzzy Boundaries of Science

Psychology succeeds as a science because of its ability to draw from biology, computer science, economics and other fields.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

When news of this year’s Nobel prizes started rolling out earlier this month, it got me thinking (as it always does) about those who have been recognized in the past by the Nobel Foundation for psychology-related work. We all know that a Nobel Prize in Psychological Sciences does not exist (wishing, of course, that it did). Nevertheless, the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences frequently honors those whose work is based in and contributes to psychological science.

In 1978, Herbert Simon was recognized for his work on decision making. That work was clearly anchored in economics, but it had tremendous influence in psychology. Indeed, Simon and his colleagues often published their work in the leading psychology journals.

In 2002, psychologist Daniel Kahneman was recognized for his work (in collaboration with psychologist Amos Tversky) on integrating psychological research into economic science. The lecture Kahneman delivered upon acceptance of the Nobel Prize focused on maps of bounded rationality. He published two versions of that lecture: one in The American Economic Review and another in American Psychologist.

The subtitle of Kahneman’s American Economic Review article was “Psychology for Behavioral Economics”. Although we know Kahneman best for his collaborative work with Tversky, he also engaged in important collaborative work with economist Richard Thaler. At the fuzzy boundary between psychology and economics, it was that work that helped to establish the new interdiscipline of behavioral economics.

Economics, like psychology, often finds itself at the fuzzy edges of disciplinary boundaries. Right now, it is the fuzzy boundary with neuroscience that enjoys intense development. Just as psychology and neuroscience find a connection in the interdiscipline of behavioral neuroscience, economics and neuroscience find a connection in the interdiscipline of neuroeconomics.

I have a confession to make. When I first learned about the work being done in behavioral economics, and later in neuroeconomics, my thoughts were cynical. It seemed to me that the discipline of economics, having run out of legitimate problems to study, was looking for inspiration from psychology. And even worse, from old psychology.

On deeper reflection, however, my cynicism turned to enthusiasm and appreciation for the value of fuzzy boundaries in science. Psychology succeeds as a science because of its ability to draw from and integrate with many other fields of science – biology, ethology, genetics, mathematics, computer science, sociology, anthropology, political science, and, yes, economics.

If the interdisciplines of behavioral economics and neuroeconomics are drawing attention, that’s a good thing for behavioral and social sciences. And to the extent that psychology and psychologists are part of the mix, that’s even better. This is the natural evolution of science, and we should embrace it.