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.

Welcome to Kenji Kobayashi

Welcome to the newest addition to our lab, Kenji Kobayashi. Kenji is a PhD candidate in Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute. He is interested in neural mechanisms of model-based decision-making in human. Current research topics include how to evaluate importance of information from the environment, how to incorporate it into our belief, and how to produce adaptive behavior based on it. He received his B.S. and M.S. degrees from the University of Tokyo, Japan.

Welcome to Anna Jenkins

Welcome to our newest member of the lab, Adrianna (Anna) Jenkins! Anna recently received her Ph.D. from Harvard University in Psychology, and is joining us as a postdoctoral researcher. Anna investigates how individuals reason about what is unknown or uncertain, including inferences about others' mental states (theory-of-mind or mentalizing) and predictions about the future (prospection). More generally, Anna is interested in the degree to which human social reasoning relies on processes unique to humans and specialized for social cognition versus on more common, general-purpose mechanisms.