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Realizing the Obvious

September 10, 2009

Academic research often proceeds from simple assumptions that eventually turn out to be wrong. To take a familiar example, ancient astronomers built an entire cosmology around the mistaken belief that the planets revolve around the earth. More recently, economists have built elaborate mathmatical models on the assumption that markets are perfect and individual behavior rational. Yet, as Paul Krugman explains in his recent New York Times magazine article, those models failed to predict the financial crisis last fall and have been of little use since then. Human behavior, it turns out, is much “messier” (Krugman’s word) than the neoclassical school of economics had supposed.

The messiness of human behavior likewise mucks up research into pharmaceutical drugs. If it has seemed safe for researchers to assume that clinical tests would produce universally valid results, a new article appearing in Wired Magazine suggests otherwise. As it turns out, placebos have become dramatically more effective since the 90s, partly due to the drug industry’s marketing campaigns, which have changed people’s expectations. Geographical location likewise alters clinical results, with Valium performing better in France and Belgium than in the United States.

So apparently human behavior cannot be entirely reduced to rational self-interest or biochemical interactions in the brain. Whats new?

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