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Gordon Tullock meets Phineas Gage: The political economy of lobotomies in the United States


  • March, Raymond J.
  • Geloso, Vincent


Incentives affect the ways in which scientific research is disseminated and translated into practice. From 1936 to 1972, approximately fifty thousand lobotomies were performed in the US, with the majority occurring during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Curiously, the lobotomy's popularity coincided with a consensus within the medical community that the procedure was ineffective. To explain this paradox, we follow the framework developed by Tullock (2005) to examine how financial incentives within the scientific community affected how scientific research is used in practice. We argue that government funding for public mental hospitals and asylums expanded and prolonged the use of the lobotomy, despite mounting scientific evidence. We demonstrate that the lobotomy was used less in private mental hospitals and asylums. This paper provides an explanation for the use of scientifically discredited procedures due to the lack of responsiveness of government funding agencies. The results have implications for the dissemination and translation of scientific knowledge in practice.

Suggested Citation

  • March, Raymond J. & Geloso, Vincent, 2020. "Gordon Tullock meets Phineas Gage: The political economy of lobotomies in the United States," Research Policy, Elsevier, vol. 49(1).
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:respol:v:49:y:2020:i:1:s004873331930191x
    DOI: 10.1016/j.respol.2019.103872

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    More about this item


    Lobotomies; Science; Political economy; Mental health; Health economics;

    JEL classification:

    • I18 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Health - - - Government Policy; Regulation; Public Health
    • I11 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Health - - - Analysis of Health Care Markets
    • H44 - Public Economics - - Publicly Provided Goods - - - Publicly Provided Goods: Mixed Markets
    • H4 - Public Economics - - Publicly Provided Goods
    • H42 - Public Economics - - Publicly Provided Goods - - - Publicly Provided Private Goods


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