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.

Postdoc Search

We are actively recruiting for post​doctoral researchers and will be interviewing at SfN. Please see our job ad for more information.

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.

PNAS Article on Strategic Learning

New paper Dissociable neural representations of reinforcement and belief prediction errors underlie strategic learning coming out in PNAS. First paper from Lusha Zhu’s Ph.D. thesis!

Congratulations Dr. Lusha Zhu!

Congratulations to Lusha Zhu, the first (of hopefully many) Ph.D. student from the lab! Her thesis is: “Understanding the Neural Mechanisms of Strategic Learning: Correlates, Causality, and Applications”. Depending on who one counts as the first generation of neuroeconomists, Lusha is either the second or third generation. And compared to my own thesis, I think it goes to show that we’ve come a long way in terms of advancement both conceptually and methodologically.

Kavli Frontiers Symposium

Last week I attended and gave a talk at the Kavli Frontiers of Science symposium. It was held at the National Academy of Sciences in Irvine, and is one of those truly interdisciplinary conferences where you get to hear people from fields like material science to astronomy talking to and with each other. The 2010 talks aren’t up yet, but the archive or the past talks are. It was one of the most enjoyable conferences I’ve been to. The normal conference circuit is good but it’s also a lot of work. You’re always trying to track the latest trends and ideas, and implicitly or explicitly measuring your work against others in the field or adjacent fields. Here everybody is so different that it’s worthwhile to just sit back, relax, and learn something about the big topics in other the sciences. It’s like being an undergrad again without any of the downsides of being an undergrad!

Still, just because the topics are different doesn’t mean the problems are completely dissimilar. I particularly like the session on Cryosphere Hydrosphere Interaction, not least because I learned two new words. The other thing I learned was that ice caps on mountains like Kilimanjaro are essentially in equilibrium with the surrounding environment, so it’s easy to understand the effects of global warming. Ice sheets on the other hand, are a totally different beast. Because they are so massive they change the environment around them; and to model the effects requires knowledge of parameters and mechanisms that we know very little about. Now since this is all from memory the details are probably totally wrong, but I think it makes for a pretty nice physical analogy to what makes economic phenomenon complicated.

California Cognitive Science Conference

Yesterday I gave a talk at the 2010 California Cognitive Science Conference, run by the undergraduate student association of the same name. I had a great time, and found out to my amazement that it really is an undergraduate run conference. Yes I know it’s in the description and all, but there was nary a supervising “adult” in sight, impressive for a conference that had students coming from all across the state, and certainly better run than some of the conferences I’ve been to before. All of which makes me feel old and think, “Kids these days...”, but in a good way.

P.S. A couple of people asked if I can send them my slides, so
here they are.

Facial Expressions

The last year or so I have been working on a project that incorporates facial expressions of emotions in games. The idea is quite simple although it sounds complicated, we have subjects communicate during a game using computer avatars. The goal is to quantify and model some form of communication. Verbal or written language being way too complicated for me to think about, facial expressions seem more tractable.

The important logistic component is done by having players control a computer avatar using a joystick. This way they are able to create a large range of expressions very quickly. Everything is done in
Poser and much of the code is based on software from our collaborator Jesse Spencer-Smith. Lusha wrote the rest of the code to be able to run a game in Poser. All in all, it works surprisingly smoothly!

There is a real difficulty however in conveying the quality of these expressions to colleagues (not to mention grant reviewers!). It's not that surprising in hindsight, but when you say that the players create an expression in 3 seconds, people expect something amateurish and not at all realistic. Compound that with the fact that the way people communicate in academia is still overwhelmingly print-based, and we have a situation where it's difficult to get across a sense of quality of the game. So I've decided to put up some video captures of the faces players are sending each other during games. At some point I'll have to do a screencast of a whole game so people can get a sense of the flow of the software.

This is an example of an expression sent in a stochastic dictator game, from recipient to dictator. The dictator gives the recipient a possibly unfair split. The recipient then decided to sent back the above expression. Needless to say, he is less than pleased. The whole sequence, from dictator's decision to recipient's expression, probably took less than 30 seconds.

Inaugural Entry from Berkeley

Hard to believe it's almost been a month since I moved to the Bay area. If only the physical move can be as easy as moving this website (made a trivial task by RapidWeaver). Of course even after settling down here, I am still trying to transport my students and all of the setups of the lab over.

P.S. To grant agencies, now would be a great time to fund my proposals. :-)

It's Good Bye for Now

After three happy and productive years at University of Illinois, I will be moving back to the west coast. I have recently completed a move to the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. This website will live on for at least another semester.

For the sake of memory, I'm putting up some random pictures of our poster at the 2008
Society for Neuroeconomics conference, as well as our space the Beckman Institute. It's too bad I never remembered to take pictures of our experiments; not every day one gets to see a room of PCs and joysticks. :-)

Real Life Impunity Game

A number of countries have incentive schemes to encourage couples to have more children. Off the top of my head I can think of Italy, Japan, Singapore, and Russia. As far as I know nobody has thought of cash subsidy in this case as being morally repugnant. But somehow if the government of Nepal offers $650 to subsidize men willing to marry widows, and they in fact are doing just that, women's rights groups and the widows themselves are less than pleased.

This looks like a real-life version of the impunity game. It is similar to an ultimatum game, except rejection only reduces the responder's own payoff, and has no effect on the proposer's. So if as a responder you were offered ($8, $2) split and decide to reject, the allocation would be ($8, $0), so you lose a couple of dollars to make some kind of a point. This is an interesting game in that rejections are inequity raising, rather than reducing as in the case of the ultimatum game. This type of behavior has now been demonstrated in a couple of recent experiments using both humans and monkeys. I think there is also an older paper by Rami Zwick where this game was introduced? Anyway I can't remember.

My question though is: what is the difference between subsidies for child-bearing and marriage? If the answer is that the subsidy is patronizing in that it sounds like it's being given to the husbands, but I don't think it would be any less repugnant to the women if the money were directly given to them.

Yamagishi et al. The private rejection of unfair offers and emotional commitment. PNAS (2009) vol. 106 (28) pp. 11520-11523

Brosnan and De Waal. Monkeys reject unequal pay. Nature (2003) vol. 425 (6955) pp. 297-9

Compressing Large PDFs

Here is a nifty Automator action that I created today to automatically compress large PDFs that I encounter every now and then from journals. These are not scanned images that JSTOR produces, which are understandably large. They are articles typically less than 10 pages, with a few images. They have no business exceeding 1MB, never mind 7MB(!) which I downloaded once. After compression they are often around 700KB. You can compress using Acrobat Pro, but this is free and much faster. Here is the commandline using Ghostscript:

gs -sDEVICE=pdfwrite -dCompatibilityLevel=1.4 -dPDFSETTINGS=/printer -dNOPAUSE -dQUIET -dBATCH -sOutputFile=output.pdf input.pdf

This uses the "printer" setting, which downsamples at 300DPI. Ebook is 150DPI. There is also prepress which I haven't used but I'm guessing 600DPI? Hard disk space is cheap these days but there are a couple of practical reasons to do this: sharing with others, and screen rendering speed. In particular Preview slows to a crawl at times.

After getting tired enough of deleting and renaming the files by hand, I created a Leopard Automator action for this. Now I can just select the file, and it will convert and replace the original.

Pasted Graphic

Power of Analogies

I have no idea whether the attribution of causation holds any water, but it's certainly a well-crafted piece of rhetoric.

“I told Boyden: ‘Imagine you just fired up the government printing presses and dumped an endless stream of money into the system. You’d have no way of controlling the money supply,’ ” Mr. Dudek said. “He understood totally and intuitively the importance of maintaining the cap, the key ingredient in our acid rain policy.” A month later, the Bush White House sent Congress a cap-and-trade plan...

They also seem to me to be particularly useful in situations involving repugnant transactions. Perhaps an example of cognitive appraisal?

Fairness as a constraint on profit-seeking: Printer Edition

The other day I found out that, by taping a piece of paper on top of the sensors in my printer, I can stop the printer from randomly canceling print job. Apparently it will stop printing every now and then because it thinks the printer is low on toner, with no warning. Thwarting the evil print manufacturer gave me, in hindsight, an unreasonable amount of pleasure in what amounts to a very small material gain. By comparison, I likely would have considered it a chore fixing a broken printer.

This has a similar flavor to the classic paper Fairness as a Constraint on Profit Seeking by Kahneman, Knetch, and Thaler. They explain several market anomalies by proposing that actions of otherwise profit-maximizing firms are restricted by the consumers' preferences for fairness. The definition of "fairness" is however hard to pin down, not surprisingly since the strategic and social context vary greatly. People typically agree that raising the price of a snow shovel after a snow storm is unfair; 82% in their survey rated an increase of $15 to $20 as unfair (rather stingy of the respondents I think).

They catalogue some different situations where fairness norms are violated, for example, exploitation of increased market power or protecting profits. Maybe what's tying all these together is the role of intentions in fairness interpretations. Steve and I have an upcoming perspective discussing this, so stay tuned (to all 5 of you reading).

Radio Interview

Yesterday I participated in a live radio interview with the Edmonton radio program Skeptically Speaking. It was quite fun and had very well-informed audience questions. There was even one question about how our research applies to game theory, which is exactly what we are doing these days.

The last question from the hosts kind of stumped me though. It was something like, "If there was a song that described your life arc, what song would it be?" After the show Desiree told me one previous answer was the Imperial march from Star Wars, which is pretty good. I have nothing to rival that. I've thought about it and still can't think of anything. Maybe Dirt Off Your Shoulders, but I don't even like that song.

Anyway I am looking forward to getting the podcast soon. Here's hoping that everything sounds better on air, or over iTunes in this case.

Update (5/4): The episode is up now. A couple of thoughts.

  1. It's hard to keep things on a lay level. I made a conscious effort at the beginning but it was hard to maintain. Science blogs complain bitterly about the media butchering their science reporting. They are certainly right in some cases, but what gets overlooked is just how difficult it is to be engaging without overloading on jargon and details. It doesn't help that people tend to fixate on the headlines, which to me seems harder to write and typically not even written by the author of the article.
  2. The length of the show (~40min) surprised me. And since it started recording at 7PM CST, I was totally starving and noticeably running out of steam towards the end. If it had gone on further I would have either ordered take out or starting speaking in tongues.