Physiological biomarkers of economic decisions

17 Mar 2017
Illustration of QRS complex - Dr Jonas Fooken
Illustration of QRS complex - Dr Jonas Fooken

Dr Jonas Fooken has published experimental economic results in an article in Scientific Reports showing that a physiological biomarker indicates emotional engagement in pro-social economic decisions. In his study, he measures heart rate variability, which mirrors psychologically induced emotional processes in the body, of laboratory participants who made decisions on how much to share with others and invest in joint projects. This research contributes to a rapidly growing literature on neuroeconomics, and the nascent field of physio-economics, studying internal processes in our brains and bodies when talking economic decisions.

Results show that heart rate variability correlates with pro-social decisions, indicating that emotional factors play an important role when deciding not to act selfishly, share with others, or enforce pro-social norms. The study also shows that the emotional trace of the decision, or the emotional shadow value measured by heart rate variability, is large compared to what is observed outside a laboratory environment. This is done by testing the same indicator, heart rate variability, and the same individuals when they are exposed to a large psychological stressors in during a 24-hour period. Results from this comparison show that effects observed in the laboratory are substantial in terms of their magnitude, supporting the external validity of the results.

The article provides a fundamental contribution to the understanding of economic decision making and its underlying emotional factors. This improves our understanding of how individuals make decisions the way they do, instead of acting just based on rational calculations, and informs how we can understand real choices in the light of economic and psychological models of decision making.