But an analysis of mainstream economics journals by Clement Levallois, a researcher at Erasmus University Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, is more pessimistic. He found about 200 articles, published over a recent 10-year period, that mentioned concepts in neuroscience or biology. But the terms they focused on were concepts like "genetics," rarely anything strongly tied to neuroeconomics, like specific parts of neuroanatomy that have been linked to decision-making, or words like "dopamine."

The reluctance isn't surprising, says Michael Woodford, a noted monetary theorist and professor of economics at Columbia University. "Economics is a field where there is a core of ideas developed during the 19th and 20th centuries that people agree are important," he says. "If you want to argue that something should be part of that core, the bar is going to be higher than in many other fields." For neuroeconomics, he adds, "that's a promise that has yet to be delivered on."

That's from someone who is beginning to use neuroeconomics in his own research. Woodford studies how people rank alternatives when making choices. So he has become very interested in perception—what information the brain gets about those choices. "That's the first step, happening before a decision is made," he says. "I'm trying to build mathematics into models that accounts for variance in people's perceptions." He's actually working on ways that backgrounds affect perceptions of brightness, but the principle could apply to how some people focus on the nicely sized bedrooms of a house that's for sale, for instance, while others fixate on its tiny yard. "Standard economic theory treats these things as anomalies, and we shrug it off. But what if we treated these as phenomena that help make sense of these choices?"