Lake Tahoe Lab Retreat

The lab taking a well-deserved couple of days off during our lab retreat at Tahoe.






Congratulations Dr. Yuping Chen!

Our own Yuping Chen has officially received her Ph.D. She will be starting in the fall as assistant professor of marketing at College of Management, National Taiwan University! Congratulations Yuping!

New paper on decoding brand personality

Congratulations to Yuping Chen, whose paper has been conditionally accepted at Journal of Marketing Research! The study used fMRI and model-based MVPA methods to decode consumers' thoughts to well-known commercial brands.

From “Where” to “What”: Distributed Representations of Brand Associations in the Human Brain

Yuping Chen, Leif Nelson, and Ming Hsu

Considerable attention has been given to the notion that there exists a set of human-like characteristics associated with brands, referred to as brand personality. Here we combine newly available machine learning techniques with functional neuroimaging data to characterize the set of processes that give rise to these associations. We show that brand personality traits can be captured by the weighted activity across a widely distributed set of brain regions previously implicated in reasoning, imagery, and affective processing. That is, as opposed to being constructed via reflective processes, brand personality traits appear to exist a priori inside the minds of consumers, such that we were able to predict what brand a person is thinking about based solely on the relationship between brand personality associations and brain activity. These findings represent an important advance in the application of neuroscientific methods to consumer research, moving from work focused on cataloguing brain regions associated with marketing stimuli to testing and refining mental constructs central to theories of consumer behavior. 

New article on causal effect of dopaminergic drug on inequity aversion

Congratulations to Ignacio, our paper on the causal involvement of prefrontal dopamine has just been accepted at Current Biology!

Egalitarian Behavior in Humans

Ignacio Saez, Lusha Zhu, Eric Set, Andrew Kayser, and Ming Hsu

Egalitarian motives form a powerful force in promoting prosocial behavior and enabling large-scale cooperation in the human species. At the neural level, there is substantial, albeit correlational, evidence suggesting a link between dopamine and such behavior. However, important questions remain about the specific role of dopamine in setting or modulating behavioral sensitivity to prosocial concerns. Here, using a combination of pharmacological tools and economic games, we provide critical evidence for a causal involvement of dopamine in human egalitarian tendencies. Specifically, using the brain penetrant catechol-O-methyl transferase (COMT) inhibitor tolcapone, we investigated the causal relationship between dopaminergic mechanisms and two prosocial concerns at the core of a number of widely used economic games: (1) the extent to which individuals directly value the material payoffs of others, i.e., generosity, and (2) the extent to which they are averse to differences between their own payoffs and those of others, i.e., inequity. We found that dopaminergic augmentation via COMT inhibition increased egalitarian tendencies in participants who played an extended version of the dictator game. Strikingly, computational modeling of choice behavior revealed that tolcapone exerted selective effects on inequity aversion, and not on other computational components such as the extent to which individuals directly value the material payoffs of others. Together, these data shed light on the causal relationship between neurochemical systems and human prosocial behavior and have potential implications for our understanding of the complex array of social impairments accompanying neuropsychiatric disorders involving dopaminergic dysregulation.

Gene learning paper in Berkeley Science Review

Kevin Doxzen from Berkeley Science Review has written a fantastic piece about our genetic basis of strategic learning paper. The best part is that Kevin in his day job is a biophysicist, which allowed me to geek out a bit during the interview. Luckily he also translated most of that into language normal people speak. :)

New article on causal involvement of DLPFC in honesty

Our paper on the causal involvement of DLPFC in honesty has just been accepted at Nature Neuroscience! This will hopefully be one in a long line of papers by us and others applying signaling games to the study of honesty and deception.

Damage to dorsolateral prefrontal cortex affects tradeoffs between honesty and self-interest

Lusha Zhu, Adrianna C Jenkins, Eric Set, Donatella Scabini, Robert T Knight, Pearl H Chiu, Brooks King-Casas, and Ming Hsu

Substantial correlational evidence suggests that prefrontal regions are critical to honest and dishonest behavior, but causal evidence specifying the nature of this involvement remains absent. We found that lesions of the human dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) decreased the effect of honesty concerns on behavior in economic games that pit honesty motives against self-interest, but did not affect decisions when honesty concerns were absent. These results point to a causal role for DLPFC in honest behavior.

Welcome Lekha Viswanadham

We have a new addition to the lab this summer. Lekha Viswanadham is joining us from Caltech as part of the SURF program. She will be working with us this summer on developing novel methods for genetic and imaging genetic analysis of behavior. Welcome Lekha!

Brand decoding paper wins first prize poster award at ISDN 2014

Congratulations to Yuping Chen, whose poster "Decoding neural responses to consumer brands using functional MRI" was awarded first prize at the 2014 ISDN Conference!

Eric Set awarded Brems Graduate Research Award

Congratulations Eric on winning the Brems Graduate Research Award from the UIUC Economics department! We also offer a bounty on any pictures taken during the ceremony!!

New article on dopamine genes and strategic learning

Eric Set's paper on dopamine genes and strategic learning has just been accepted at PNAS. This has been an immense amount of work both conceptually thinking about how to characterize genetic effects on behavior in the context of the computational principles we have learned over the past decade, as well as statistically dealing with them in a tractable manner. I particularly liked the comments of one of our reviewers:

Set and colleagues present an impressive study combining sophisticated modeling of strategic behavior and a sophisticated genetic modeling approach.

Congratulations Eric! [PNAS Link]

Dissociable contribution of prefrontal and striatal dopaminergic genes to learning in economic games

Eric Set, Ignacio Saez, Lusha Zhu, Daniel E. Houser, Noah Myung, Songfa Zhong, Richard P. Ebsteing, Soo Hong Chew, and Ming Hsu

Game theory describes strategic interactions where success of players’ actions depends on those of coplayers. In humans, substantial progress has been made at the neural level in characteriz ing the dopaminergic and frontostriatal mechanisms mediating such behavior. Here we combined computational modeling of strategic learning with a pathway approach to characterize association of strategic behavior with variations in the dopamine pathway. Specifically, using gene-set analysis, we systematically examined contribution of different dopamine genes to variation in a multistrategy competitive game captured by (i) the degree players anticipate and respond to actions of others (belief learning) and (ii) the speed with which such adaptations take place (learning rate). We found that variation in genes that primarily regulate prefrontal dopamine clearance—catechol-O-methyl transferase (COMT) and two isoforms of monoamine oxidase—modulated degree of belief learning across individuals. In contrast, we did not find significant association for other genes in the dopamine pathway. Furthermore, variation in genes that primarily regulate striatal dopamine function—dopamine transporter and D2 receptors—was significantly associated with the learning rate. We found that this was also the case with COMT, but not for other dopaminergic genes. Together, these findings highlight dissociable roles of frontostriatal systems in strategic learning and support the notion that genetic variation, organized along specific pathways, forms an important source of variation in complex phenotypes such as strategic behavior.

University College London Talk

Over spring break I had a chance to be part of the Computational Psychiatry course at University College London (h.t. Xiaosi Gu). I gave one of the two talks that day to an audience consisting (I think) primarily of clinical fellows. It was thoroughly enjoyable, but what I did not expect was how eye opening this experience would be for me. As researchers, we talk a fair bit about connecting our research to applications and reaching out to clinicians, but the actual opportunity to do so is surprisingly hard to come by. Here was a real demonstration of what can be done but at the same time how much work there is to be done. I hope to have more to say about this topic in the future, but in the meantime here are slides and audio recording of the talk.[Slides] [Audio]

Kudos to Colin Camerer

Congratulations to Colin Camerer, who has just been awarded a MacArthur “genius grant”! As one of his PhD students who was there at the inception of neuroeconomics at Caltech, this is incredibly exciting. Amazing how far our field has come in less than a decade.

NIMH R01 Grant

Our R01 submission to the NIMH has obtained final official approval (shakes fist at sequestration)! The grant supports our research in understanding neurological basis of social behavior.

Project Summary: The current proposal aims to study neural mechanisms of social learning in healthy adults as a precursor to understanding the impact of mental illnesses on social functioning. Changes in social behavior are often the first symptoms of a striking array of neuropsychiatric disorders. However, whereas disruptions in memory, motor, or emotional functioning are readily recognized as symptoms of more serious underlying conditions, decision-making deficits are often overlooked, particularly in the social domain. Furthermore, there exist few behavioral measures or biomarkers to quantify such deficits, due in part to our limited knowledge of the underlying neural mechanisms and their relation to mental disorders.

We do so via a tight integration of computational modeling of goal-directed social behavior, and testing the predictions generated using complementary experimental techniques with both fMRI and focal lesion patients. In particular, we focus on the role of dopamine and interactions between the basal ganglia and frontal cortices, which are together critical for goal-directed behavior and known to be affected in a variety of disorders. First, we will use the model, calibrated on observed behavior, to derive trial-by-trial regressors for use in functional neuroimaging experiments. Second, the estimated parameters of the model themselves can be used to compare across health and diseased groups, or find subtypes of the diseased groups. Finally, the neural correlates and the behavioral estimates can be combined in order to find novel brain-behavior markers of diseases. In this way, we seek to provide a unifying account of goal-directed behavior in both social and non-social settings, which has the potential to lead to development of new ways of classifying mental disorders based on dimensions of observable behavior and neurobiological measures.

Welcome to Ignacio Saez

Welcome to our newest member of the lab, Ignacio Saez! Ignacio is a postdoctoral research joining us from Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. He is interested in the biological substrates of decision-making, employing diverse techniques to study how the brain computes value, makes a choice and learns from past experience, from functional neuroimaging to intracranial voltammetry in humans.

New Article on Aging and Games

New paper coming out on changes in decision-making across the lifespan. Lifespan differences is an area of interest since my time at Illinois, where there were a number of world-class researchers on age-related changes in memory, executive function, and emotion. Surprisingly, despite the immense knowledge in these area, we still know very little about social functioning, particularly about social decision-making. I think this is changing, as in addition to ours, there have been several recently, including this fMRI paper on the aging and Ultimatum Game by Alan Sanfey.

Zhu, Lusha, Daniel Walsh, and Ming Hsu. Neuroeconomic Measures of Social Decision-Making Across the Lifespan. Frontiers in Neuro​science, 6:128. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2012.00128.

HuffPost Live

Many thanks to Abe Forman-Greenwald and the HuffPost Live crew for inviting me to take part in The Matter of the Mind and talk about a topic that is never too far away when I tell people I study how our brains make decisions. That is, someone eventually asks about free will. Nowadays there is also a bit of queasiness when they find out I’m in marketing (but that’s a conversation for another day!). For those interested, check out the video here.

Everything has been done

I don’t know who first said, “Whatever you can think of has been done before”, but I’m pretty sure, erm..., someone has said it already. This is how Zaltman’s 1997 JMR article “Rethinking Market Research: Putting People Back In” makes me feel. The paper is primarily on the role of metaphors and mental imagery in influencing thoughts and behavior of consumers and managers. But there is also a fairly detailed discussion of the brain and application of neuroimaging techniques to measure consumers’ mental responses, including this:

In a study now under way at Harvard University and the Massachusetts General Hospital, Stephen M. Kosslyn and I are using PET scans to assess the impact of three alternative marketing stimuli (relating to automobile dealerships) developed by Lewis Carbone of Experience Engineering for a division of General Motors. The constructs involved in these stimuli (about which study participants also complete a written questionnaire) include anxiety, trust, and comfort.

I don’t know what happened to the study, perhaps it fell into the proprietary information stack that never sees the light of day. But to me it represents a side of consumer neuroscience that has thus far been under-explored—namely the neural processes through which metaphors and mental imagery influence behavior. We now know quite a bit about the basic decision making processes at the brain level, but it doesn’t begin to describe the way that narratives and behavior affect our behavior. Getting a handle on this would be a huge advance scientifically.

Evil Girl Scouts

Ran across this hilarious example on the evils of Girls Scout Cookies while looking around for example of self-control problems.

Unfortunately for me, I was pretty weak from fighting all those earlier urges and had no defense against the most dastardly diet killing villain ever. Girl Scouts and their cookies! “Sir,” this cute, very innocent, albeit completely evil little girl asked, “would you like to buy some girl scout cookies? They are for a good cause.”

I just stared blankly at her for what must have been 3 minutes, begging God to smite this little demon down with a bolt of lightning.Before that could happen though, her mom noticed me just staring at her and thought I was a creeper or something because she came running over to investigate.

“Sir,” the little girl said again with her mom now standing next to her protectively, “well, would you like some cookies?”

By that point, since no lightening had come down and my will power was spent from the drive prior, I started shaking violently. Finally I screaming, “Ok! I give up,” and knocked both the little girl and her mother over as I ran to the table loaded down with boxes and boxes of multicolored Girl Scout cookies, like I was chasing gold at the end of a rainbow.

This is just one anecdote, but the underlying idea—that food is like a drug, and obesity like addiction—is become quite well accepted. The analogy does have a few problems, delineated very nicely in a recent Nature Reviews Neuroscience opinion piece. My main takeaway is that it’s no so much as the analogy that fails, but rather the facile comparison of symptoms. For example, the tolerance and withdrawal symptoms in drug abuse have no direct equivalent in food. Still, the cognitive mechanisms, such as impulsivity and self control, likely underlie both.

Hellman Fund

Much thanks to Hellman Fund for funding our research for 2012-2013. In addition to the obvious, I am grateful for the thoughtfulness behind the initiation of the fund. Mr. Hellman had observed that junior faculty are often well-funded when first hired. Problems arise in 2-3 years when start-up funding is exhausted and before first grants are obtained. The Fund is designed to assist promising young faculty at this point in their careers. On the other hand, one of the significant tradeoffs of being in departments not used to supporting expensive science (first economics, now marketing) is that being “well-funded” is a rather alien concept to me. Not a complaint, just an observation. :-)

Merely Bundles of Mental States

Ran across this remarkable quote while doing background research for a lay neuromarketing article. I found it in Uncommon Grounds, Mark Pendergrast’s lovely history of coffee, and is attributed to the German-American psychologist Hugo Münsterberg.

Business men will eventually realize that customers are merely bundles of mental states and that the mind is a mechanism that we can affect with the same exactitude with which we control a machine in a factor.

Unfortunately there was no clear sourcing in Pendergast, and I wasn’t able to find anything like this in Münsterberg’s published works. However, I did find a quote to the effect of above in a 1913 judgment of Continental Securities co. v. Belmont (!!!) in the Miscellaneous Reports: Cases Decided in the Courts of Record of the State of New York (hooray for Google books).

Law may be an exact science in the conception of the psychologist, who now claims that even banking and business are exact sciences, which can control them as well as any other field of social life, and by the introduction of psychology therein men will eventually realize that individuals with whom they deal are merely bundles of mental states, and that the mind is a mechanism that we (psychologists?) can affect with the same exactitude with which we control a machine in a factory.

It was baffling to me why the judge handling the case included this example. As far as I can tell it’s some obscure law about securities contracts, but more to the point the judge of this opinion did not give a citation. Still, clearly some psychologist back in the early 1900s wrote/said something to this effect, and Münsterberg wouldn’t be a bad guess.

Speaking of Münsterberg, even though his speculations about something like neuromarketing went nowhere, he pioneered IO and forensic psychology, without which business and law schools would probably look very different today. I hope it won’t take another hundred years to understand the brain processes of marketing and business in general.