What To Learn About Next?

I’m planning to do some serious heavy reading, but I’m torn between several choices of what to study next.

After reading Radley Balko’s article using a police shooting video to illustrate the faulty nature of human memory, and stumbling across Nathaniel Burney’s comic book explanation of the neuroscience behind faulty memory, and seeing a Reason interview about evolutionary psychology, I’d like to learn more about the science of cognition. I’ve read a few popular books on the subject over the years, and I think I’m ready for something more serious, like a college textbook. I’m not sure whether I want to focus on cognitive psychology, which explores what our minds do, or cognitive neuroscience which explores the underlying neurological mechanisms. Textbooks are expensive, so I need to clarify that before buying anything.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to take my amateur economic studies in the direction of public choice theory, and toward that end I’ve been meaning to read Ronald Coase’s The Firm, the Market, and the Law. Coase was incredibly influential, and changed the way economists think about transactional and social costs. Normally I don’t try to read the great works in a field because great thinkers aren’t necessarily great explainers — nobody learns physics from Newton’s Philosophi√¶ Naturalis Principia Mathematica or evolution from Darwin’s Origin of Species. However, I’ve heard that The Firm, the Market, and the Law is quite readable for someone with a little basic knowledge of microeconomics.

On the other hand, I think I’d like to learn more about behavioral economics. The traditional microeconomic model of human decision making assumes that people are rational utility maximizers, meaning that they want to be happy, and that they work toward that goal as efficiently as possible in the face of scarce resources and uncertain outcomes. This absurdly simple model (a.k.a. homo economicus) is the economists’ equivalent of the physicist’s assumption that everything is spherical and frictionless — it’s not true, but it still gets you pretty far. Recently, economists have started trying to predict economic decision making using more sophisticated behavioral models that assume people make systematic errors that deviate from rational utility maximization. It’s an obvious point, but one that is hard to analyze rigorously. Again, I’m looking for some textbook-level reading in this area. I think there are a couple of books that might work.

Finally, I think I’d like to do some reading about attempts to use economic thinking on the subject of crime and punishment. Economists are pretty good at explaining some types of criminal activity — markets in illegal goods and services work a lot like any other markets — but not so good at addressing issues like the deterrent effects of punishment. Economists are pretty certain that criminals must respond to incentives like everyone else, but a lot of people who work with criminals are equally certain that punishment is rarely a deterrent. Some of the new behavioral economic models may resolve the discrepancy, and so I’d like to learn more about what the scientific literature says. The is not a well-defined field, however,¬† which probably means I’d have to read a lot of primary sources, and I’m not sure I want to get into it that much.

I’ll figure something out. The world is a fascinating place.

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