The Neurobiology of Wall Street

by Kiko Matsing

Have scientists found the biological basis of Alan Greenspan’s “irrational exuberance” that was said to have precipitated the US subprime mortgage crisis of 2008?

Losses are a possibility in many risky decisions, and organisms have evolved mechanisms to evaluate and avoid them. Laboratory and field evidence suggests that people often avoid risks with losses even when they might earn a substantially larger gain, a behavioral preference termed “loss aversion.” The cautionary brake on behavior known to rely on the amygdala is a plausible candidate mechanism for loss aversion, yet evidence for this idea has so far not been found. We studied two rare individuals with focal bilateral amygdala lesions using a series of experimental economics tasks. To measure individual sensitivity to financial losses we asked participants to play a variety of monetary gambles with possible gains and losses. Although both participants retained a normal ability to respond to changes in the gambles’ expected value and risk, they showed a dramatic reduction in loss aversion compared to matched controls. The findings suggest that the amygdala plays a key role in generating loss aversion by inhibiting actions with potentially deleterious outcomes.

from Amygdala damage eliminates monetary loss aversion, Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences (doi: 10.1073)