Brain Food

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I greatly enjoyed reading the article in the April Liberty by Charles Barr (“Freedom vs. Fairness”). I couldn’t agree more with the article’s basic point, that there are probably more Americans concerned about issues of fairness than of freedom and, hence, libertarians must do better at understanding how the bias toward “fairness” causes people to make anti-freedom collective political choices and to overcome these biases, to the greatest extent possible.

My particular interest is in following scientific research that explores neurological mechanisms that may underlie decisionmaking that promotes fairness, regardless of how expensive that may be in terms of other values, such as freedom. The findings of neuroeconomic game theory that people will frequently, if not usually, reject an offer of $20 in order to prevent somebody else from taking $980 in an “unfair” division of $1,000 between two people, is a good example of what would seem to be an irrational bias. Twenty dollars is a whole lot better than nothing and I wouldn’t turn it down, even though the other guy gets to keep $980. But then, that only shows that I do not highly value “fairness.”

A newly published scientific study provides a clue. The study’s authors hypothesized that low serum levels of omega-3 fatty acids, having been associated in prior studies with increased hostility and decreased impulse control, might have a measurable effect on the willingness of people to accept offers made to them in the ultimatum bargaining game.¹ As you may recall from my article in an earlier Liberty (“Libertarian Like Me,” July 2008), in the ultimatum bargaining game, two players negotiate over the division of a given amount of money. The proposer (who initially has the money) offers a split with a responder. If the responder accepts the offer, they make the division and both keep their share. If the responder rejects the offer (“unfair”), neither proposer nor responder gets any money.

In this new study, the researchers measured fasting serum levels of omega-3 fatty acids (alpha-linolenic acid [ALA], eicosapentaenoic acid [EPA], and docosahexaenoic acid [DHAD, as well as linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid) and arachidonic acid (a product of omega-6 fatty acids) in 60 undergraduate economics students. The results showed that the ratio of serum omega-3/omega-6 fatty acids was significantly lower in individuals who rejected “unfair” offers as compared to those who did not. There was a significant depletion of ALA, EPA, and DHA in the rejectors of “unfair” offers.

What can we do with this information? For saving the world, perhaps nothing much at the present time. However, this may be a useful “secret” in matters of individual-level negotiation. I make no guarantees concerning the outcome of your negotiations, but the results of this study suggest that it is possible that you could reduce the likelihood of irrational rejections of perfectly reasonable offers on the basis of biases concerning “fair” and “unfair” by feeding those with whom you are negotiating a leisurely cold water fatty fish meal (rich in EPA and DHA) at a good restaurant before you get down to business. (The question of whether a large enough acute dose of omega-3 fatty acids would do the trick or whether it would take chronic ingestion of increased levels of omega-3 fatty acids was not answered by this single study.)

Political Implications: interestingly, the ingestion of omega-3 fatty acids in supplements has been increasing for years, especially among older people attracted to the protective effect of omega-3 fatty acids against sudden death heart attacks. (References available upon request.) A new breed of hogs has even been developed which has meat enriched in omega-3 fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids are being fed to farmed salmon to allow them to achieve the same high tissue levels as in wild salmon. The FDA has approved a “qualified health claim” for omega-3 fatty acids: “Supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. One serving of [name of food] provides [x] grams of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids.” This weak claim (far weaker than justified by the scientific literature) was achieved after two petitions, two courtroom victories against the FDA, and encouragement from the FDA commissioner who said that this was the largest body of evidence the agency had ever received for a claim.2 Few supplement manufacturers actually use this claim, though, because it is not only weak but wordy, thus hard to fit on a label. But this is typical of the FDA’s approach to health claims for natural products, which would otherwise compete with products sold by the FDA’s big pharma “clients.”

Could a change in diet or the ingestion of important dietary components eventually alter the political landscape? Why not? It’s happened before.

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