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Behavioral Economics and the Autism Debate

23 December 2010 No Comment

Recently for my day job I have been reading up on behavioral economics as it relates to banking.  In my research I stumbled upon, of all things, an article on the autism-vaccine debate.

Behavioral economics concerns itself with the cognitive biases that impact how we make decisions, particularly in ways that diverge from rational choice theory, the foundation of classical economics.

Here is an example:

Suppose I tell you that you can drive 10 minutes down the street and purchase an iPhone for $400.  However, if you drive an extra 15 minutes further, to another store, you can buy the same phone for $300.  Many people, say 60%, would say that they would drive the extra distance.  Later I describe a different situation:  You can purchase a car at a dealer 10 minutes away and pay $24,500.  However if you drive an extra 15 minutes further, to another dealer, you can buy the same car for $24,400.  Suddenly the number of people interested in the second option drops precipitously.

From a rational perspective, the two options are identical.  Is a 15 minute extra drive in each direction, 30 minutes total, worth $100 to you. But a cognitive bias, known as anchoring, effects our choices.

Dave Munger argues on SeedMagazine.com‘s blog that the association of autism with the MMR vaccine is more a function of a specific cognitive bias.  Quoting Sam Harris‘s book the Moral Landscape he notes how humans have a marked bias against sins of commission over those of omission.  In other words, the idea that you caused autism by giving your child a vaccine is much more salient than the idea that you failed to vaccinate your child who later became infected with measles.

It is but one small piece to the puzzle of course.  Others have marked about the proximity bias and its clear impact on the causative linkage made between the onset of autism and the administration of the MMR vaccine.

Meanwhile, as parents we continue to walk blindfolded through an environment that is clearly dangerous.  Are environmental factors to blame? Pesticides?  VOCs?   A recent study suggests that air pollution or a corollary factor may be implicated.  There is nothing more fear- inducing than the feeling of being powerless —  not being able to understand the cause of such a prevalent and detrimental disease that we may inadvertently even be causing.

A recent study found a possible link between autism and mitochondrial dysfunction.  Here is a good synthesis of the research which is both alarming and promising.  In the end, it still points to multiple causes all of which are not easily preventable.  But as the mechanics of the syndrome become more clear, the possibility of effective treatments seem more likely.

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