A Neuroeconomic Theory of Attention- and Task-Switching with Implications for Autism and ADHD

56 Pages Posted: 2 Feb 2016

See all articles by Peter Landry

Peter Landry

University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

Date Written: January 28, 2016


This paper presents a theoretical and neurobiologically-grounded model of attention- and task-switching in response to novel stimuli. Within this framework, I show how key features of autism and of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can be explained by simple “biases” (which can be alternatively interpreted as preference shifters) with regards to how agents value potential diversions in relation to a preoccurring task. Specifically, the theory suggests that diversions of this sort are systematically undervalued in autism and overvalued in ADHD, giving rise to the atypically low attention- and task-switching propensities observed in autism and the reverse in ADHD. While making a broader case for the potential value of economic theory as a lens through which to understand such psychiatric conditions, I draw on a range of formal economic concepts — opportunity cost, willingness-to-pay, risk aversion, time preferences, payoff/cost elasticities — to capture many other documented patterns in autism and in ADHD. In doing so, the model motivates a new classification of autism and ADHD as opposites in that their behavioral symptoms arise from opposite underlying biases. That said, the results also show how many of their symptoms — including some in the domain of social behavior — can overlap, if crudely defined, suggesting a potential clinical benefit from more precise diagnostic criteria.

JEL Classification: D03, D11, D87

Suggested Citation

Landry, Peter, A Neuroeconomic Theory of Attention- and Task-Switching with Implications for Autism and ADHD (January 28, 2016). Rotman School of Management Working Paper No. 2725953, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2725953 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2725953

Peter Landry (Contact Author)

University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management ( email )

105 St. George Street
Toronto, Ontario M5S 3E6 M5S1S4

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