Historical Echoes: Skull Bumps and Economic Behavior
(see this amusing four-minute video), popular in the
first half of the nineteenth century, was the study of skull shape and contours
(believed to indicate the location of more- and less-developed areas of the
brain) in order to discern individuals’ abilities and personality traits
(called “faculties” in the phrenologists’ jargon). A clear
map of the various skull sections and their corresponding faculties can be
found in this excerpt from Samuel Wells’ version of the 1840
Fowler's Practical Phrenology: Giving a Concise Elementary View of Phrenology.
Was there a special part of the brain that phrenologists associated with economic behavior? Yes: it is on the side of the head, above and slightly forward of the ear (area number 9 in the diagram linked above). Fowler refers to the faculty located in this area as “acquisitiveness” and characterizes it this way:
Economy; the disposition to save and accumulate property. Excess: miserly avarice; theft; extreme selfishness. Deficiency: prodigality; inability to appreciate the true value of property; lavish and wasteful.
Acquisitiveness falls in the category of the “selfish propensities”; the other categories are the domestic propensities, the aspiring and governing organs, the moral sentiments, the perfective faculties, the perceptive faculties, the literary faculties, and the reasoning faculties. All of the selfish propensities are located on the side of the head, around and above the ear. The other selfish propensities are vitativeness (love of life), combativeness, destructiveness, alimentiveness (appetite), secretiveness, and cautiousness. In this illustration of the phrenological head, the faculty of acquisitiveness is illustrated by a miser counting his gold.
According to The Illustrated Annuals of Phrenology and Physiognomy (p. 138, 1869 Annual), the faculty of acquisitiveness would have been necessary to be a good banker:
If one is without veneration or the feeling of devotion, he would be out of place if in the pulpit. If all caution and no courage, he would make a poor soldier or surgeon. If small in Self-Esteem, Firmness, Locality, etc., a poor navigator or sea captain. With small Acquisitiveness, a poor banker; and with small Alimentiveness, a poor hotel-keeper or cook.
In a 1994 article titled Tales of the Commodore, reprinted from Vanderbilt Magazine, the author notes that phrenology was used to explain why Cornelius Vanderbilt (nicknamed “the Commodore”), transportation magnate and the richest person in the United States at the time of his death in 1877, was going insane:
Theories of phrenology, another popular notion of the day, were also brought in to explain the Commodore's will. Jeremiah S. Black, counsel for the contestants, said, "Cornelius Vanderbilt's bump of acquisitiveness, as a phrenologist would call it, was in a chronic state of inflammation . . . morally and intellectually his mind was a howling wilderness."
By the late 1800s, phrenology was debunked except for minor flare-ups, but that is not quite the end of the story. Today, the controversial field of neuroeconomics, which uses neuroimaging technology, has as one of its basic suppositions that in experimental situations, the manipulation of the emotional state of subjects can affect their economic decision making. A 2008 blog post from the site Neurosciencemarketing.com nicely wraps up some of the popular writing about the controversy and a 2012 working paper examines the current relationship between neuroeconomics and economics proper. A 2009 slide series to accompany a lecture by Dr. Stephen Kinsella gives a quick overview of the current interest in the relationship between brain processes and financial behavior—and yes—the scientists are looking at specific areas of the brain associated with decision-making involving short-term and long-term rewards. But not skull bumps!
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the author.
Amy Farber is a research librarian in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Research and Statistics Group.