Neuroeconomics

Welcome to Zhihao Zhang

Welcome to Zhihao Zhang to the lab as a postdoc fellow. Zhihao obtained his Neurobiology PhD at Yale School of Medicine. He will be jointly working with our lab and the Kayser lab on some exciting studies combining fMRI, pharmacology, and computational modeling.

Welcome to Zuzanna Balewski

Welcome to Zuzanna Balewski to the lab as a Neuroscience program rotation student. She will be working with Ignacio Saez on electrocorticography studies of economic decision-making.

Early Career Award to Ming Hsu

Prof. Ming Hsu received the Early Career Award at the 2015 Society for Neuroeconomics conference!

Welcome Nick Angelides and Paul Krueger

Welcome Nick Angelides and Paul Krueger to the lab!

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Nick is starting as a PhD student in the Cognitive Neuroscience group in Psychology. Nick received his B.A. from Rutgers University and M.St. from the University of Oxford. He joins us after working with the lab of Tim Vickery on economic decision-making. He is interested in the intersection of social and economic decision-making. His research aims to characterize the neural mechanisms underlying competitive and cooperative behavior using machine learning pattern classification methods, and modulating dopamine systems using pharmacological tools.

Paul is also starting as a PhD student in the Cognitive Neuroscience group in Psychology. Paul received his B.A. from Princeton where he worked in the lab of Jonathan Cohen. Uniquely among psychology students, Paul is putting together his own lab rotation, where he will be working with Sonia Bishop and Rich Ivry.

NiB: Neuroscience in Business Schools

Along with Uma Karmarkar, Vinod Ventrakamen, and Carolyn Yoon, we have started a group to connect neuroscience researchers in business-related fields. The idea came from a conversation we had at the 2014 Association for Consumer Research meetings on how to promote neuroscience research in consumer research and marketing. Among the many challenges, two in particular seemed ripe for tackling with something as simple as a mailing list.

First, a neuroscientist in a marketing department will likely find him/herself to be the first and only one there. More importantly, interdisciplinary fields inevitably result in mixing of researchers coming from very different backgrounds, especially when we consider across business-related disciplines, for example between marketing, management, finance.

To address this, we created a Neuroscience in Business google group to connect neuroscience researchers in business-related fields, and to provide a resource for those interested in the area. To add please go to the webpage to sign up. Below is a brief description.

Welcome to Neuroscience in Business (NiB)! This is a group for connecting academics in business schools who are using neuroscience methods, created by Ming Hsu, Uma Karmarkar, Vinod Ventrakamen, and Carolyn Yoon. The use of neuroscientific theories and tools in business research is growing rapidly, but is still quite novel for many business schools. In addition, people in these areas may come from very different disciplinary backgrounds. We aim to build stronger bonds in this community and increase the potential for collaboration, sharing resources, and improving training, by connecting researchers in various business-related fields who are incorporating theories and data from the biological sciences. Please join us if you are either (i) a researcher in a business-related field using (or looking to use) neuroscience theories and data in your research, or (ii) a researcher in the biological sciences working on business-related topics of interest.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Example
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.

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

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).

Schadenfreude

Just read the recent paper on neural correlates of envy and schadenfreude. Interesting overall but I'd rather they used something other than imaginary scenarios. One interesting side effect of the financial crisis is the number of overt displays of schadenfreude on the Internet. I particularly like this choice bit from the Monkey Cage:

It’ll be interesting to see whether academic starting salaries in economics fall due to the diminished demand. Somehow, I suspect that economists will cook up some new rationales that they can offer to beleaguered deans about why economists’ salaries should remain higher than what the rest of us make.

Given all of these studies are in universities, it wouldn't be too difficult to show a group of political scientists (actually you have your pick of disciplines) the pictures of their economist colleagues. I can almost see the twinkle of bemused malice in their eyes at offering $1 out of 10 to their economist colleagues in an ultimatum game. The parity in faculty compensation in Japan though is going to make this difficult. So, if you are a political scientist and genuinely enjoy seeing the misfortunes of your economics colleagues, please email me to volunteer for my new study, which I call, "Haterade in the Ivory Tower".

P.S. I don't mean to pick on the Monkey Cage. I like the blog and the entry is amusing and certainly not mean-spirited. If you are looking for the latter though, you'd be hard pressed to top this group.

Brain Atlas

Every now and then I get asked for a reference to pick up the necessary neuroanatomy knowledge to read a neuroimaging or neurophysiology paper. Unfortunately I didn't have a very good answer. The references were either too comprehensive (and typically expensive) or too low level (and also expensive). Not exactly good combinations for people who don't have the time to go through texts aimed at first year medical school course on neuroanatomy. Luckily this semester Eve Gallman is sitting in my class and pointed me to a Woolsey paperback brain atlas. It has a nice clean look, unlike some other atlases that are overloaded with details. Really, if it's hard to tell which words go with which arrows pointing to which brain areas, it is probably confusing to the reader.

Neuroeconomics in NYTimes

The Freakonomics blog at the New York Times this week has a post by Andrew Lo on how neuroscience is shedding light on the current financial crisis. This is always going to be a contentious claim, so I think perhaps a better way to say this is: neuroscience is providing additional evidence that factors outside of the standard theory, like fear and ambiguity aversion, influence behavior. Many will say that this is a "straw man" and that of course everyone knows fear matters. I get that kind of argument quite a bit during seminars. But I don't see how this is a straw man and it is "obvious" only in hindsight. Here is a quote from Colin Camerer in Economics and Philosophy that I particularly like on the topic:

A typical dictionary definition of a “straw man” is this: “To argue against a straw man is to interpret someone’s position in an unfairly weak way, and so argue against a position that nobody holds, or is likely to hold.”... A good example is self-interested preferences. This preference specification is clearly not a straw man because that simple form of preference is actually used in many types of analysis... Furthermore, belief in self-interest is not a position nobody holds because it is often clearly espoused...

Also, if one thinks it is an obvious point that fear influences risk attitude, then it should be useful to measure, say, the effects of fear on stock prices. But how does one measure the independent variable--fear? You could go around surveying traders, but you're stuck with self-report and low temporal resolution data in the best of times. Or you could measure things like galvanic skin response in real-time like Lo and Repin did, which at least gets you some indication of physiological and emotional arousal. Is this ideal? Of course not, but short of sticking electrodes in brains of traders like we do in monkey neurophysiology studies, these are the best measures we have.