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The Legal Brain

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 9, 2009

Brain CogsJohannes Haushofer and Ernst Fehr have a helpful review article, “The Legal Brain: How Does the Brain Make Judgments about Crimes?,” in Scientific American. Here’s an excerpt.

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Imagine you are serving on a jury: the defendant is charged with murder, but he also suffers from a brain tumor that causes erratic behavior. Is he to be held responsible for the crime? Now imagine you are the judge: What should the defendant’s sentence be? Does the tumor count as a mitigating circumstance?

The assignment of responsibility and the choice of an appropriate punishment lie at the heart of our justice system. At the same time, these are cognitive processes like many others—reasoning, remembering, decision-making—and as such must originate in the brain. These two facts lead to the intriguing question: How does the brain enable judges, juries, and you and me to perform these tasks? What are the neural mechanisms that let you decide whether someone is guilty or innocent?

A recent study published in the December 2008 issue of the journal Neuron, by Joshua Buckholtz and his colleagues at Vanderbilt University tackles exactly this question. Until recently, such topics would have been out of the reach of cognitive neuroscience for lack of methods; today, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) allows researchers to watch the brain “in action” as normal human participants make decisions about responsibility and punishment. In the new study, Buckholtz and colleagues asked participants to read vignettes describing hypothetical crimes that a fictitious agent, “John,” commits against another person. The stories were divided into three conditions: in the first, the “responsibility” (R) condition, the perpetrator was fully responsible for the negative consequences of his action against the victim; for instance, John might have intentionally pushed his fiancée’s lover off a cliff. In the “diminished responsibility” (DR) condition, mitigating circumstances were present that reduced John’s responsibility; imagine that John committed the same crime, but suffered from a brain tumor.

And finally, the “no crime” (NC) condition consisted of stories that did not describe crimes. The participants had to make judgments regarding the degree of punishment that John should receive, on a scale from one to nine.

The authors then analyzed the brain activation linked to these judgments. To identify neural correlates of responsibility, they contrasted activation in the R and DR conditions. Note that the stories in two conditions are identical, except for the degree to which John is responsible for his crime. This contrast thus aims to identify which regions of the brain are involved in assigning responsibility for a crime, holding constant the crime itself. Buckholtz and colleagues found a peak of activation in the right doroslateral prefrontal cortex (rDLPFC), a brain region on the top surface of the right frontal lobe that is known to be involved in high-level cognitive processes such as reasoning and decision-making. In addition, this same region was more active when subjects thought a diminished-responsibility crime deserved punishment compared with when it did not.

Thus, these findings suggest that rDLPFC might be involved in assigning responsibility for crimes, or making judgments about appropriate punishments. Based on this finding, one might have expected that activation in rDLPFC should be higher when participants decide that very severe punishments are appropriate. Buckholtz and colleagues found no correlation between neural activation and punishment magnitude in rDLPFC, however, suggesting that this brain region does not directly underlie the decision on the amount of punishment. In contrast, there was some evidence that activation in emotion-related areas, such as the amygdala, correlates with the degree of punishment subjects assign to John: higher punishment scores were associated with higher activation in these regions during the decision period.

Reconciling the Findings

Have we found, then, the brain center for jurisprudence? Probably not: the brain regions identified in this new study, in particular right DLPFC, have previously been highlighted in a number of other studies addressing related but slightly different questions. Unifying patterns do exist, however. We therefore first describe some related studies, and then outline a possible reconciliation between the different findings.

What does rDLPFC do when it isn’t busy assigning responsibility for crimes? One answer comes from a study by Alan Sanfey and colleagues in 2003: these authors found activation in rDLPFC when subjects decided whether to accept or reject a low offer in a two-person economic game called Ultimatum Game. In addition, Daria Knoch and her colleagues in 2006 found that when rDLPFC was deactivated with a technique called repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), participants became less able to reject low offers in this game, although they still judged these offers as very unfair. A different line of work by Joshua Greene and colleagues in 2004 suggests that rDLPFC may be involved in moral reasoning. They presented participants with moral dilemmas such as the decision whether or not to kill one’s own crying child to keep it raising the attention of enemy soldiers and thereby endangering the whole group. The rDLPFC region was activated when subjects acted in the interest of greater overall welfare, against their emotional impulses. Finally, rDLPFC was also highlighted by another study involving social decision-making by Manfred Spitzer and colleagues in 2007: these authors asked participants how much of their wealth they wanted to share with another player. This amount wasn’t very much, usually—unless participants were threatened with punishment. Under the punishment threat, participants transferred more money, and rDLPFC was more active. Moreover, the more subjects changed their behavior under the punishment threat relative to the situation without a threat, the more rDLPFC was activated, suggesting that rDLPFC played a key role in adapting behavior when facing the sanctioning threat.

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To read the rest of the article, including Haushofer and Fehr’s discussion of the “big picture,” click here.

For some related Situationist posts, see “Moral Psychology Primer,” The Interior Situation of Complex Human Feelings,” “Smart People Thinking about People Thinking about People Thinking,” “Attributing Blame — from the Baseball Diamond to the War on Terror,” “Read My Brain – From Science Friday,” “Mapping the Social Brain,” and “The Science of Morality,”

Posted in Experimental Philosophy, Morality, Neuroscience | 2 Comments »

Situationism in the News

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 11, 2009

situationism-in-the-news

Below, we’ve posted titles and a brief quotation from some of the Situationist news items that we did not already devote individual posts to from late 2008. (They are listed in alphabetical order by source.)

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From MSNBC: “Julia Roberts was born with a beautiful smile”

“From sneers to full-blown smiles, our facial expressions are hardwired into our genes, suggests a new study.  The researchers compared the facial expressions from more than 4,800 photographs of sighted and blind judo athletes at the 2004 Summer Olympics and Paralympic Games.  The analyses showed sighted and blind individuals modified their expressions of emotion in the same way in accordance with the social context.” Read more . . .

From New York Times: “Four Decades After Milgram, We’re Still Willing to Inflict Pain”

“In 1963, Stanley Milgram, an assistant professor of psychology at Yale, published his infamous experiment on obedience to authority. Its conclusion was that most ordinary people were willing to administer what they believed to be painful, even dangerous, electric shocks to innocent people if a man in a white lab coat told them to.  For the first time in four decades, a researcher has repeated the Milgram experiment to find out whether, after all we have learned in the last 45 years, Americans are still as willing to inflict pain out of blind obedience.” Read more . . .

From Oprah Magazine: How Brain Science May Change the Way We Live

“It’s been only a decade or so since the world got hardwired, “Google” became a verb, and texting turned into a lifestyle. But if you’re still struggling to thumb a message, brace yourself: A whole new revolution in neuroscience is about to shake up our world.” Read more . . .

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To read the previous installment of “Situationism on the News,” click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Life, Neuroscience, Social Psychology | Leave a Comment »

A Neural Perspective on “Efficiency versus Equity” – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 10, 2009

Ming Hsu, Cédric Anen, and Steven R. Quartz, recently published a report titled “The Right and the Good: Distributive Justice and Neural Encoding of Equity and Efficiency” (in 320 Science 1092 – 1095 (2008)).  Here’s the abstract.

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Distributive justice concerns how individuals and societies distribute benefits and burdens in a just or moral manner. We combined distribution choices with functional magnetic resonance imaging to investigate the central problem of distributive justice: the trade-off between equity and efficiency. We found that the putamen responds to efficiency, whereas the insula encodes inequity, and the caudate/septal subgenual region encodes a unified measure of efficiency and inequity (utility). Notably, individual differences in inequity aversion correlate with activity in inequity and utility regions. Against utilitarianism, our results support the deontological intuition that a sense of fairness is fundamental to distributive justice but, as suggested by moral sentimentalists, is rooted in emotional processing. More generally, emotional responses related to norm violations may underlie individual differences in equity considerations and adherence to ethical rules.

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For a brief, helpful summary of the report on BPS Research Digest, click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Distribution, Emotions, Neuroscience, Philosophy | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

John Darley on “Justice as Intuitions” – Video

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 3, 2009

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At the 2007 Project on Law and Mind Sciences Conference, John Darley’s talk was titled “Justice as Intuitions.”  Here is the abstract for his talk.

When a person receives a description of an individual committing a specific crime, the person rapidly forms judgments on the severity of the offense and the duration of appropriate punishment for it. Evidence is converging that those judgments are what we would now call “intuitive” judgments. Rather than being the result of a reason-guided, step-by-step analysis, the severity and punishment judgments seem simply to “pop into” the heads of the respondents. Thus, they are similar to the heuristics, biases, and other shortcut decisions that we all use, as documented by the judgment and decision-making researchers. Imaging
research suggests that these intuitions draw on both evaluative and emotional areas of the brain. Behavioral research demonstrates that these intuitions are driven by intuitive ideas of “just deserts” (i.e., retributive reactions rather than more reason-based deterrent or incapacitive considerations). The high degree of consensus within cultures on these judgments
suggests that they are learned through early socialization processes, perhaps building on evolutionarily prepared cognitive structures.

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This “justice as intuitions” account has several implications for the judicial system. Most disturbingly, evidence demonstrates that legal codes that contradict these culturally shared intuitions will move citizens toward moral contempt for the justice system and lessened willingness to voluntarily “obey the law.” Rule-of-law practices need reconsideration in the light of an understanding of the basic shared notions within the population about right and wrong. Finally, we will examine how such actions as “insider trading” can be framed so that citizens will find them appropriately criminalized, and why some public welfare offenses are difficult to intuit as crimes.

Below you can watch a video of Darley’s fascinating presentation (26 minutes).

For related Situationist posts, see Why We Punish,” “Kevin Jon Heller on The Cognitive Psychology of Mens Rea,” and “First Conference on Law and Mind Sciences.”

To watch similar videos, visit the video libraries on the Project on Law and Mind Sciences website (here).

For information on the Third PLMS conference (scheduled for March 7, 2009), click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Emotions, Law, Legal Theory, Morality, Neuroscience, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Rich Brains, Poor Brains?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 3, 2008

From a University of California, Bekeley press release, “EEGs show brain differences between poor and rich kids,” by Robert Sanders.

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University of California, Berkeley, researchers have shown for the first time that the brains of low-income children function differently from the brains of high-income kids.

In a study recently accepted for publication by the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, scientists at UC Berkeley’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and the School of Public Health report that normal 9- and 10-year-olds differing only in socioeconomic status have detectable differences in the response of their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is critical for problem solving and creativity.

Brain function was measured by means of an electroencephalograph (EEG) – basically, a cap fitted with electrodes to measure electrical activity in the brain – like that used to assess epilepsy, sleep disorders and brain tumors.

“Kids from lower socioeconomic levels show brain physiology patterns similar to someone who actually had damage in the frontal lobe as an adult,” said Robert Knight, director of the institute and a UC Berkeley professor of psychology. “We found that kids are more likely to have a low response if they have low socioeconomic status, though not everyone who is poor has low frontal lobe response.”

Previous studies have shown a possible link between frontal lobe function and behavioral differences in children from low and high socioeconomic levels, but according to cognitive psychologist Mark Kishiyama, first author of the new paper, “those studies were only indirect measures of brain function and could not disentangle the effects of intelligence, language proficiency and other factors that tend to be associated with low socioeconomic status. Our study is the first with direct measure of brain activity where there is no issue of task complexity.”

Co-author W. Thomas Boyce, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of public health who currently is the British Columbia Leadership Chair of Child Development at the University of British Columbia (UBC), is not surprised by the results. “We know kids growing up in resource-poor environments have more trouble with the kinds of behavioral control that the prefrontal cortex is involved in regulating. But the fact that we see functional differences in prefrontal cortex response in lower socioeconomic status kids is definitive.”

Boyce, a pediatrician and developmental psychobiologist, heads a joint UC Berkeley/UBC research program called WINKS – Wellness in Kids – that looks at how the disadvantages of growing up in low socioeconomic circumstances change children’s basic neural development over the first several years of life.

“This is a wake-up call,” Knight said. “It’s not just that these kids are poor and more likely to have health problems, but they might actually not be getting full brain development from the stressful and relatively impoverished environment associated with low socioeconomic status: fewer books, less reading, fewer games, fewer visits to museums.”

Kishiyama, Knight and Boyce suspect that the brain differences can be eliminated by proper training. They are collaborating with UC Berkeley neuroscientists who use games to improve the prefrontal cortex function, and thus the reasoning ability, of school-age children.

“It’s not a life sentence,” Knight emphasized. “We think that with proper intervention and training, you could get improvement in both behavioral and physiological indices.”

Kishiyama, Knight, Boyce and their colleagues selected 26 children ages 9 and 10 from a group of children in the WINKS study. Half were from families with low incomes and half from families with high incomes. For each child, the researchers measured brain activity while he or she was engaged in a simple task: watching a sequence of triangles projected on a screen. The subjects were instructed to click a button when a slightly skewed triangle flashed on the screen.

The researchers were interested in the brain’s very early response – within as little as 200 milliseconds, or a fifth of a second – after a novel picture was flashed on the screen, such as a photo of a puppy or of Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

“An EEG allows us to measure very fast brain responses with millisecond accuracy,” Kishiyama said.

The researchers discovered a dramatic difference in the response of the prefrontal cortex not only when an unexpected image flashed on the screen, but also when children were merely watching the upright triangles waiting for a skewed triangle to appear. Those from low socioeconomic environments showed a lower response to the unexpected novel stimuli in the prefrontal cortex that was similar, Kishiyama said, to the response of people who have had a portion of their frontal lobe destroyed by a stroke.

“When paying attention to the triangles, the prefrontal cortex helps you process the visual stimuli better. And the prefrontal cortex is even more involved in detecting novelty, like the unexpected photographs,” he said. But in both cases, “the low socioeconomic kids were not detecting or processing the visual stimuli as well. They were not getting that extra boost from the prefrontal cortex.”

“These kids have no neural damage, no prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol, no neurological damage,” Kishiyama said. “Yet, the prefrontal cortex is not functioning as efficiently as it should be. This difference may manifest itself in problem solving and school performance.”

The researchers suspect that stressful environments and cognitive impoverishment are to blame, since in animals, stress and environmental deprivation have been shown to affect the prefrontal cortex. UC Berkeley’s Marian Diamond, professor emeritus of integrative biology, showed nearly 20 years ago in rats that enrichment thickens the cerebral cortex as it improves test performance. And as Boyce noted, previous studies have shown that children from poor families hear 30 million fewer words by the time they are four than do kids from middle-class families.

“In work that we and others have done, it really looks like something as simple and easily done as talking to your kids” can boost prefrontal cortex performance, Boyce said.

“We are certainly not blaming lower socioeconomic families for not talking to their kids – there are probably a zillion reasons why that happens,” he said. “But changing developmental outcomes might involve something as accessible as helping parents to understand that it is important that kids sit down to dinner with their parents, and that over the course of that dinner it would be good for there to be a conversation and people saying things to each other.”

“The study is suggestive and a little bit frightening that environmental conditions have such a strong impact on brain development,” said Silvia Bunge, UC Berkeley assistant professor of psychology who is leading the intervention studies on prefrontal cortex development in teenagers by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Boyce’s UBC colleague, Adele Diamond, showed last year that 5- and 6-year-olds with impaired executive functioning, that is, poor problem solving and reasoning abilities, can improve their academic performance with the help of special activities, including dramatic play.

Bunge hopes that, with fMRI, she can show improvements in academic performance as a result of these games, actually boosting the activity of the prefrontal cortex.

“People have tried for a long time to train reasoning, largely unsuccessfully,” Bunge said. “Our question is, ‘Can we replicate these initial findings and at the same time give kids the tools to succeed?'”

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For a related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of I.Q.,” “A (Situationist) Body of Thought,” “The Perils of “Being Smart” (or Not So Much),” and “Wise Parents Don’t Have “Smart” Kids.”

Posted in Education, Neuroscience | Tagged: , , , , | 7 Comments »

Situationism in the Blogosphere – October, Part III

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 1, 2008

Below, we’ve posted titles and a brief quotation from some of our favorite non-Situationist situationist blogging during October 2008. (They are listed in alphabetical order by source.)

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From Nueronarrative: “Certainty Takes the Stand: A Discussion with Robert Burton

“In On Being Certain, neurologist Robert Burton challenges his readers to ask one of the most basic—and crucial—of questions: how do we know what we know? With an engaging, conversational style, he tackles the neuropsychological underpinnings of belief and certainty, carefully examining these ubiquitous dynamics in light of what is known about how the mind works.” Read more . . .

From Nueronarrative: “The Lucifer Effect: An Interview with Dr. Philip Zimbardo

“Social psychologist [and Situationist contributor] Philip Zimbardo has been studying the anatomy of human psychology for nearly four decades. In the summer of 1971, Dr. Zimbardo created the classic Stanford Prison Experiment, a simulation of prison life that investigated a provocative question: what happens when you put good people in an evil place? The results were dramatic, and launched a decades-long journey to discover how situational forces and group dynamics can work in concert to make monsters out of decent men and women. . . . In The Lucifer Effect, Dr. Zimbardo takes the reader through this often dark journey, and in the process sheds light on topics ranging from corporate malfeasance to torture at Abu Ghraib to organized genocide.” Read more . . .

From Psychology Today: “A dollar is a dollar is a dollar…Right?

“Despite the great flexibility that money permits us, people have trouble treating every dollar the same as every other dollar. Here are two examples.” Read more . . .

From Psychology Today: “The Kid-Ceiling: Women Feel It Long Before Seeing Glass-Ceiling

“The kid-ceiling seems to have little or no effect on Sarah Palin, but for most women who work having a family alters their income, their ability to advance, and their well-being. All is not right in the world of women’s work and the glaring deficiencies force women to move in the direction of the smaller, new traditional family. In this post I look at some of the more telling issues and facts. The more children you have, the more likely you’ll feel the impact of the kid-ceiling long before you see the glass-ceiling.” Read more . . .

From The Splintered Mind: “Six Ways to Know Your Mind

“Philosophers often provide accounts of self-knowledge as though we knew our own minds either entirely or predominantly in just one way (Jesse Prinz is a good exception to the rule, though). But let me count the ways (saving the fun ones for the end).”  Read more . . .

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For previous installments of “Situationism on the Blogosphere,” click on the “Blogroll” category in the right margin.

Posted in Abstracts, Blogroll, Book, Classic Experiments, Life, Naive Cynicism, Neuroscience, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Marc Hauser on the Situation of Morality

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 1, 2008

On the heals of yesterday’s post about Marc Hauser’s research, we thought the following videos would be of interest to our readers (viewers).

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From TheTechMuseum: Understanding Genetics – An interview with Marc Hauser at the Future of Science Conference in Venice, Italy September 2006.

Part 1 (3:40): You’ve written that the human sense of right and wrong has evolved. If we have a moral instinct, why did it evolve? What are the advantages?.

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Part 2 (1:52): So the ramifications here are enormous, for parenting, school, religion. Isn’t that where most people think they get their sense of right and wrong from?

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Part 3 (2:52): If our moral instinct, and guilt along with it, are inherited, do you foresee a way in the future to pinpoint that this gene does this, or this gene does that?

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Part 4 (3:18): Are we still evolving? If so, is our moral instinct evolving as well?

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Part 5 (3:07): Some think we’re not evolving anymore, that natural selection requires isolation. You don’t share that view?

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Part 6 (4:14): Let’s talk about evolution in the United States. If you don’t accept evolution, how can you learn biology? Or genetics?

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Part 7 (2:28): How do you see the issue of evolution and education?

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For some related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Innate Morality,” “Moral Psychology Primer,” “Pinker on the Situation of Morality,” and “The Science of Morality.”

Posted in Education, Morality, Neuroscience, Uncategorized, Video | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Financial Risk-Taking

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 24, 2008

Liar’s Poker[This post was first published in February of 2008.]

In 1986, Salomon Brothers, an investment bank, was known as “the King of Wall Street.” The Salomon atmosphere has since been hilariously depicted in Michael Lewis‘s now-classic Liar’s Poker, in which he recounts his experiences at the firm. He opens the book with the following anecdote.

It was sometime early in 1986, the first year of the decline of my firm, Salomon Brothers. Our chairman, John Gutfreund, left his desk at the head of the trading floor and went for a walk. At any given moment on the trading floor billions of dollars were being risked by bond traders. Gutfreund took the pulse of the place by simply wandering around it and asking questions of the traders. An eerie sixth sense guided him to wherever a crisis was unfolding. Gutfreund seemed able to smell money being lost.

He was the last person a nerve-racked trader wanted to see. Gutfreund (pronounced Good friend) liked to sneak up from behind and surprise you. This was fun for him but not for you. . . . You felt a chill in your bones that I imagine belongs to the same class of intelligence as the nervous twitch of a small furry animal at the silent approach of a grizzly bear. An alarm shrieked in your head: Gutfreund! Gutfreund! Gutfreund!

Often as not, our chairman just hovered quietly for a bit, then left. You might never have seen him. The only trace I found of him on two of these occasions was a turd-like ash on the floor beside my chair, left, I suppose, as a calling card. Gutfreund’s cigar droppings were longer and better formed than those of the average Salomon boss. I always assumed that he smoked a more expensive blend than the rest, purchased with a few of the $40 million he had cleared on the sale of SalomonBrothers in 1981 (or a few of the $3. 1 million he paid himself in 1986,more than any other Wall Street CEO).

This day in 1986, however, Gutfreund did something strange. Instead of terrifying us all, he walked a straight line to the trading desk of John Meriwether, a member of the board of Salomon Inc. and also one of Salomon’s finest bond traders. He whispered a few words. The traders in the vicinity eavesdropped. What Gutfreund said has become a legend at Salomon Brothers and a visceral part of its corporate identity. He said: “One hand, one million dollars, no tears. “

One hand, one million dollars, no tears. Meriwether grabbed the meaning instantly. The King of Wall Street, as Business Week had dubbed Gutfreund, wanted to play a single hand of a game called Liar’s Poker for a million dollars. He played the game most afternoons with Meriwether and the six young bond arbitrage traders who worked for Meriwether and was usually skinned alive. Some traders said Gutfreund was heavily outmatched. Others who couldn’t imagine John Gutfreund as anything but omnipotent-and there were many said that losing suited his purpose, though exactly what that might be was a mystery.

The peculiar feature of Gutfreund’s challenge this time was the size of the stake. Normally his bets didn’t exceed a few hundred dollars. A million was unheard of. The final two words of his challenge, “no tears, ” meant that the loser was expected to suffer a great deal of pain but wasn’t entitled to whine, bitch, or moan about it. He’d just have to hunker down and keep his poverty to himself. But why? You might ask if you were anyone other than the King of Wall Street. Why do it in the first place? Why, in particular, challenge Meriwether instead of some lesser managing director? It seemed an act of sheer lunacy. Meriwether was the King of the Game, the Liar’s Poker champion of the Salomon Brothers trading floor.

On the other hand, one thing you learn on a trading floor is that winners like Gutfreund always have some reason for what they do; it might not be the best of reasons, but at least they have a concept in mind. I was not privy to Gutfreund’s innermost thoughts, but I do know that all the boys on the trading floor gambled and that he wanted badly to be one of the boys. What I think Gutfreund had in mind in this instance was a desire to show his courage, like the boy who leaps from the high dive. Who better than Meriwether for the purpose? Besides, Meriwether was probably the only trader with both the cash and the nerve to play.

The whole absurd situation needs putting into context. John Meriwether had, in the course of his career, made hundreds of millions of dollars for Salomon Brothers. He had an ability, rare among people and treasured by traders, to hide his state of mind. Most traders divulge whether they are making or losing money by the way they speak or move. They are either overly easy or overly tense. With Meriwether you could never, ever tell. He wore the same blank half-tense expression when he won as he did when he lost. He had, I think, a profound ability to control the two emotions that commonly destroy traders fear and greed and it made him as noble as a man who pursues his self-interest so fiercely can be. He was thought by many within Salomon to be the best bond trader on Wall Street. Around Salomon no tone but awe was used when he was discussed. People would say, “He’s the best businessman in the place,” or “the best risk taker I have ever seen,” or “a very dangerous Liar’s Poker player.”

Meriwether cast a spell over the young traders who worked for him. His boys ranged in age from twenty-five to thirty-two (he was about forty). Most of them had Ph.D.’s in math, economics, and/or physics. Once they got onto Meriwether’s trading desk, however, they forgot Financial Risksthey were supposed to be detached intellectuals. They became disciples. They became obsessed by the game of Liar’s Poker. They regarded it as their game. And they took it to a new level of seriousness.

John Gutfreund was always the outsider in their game. That Business Week put his picture on the cover and called him the King of Wall Street held little significance for them. I mean, that was, in a way, the whole point. Gutfreund was the King of Wall Street, but Meriwether was King of the Game. When Gutfreund had been crowned by the gentlemen of the press, you could almost hear traders thinking: Foolish names and foolish faces often appear in public places. . . .

At times Gutfreund himself seemed to agree. He loved to trade. Compared with managing, trading was admirably direct. You made your bets and either you won or you lost. When you won, people will the way up to the top of the firm admired you, envied you, and feared you, and with reason: You controlled the loot. When you managed a firm, well, sure you received your quota of envy, fear, and admiration. But for all the wrong reasons, you did not make the money for Salomon. You did not take risk. You were hostage to your producers. They took risk. They proved their superiority every day by handling risk better than the rest of the risk-taking world. The money came from risk takers such as Meriwether, and whether it came or not was really beyond Gutfreund’s control. That’s why many people thought that the single rash act of challenging the arbitrage boss to one hand for a million dollars was Gutfreund’s way of showing he was a player, too. And if you wanted to show off, Liar’s Poker was the only way to go. The game had a powerful meaning for traders. People like John Meriwether believed that Liar’s Poker had a lot in common with bond trading. It tested a trader’s character. It honed a trader’s instincts. A good player made a good trader, and vice versa. We all understood it.

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The game has some of the feel of trading, just as jousting has some of the feel of war. The questions a Liar’s Poker player asks himself are, up to a point, the same questions a bond trader asks himself. Is this a smart risk? Do I feel lucky? How cunning is my opponent? Does he have any idea what he’s doing, and if not, how do I exploit his ignorance? . . . .

The code of the Liar’s Poker player was something like the code of the gunslinger. It required a trader to accept all challenges.

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You can can read the end of the anecdote here. Our point is to illustrate just how significant the craving for financial risk-taking often is, particularly among those who spend a great deal of time taking such risks. Fascinating recent research by neuroeconomists is teaching us more about the nature and extent of that urge. In yesterday’s New York Times, Jenny Anderson has an article, titled “Craving the High That Risky Trading Can Bring,” summarizing some of those findings. To provide a sense of her article, which is worth the read, we’ve included a few tidbits below.

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A small group of scientists, including some psychologists, say they are starting to discover what many Wall Street professionals have long suspected — that people are hard-wired for money. The human brain, these researchers say, responds to high-stakes trading just as it does to the lure of sex. And the riskier the trades get, the more the brain craves them.

. . . . That is no surprise to Brian Knutson, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Stanford University and a pioneer in neurofinance, an emerging field that combines psychology, neuroscience and economics, to examine how the brain makes decisions.

Mr. Knutson has sent volunteers through high-power imaging machines to map their brains as they trade. He concludes that sometimes, people get high on making money.

“The more you think you can gain from the risk, the more you take the risk and the more activation in the circuitry,” Mr. Knutson said.

* * * Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist, showed that individuals do not always act rationally when faced with uncertainty in decision making. When faced with losses, individuals may seek to take more risk rather than less, contrary to what traditional economic thought might suggest.

“When you are threatened with extinction, you act like nothing matters,” said Andrew Lo, a professor at M.I.T. who has studied the roleStock Traders of emotions in trading. . . .

Mr. Lo and Dmitry V. Repin of Boston University have studied traders to determine how stress and emotions affect investment returns. They monitored traders’ vital signs like heart rate, body temperature and respiration as their subjects darted in and out of trades.

The findings, while preliminary, suggest — perhaps unsurprisingly — that traders who let their emotions get the best of them tend to fare poorly in the markets. But traders who rely on logic alone don’t do that well either. The most successful ones use their emotions to their advantage without letting the feelings overwhelm them.

“The best traders are the ones who have controlled emotional responses,” Mr. Lo said. “Professional athletes have the same reaction — they use emotion to psych them up, but they don’t let those emotions take them over.”

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For related Situationist posts, check out “The Situational Rewards of Wages” and “The Situational Character Goes to the Mall.”

Posted in Behavioral Economics, Neuroeconomics, Neuroscience | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Interior Situation of Complex Human Feelings

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 16, 2008

Michael Craig Miller, M.D. has a helpful article, “Sad Brain, Happy Brain,” in this week’s Newsweek.  Here are some excerpts.

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The brain is the mind is the brain. One hundred billion nerve cells, give or take, none of which individually has the capacity to feel or to reason, yet together generating consciousness. For about 400 years, following the ideas of French philosopher René Descartes, those who thought about its nature considered the mind related to the body, but separate from it. In this model—often called “dualism” or the mind-body problem—the mind was “immaterial,” not anchored in anything physical. Today neuroscientists are finding abundant evidence . . . that separating mind from brain makes no sense. Nobel Prize-winning psychiatrist-neuroscientist Eric Kandel stated it directly in a watershed paper published in 1998: “All mental processes, even the most complex psychological processes, derive from operations of the brain.”

Neuroscientists consider it settled that the mind arises from the cooperation of billions of interconnected cells that, individually, are no smarter than amoebae. But it’s a shocking idea to some that the human mind could arise out of such an array of mindlessness. Many express amazement that emotions, pain, sexual feelings or religious belief could be a product of brain function. They are put off by the notion that such rich experiences could be reduced to mechanical or chemical bits. Or they worry that scientific explanations may seduce people into a kind of moral laziness that provides a ready excuse for any human failing: “My brain made me do it.” Our brains indeed do make us do it, but that is nonetheless consistent with meaningful lives and moral choices. Writing for the President’s Council on Bioethics earlier this year, philosopher Daniel Dennett made the point that building knowledge about the biology of mental life may improve our decision making, even our moral decision making. And it could enhance our chances of survival as a species, too.

. . . . The brain is responsible for most of what you care about—language, creativity, imagination, empathy and morality. And it is the repository of all that you feel. The endeavor to discovery the biological basis for these complex human experiences has given rise to a relatively new discipline: cognitive neuroscience. . . .

. . . .Neuroscientists . . . have a rapidly growing appreciation of the emotional brain and are beginning to look closely at these subjective states, which were formerly the province of philosophers and poets. It is complex science that holds great promise for improving the quality of life. Fortunately, understanding basic principles does not require an advanced degree.

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Fear is a good place to start, because it is one of the emotions that cognitive neuroscientists understand well. It is an unpleasant feeling, but necessary to our survival; humans would not have lasted very long in the wilderness without it. Two deep brain structures called the amygdalae manage the important task of learning and remembering what you should be afraid of.

Each amygdala, a cluster of nerve cells named after its almond shape (from the Greek amugdale), sits under its corresponding temporal lobe on either side of the brain. Like a network hub, it coordinates information from several sources. It collects input from the environment, registers emotional significance and—when necessary—mobilizes a proper response. It gets information about the body’s response to the environment (for example, heart rate and blood pressure) from the hypothalamus. It communicates with the reasoning areas in the front of the brain. And it connects with the hippocampus, an important memory center.

The fear system is extraordinarily efficient. It is so efficient that you don’t need to consciously register what is happening for the brain to kick off a response. If a car swerves into your lane of traffic, you will feel the fear before you understand it. Signals travel between the amygdala and your crisis system before the visual part of your brain has a chance to “see.” Organisms with slower responses probably did not get the opportunity to pass their genetic material along.

Fear is contagious because the amygdala helps people not only recognize fear in the faces of others, but also to automatically scan for it. People or animals with damage to the amygdala lose these skills. Not only is the world more dangerous for them, the texture of life is ironed out; the world seems less compelling to them because their “excitement” anatomy is impaired.

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[We've excluded, here, interesting overviews of how the brain experiences with anger, happiness, sadness, and empathy.]

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But empathy depends on more than an ability to mirror actions or sensations. It also requires what some cognitive neuroscientists call mentalizing, or a “theory of mind.” Simon Baron-Cohen, a leading researcher in the study of autism, has identified the inability to generate a theory of mind as a central deficit in that illness. He has coined the term “mindblindness” to designate that problem. The corollary, “mindsightedness,” requires healthy function in several areas of the brain. The processing and remembering of subtle language cues take place toward the ends of the temporal lobes. At the junction of the temporal and parietal lobes, the brain handles memory for events, moral judgment and biological motion (what we might call body language). And the prefrontal cortex handles many complex reasoning functions involved in feelings of empathy.

Not surprisingly, love also engages a whole lot of brain. Areas that are deeply involved include the insula, anterior cingulate, hippocampus and nucleus accumbens—in other words, parts of the brain that involve body and emotional perception, memory and reward. There is also an increase in neurotransmitter activity along circuits governing attachment and bonding, as well as reward (there’s that word again). And there’s scientific evidence that love really is blind; romantic love turns down or shuts off activity in the reasoning part of the brain and the amygdala. In the context of passion, the brain’s judgment and fear centers are on leave. Love also shuts down the centers necessary to mentalize or sustain a theory of mind. Lovers stop differentiating you from me.

Faith is also being studied. Earlier this year the Annals of Neurology published an article by Sam Harris and colleagues exploring what happens in the brain when people are in the act of either believing or disbelieving. In an accompanying editorial, Oliver Sachs and Joy Hirsch underscored the significance of what the researchers found. Belief and disbelief activated different regions of the brain. But in the brain, all belief reactions looked the same, whether the stimulus was relatively neutral: an equation like (2+6)+8=16, or emotionally charged: “A Personal God exists, just as the Bible describes.”

By putting a big religious idea next to a small math equation, some readers might think the researchers intend to glibly dismiss it. But a discovery about brain function does not imply a value judgment. And understanding the reality of the natural world—how the brain works—shouldn’t muddle the big questions about human experience. It should help us answer them.

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To read the entire article, click here.  For a collection of related Situationist posts, click here.

Posted in Emotions, Neuroscience, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Gary Marcus on the Construction of the Human Mind

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 9, 2008

New York University psychologist Gary Marcus speaks about his book, Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind.  Marcus discusses the accidents of evolution that caused this structure and what we can do about it.

Posted in Book, Neuroscience, Uncategorized, Video | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Split Brain and the Interior Situation of Theories of the Self

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 26, 2008

The following (5 minute) video demonstrates the effects of split brain surgery where the corpus collusum is severed. The effects are explained by Dr. Michael Gazzaniga.

From Youtube: “To reduce the severity of his seizures, Joe had the bridge between his left and right cerebral hemisphers (the corpus callosum) severed. As a result, his left and right brains no longer communicate through that pathway. Here’s what happens as a result.”

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To watch a (3.5 minute) clip from Situationist contributor Phil Zimbardo’s program, Discovering Psychology, in whcih Michael Gazzaniga discusses the essential role of the “interpreter” in creating in each of us a unique sense of self.

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Below you can watch an vintage (11 minute) video in which a very young Dr. Gazzaniga goes into detail regarding his early split-brain research on animals and humans (includes a fascinating example of how the right and left hands of a split-brain patient squabble with one another as if hands from two different individuals).

* * *

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Our Interior Situations – The Human Brain,” “Learning to Influence Our Interior Situation,” It’s All In Your (Theory of the) Mind,” “Smart People Thinking about People Thinking about People Thinking,” Vilayanur Ramachandran On Your Mind,”Jonathan Haidt on the Situation of Moral Reasoning,” “Unconscious Situation of Choice,” The Situation of Reason,” and Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV of “The Unconscious Situation of our Consciousness.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Classic Experiments, Neuroscience, Video | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

The Military Meets the Mind Sciences

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 14, 2008

Yesterday, Brandon Keim published a disturbing article, “Uncle Sam Wants Your Brain” in Wired Science. We’ve excerpted his introduction below, and recommend the entire article which is here.

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Drugs that make soldiers want to fight. Robots linked directly to their controllers’ brains. Lie-detecting scans administered to terrorist suspects as they cross U.S. borders.

These are just a few of the military uses imagined for cognitive science — and if it’s not yet certain whether the technologies will work, the military is certainly taking them very seriously.

“It’s way too early to know which — if any — of these technologies is going to be practical,” said Jonathan Moreno, a Center for American Progress bioethicist and author of Mind Wars: Brain Research and National Defense. “But it’s important for us to get ahead of the curve. Soldiers are always on the cutting edge of new technologies.”

Moreno is part of a National Research Council committee convened by the Department of Defense to evaluate the military potential of brain science. Their report, “Emerging Cognitive Neuroscience and Related Technologies,” was released today. It charts a range of cognitive technologies that are potentially powerful — and, perhaps, powerfully troubling.

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To read Keim’s summary and analysis, click here. For some related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Soldiers,” “The Disturbing Mental Health Situation of Returning Soldiers,” Our Soldiers, Their Children: The Lasting Impact of the War in Iraq,” and “The Situation of a “Volunteer” Army.”

Posted in Conflict, Deep Capture, Neuroscience, Public Policy | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Learning to Influence Our Interior Situation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 16, 2008

From TED: Neuroscientist and inventor Christopher deCharms demonstrates a new way to use fMRI to show brain activity — thoughts, emotions, pain — while it is happening. In other words, you can actually see how you feel.

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Posted in Neuroscience, Video | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

It’s All In Your (Theory of the) Mind

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 13, 2008

Story by Anne-Marie Tobin, from Canadian Press.

* * *

Can robots and computers take the place of a human being? Two new studies involving research on brain activity in humans provide some food for thought in the evolving debate about interactions between man and machine – and in both cases, people seem to prefer people.

German scientists used an MRI scanner to see how the brain reacted when subjects thought they were playing a game against four different opponents – a laptop computer, a functional robot with no human shape except for artificial hands, a robot with a humanlike shape and another person.

The 20 participants were also asked about their enjoyment levels after playing the Prisoner’s Dilemma Game, which is similar to the Rock Paper Scissors game.

“We were interested in what’s going on in the brain when you play an interaction game when you need to think what your opponent is thinking,” said Soren Krach, a psychologist in the department of psychiatry at RWTH Aachen University.

In social cognitive neuroscience, the ability to attribute intentions and desires to others is referred to as having a Theory of Mind, according to the study.

“We found out that the activity in the cortical network related to Theory of Mind … was increasingly engaged the more the opponents exhibited humanlike features,” Krach explained.

Before going into the MRI scanner, the subjects played against the laptop, the two robots and the human. Once inside the scanner, they played again, using special video glasses, and they were told which opponent they were playing against at any given time.

Later, they were asked about the interaction.

“They indicated that the more humanlike the opponent was, the more they had perceived fun during the game and they more attributed intelligence to their opponent,” Krach said.

The behaviour of the four opponents was randomized.

The study was published Tuesday in the online open-access journal PLoS ONE, along with another study in which neuroscientists looked at the brain’s response to piano sonatas played either by a computer or musician.

* * *

To read the rest of the article and about that second experiment, click here.

The article, from which the image above is taken, is: Krach S, Hegel F, Wrede B, Sagerer G, Binkofski F, et al. (2008) Can Machines Think? Interaction and Perspective Taking with Robots Investigated via fMRI. PLoS ONE 3(7): e2597. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002597

Posted in Neuroscience, Situationist Sports | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Our Interior Situations – The Human Brain

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 9, 2008

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Adam Keiper has a review of Michael Gazzaniga’s new book, Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique. Here’s a tiny sample.

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Mr. Gazzaniga is at his best when he is describing his own research with brain-damaged and split-brain patients – that is, patients in whom the tissue between the left and right brain hemispheres has been severed. He tells of one woman who, “although she was being examined in my office at New York Hospital, claimed we were in her home in Freeport, Maine.” A lesion on her brain had left her so convinced that she was really at home that she subordinated any conflicting information. When Mr. Gazzaniga asked her why, if she really were in her house, there were elevators outside the door, she responded: “Doctor, do you know how much it cost me to have those put in?”

By demonstrating the organic origins of our most basic sense of our selves, such stories can challenge our understanding of personhood, agency and identity.

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To read all of the review, click here. You can read excerpt of the book’s prologue and introduction here.  For some related Situationist posts, see “A Closer Look at the Interior Situation” and “Accidentally Us.”

Posted in Book, Choice Myth, Neuroscience | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Smart People Thinking about People Thinking about People Thinking

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 7, 2008

Anne Trafton in MIT’s news office has a great summary of the fascinating research (and background) of MIT’s Rebecca Saxe.

* * *

How do we know what other people are thinking? How do we judge them, and what happens in our brains when we do?

MIT neuroscientist Rebecca Saxe is tackling those tough questions and many others. Her goal is no less than understanding how the brain gives rise to the abilities that make us uniquely human–making moral judgments, developing belief systems and understanding language.

It’s a huge task, but “different chunks of it can be bitten off in different ways,” she says.

Saxe, who joined MIT’s faculty in 2006 as an assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences, specializes in social cognition–how people interpret other people’s thoughts. It’s a difficult subject to get at, since people’s thoughts and beliefs can’t be observed directly.

“These are extremely abstract kinds of concepts, although we use them fluently and constantly to get around in the world,” says Saxe.

While it’s impossible to observe thoughts directly, it is possible to measure which brain regions are active while people are thinking about certain things. Saxe probes the brain circuits underlying human thought with a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a type of brain scan that measures blood

flow.

Using fMRI, she has identified an area of the brain (the temporoparietal junction) that lights up when people think about other people’s thoughts, something we do often as we try to figure out why others behave as they do.

That finding is “one of the most astonishing discoveries in the field of human cognitive neuroscience,” says Nancy Kanwisher, the Ellen Swallow Richards Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT and Saxe’s PhD thesis adviser.

“We already knew that some parts of the brain are involved in specific aspects of perception and motor control, but many doubted that an abstract high-level cognitive process like understanding another person’s thoughts would be conducted in its own private patch of cortex,” Kanwisher says.

* * *

Because fMRI reveals brain activity indirectly, by monitoring blood flow rather than the firing of neurons, it is considered a fairly rough tool for studying cognition. However, it still offers an invaluable approach for neuroscientists, Saxe says.

More precise techniques, such as recording activity from single neurons, can’t be used in humans because they are too invasive. fMRI gives a general snapshot of brain activity, offering insight into what parts of the brain are involved in complex cognitive activities.

Saxe’s recent studies use fMRI to delve into moral judgment–specifically, what happens in the brain when people judge whether others are behaving morally. Subjects in her studies make decisions regarding classic morality scenarios such as whether it’s OK to flip a switch that would divert a runaway train onto a track where it would kill one person instead of five people.

Judging others’ behavior in such situations turns out to be a complex process that depends on more than just the outcome of an event, says Saxe.

“Two events with the exact same outcome get extremely different reactions based on our inferences of someone’s mental state and what they were thinking,” she says.

For example, judgments often depend on whether the judging person is in conflict with the person performing the action. When a soldier sets off a bomb, an observer’s perception of whether the soldier intended to kill civilians depends on whether the soldier and observer are on the same side of the conflict.

* * *

Saxe earned her PhD from MIT in 2003, and recently her first graduate student, Liane Young, successfully defended her PhD thesis. That extends a direct line of female brain and cognitive scientists at MIT that started with Molly Potter, professor of psychology, who advised Kanwisher.

“It is thrilling to see this line of four generations of female scientists,” Kanwisher says.

Saxe, a native of Toronto, says she wanted to be a scientist from a young age, inspired by two older cousins who were biochemists.

At first, “I wanted to be a geneticist because I thought it was so cool that you could make life out of chemicals. You start with molecules and you make a person. I thought that was mind-blowing,” she says.

She was eventually drawn to neuroscience because she wanted to explore big questions, such as how the brain gives rise to the mind.

She says that approach places her right where she wants to be in the continuum of scientific study, which ranges from tiny systems such as a cell-signaling pathway, to entire human societies. At each level, there is a tradeoff between the size of the questions you can ask and the concreteness of answers you can get, Saxe says.

“I’m doing this because I want to pursue these more-abstract questions, maybe at the cost of never finding out the answers,” she says.

Posted in Education, Morality, Neuroscience | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Situation of Repackaging

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 3, 2008

New Story!!!

From SpeakupOver on Scientific American, Nikhil Swaminathan has an interesting post on a new study concerning the psychology of repackaging.

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Scientists have discovered that novel objects perk up the reward system of our brains, indicating our sense of adventure—exploring or learning something new—may be just as tempting as cash and other prizes in the choices we make. Researchers say the finding may explain why marketers are able to bolster sagging sales by simply repackaging old products.

Brain processes “might encourage you to sample [products previously dismissed] again—even though it doesn’t make much sense,” says Bianca Wittmann, a neuroscientist at University College London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and co-author of the study published today in the journal Neuron. “Just because it has new packaging doesn’t mean it has gotten much better.”

But Baba Shiv, a professor of marketing at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, warns marketers to beware of trying to dupe consumers. Although novelty may temporarily boost sales, he says, they will likely slump again once customers realize nothing but the packaging has changed.

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To read the entire post, click here. Image from Speakup.

For related Situationist posts, see “The Unseen Behavioral Influence of Company Logos,” “The Situation of Perceptions,” “The Big Game: What Corporations Are Learning About the Human Brain,” “The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part III,” “Why You Bought That,” and “McDonalds tastes better than McDonalds, if it’s packaged right.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Marketing, Neuroscience | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Vilayanur Ramachandran On Your Mind

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 29, 2008

From TED: “Vilayanur Ramachandran tells us what brain damage can reveal about the connection between celebral tissue and the mind, using three startling delusions as examples.” (24 minutes.)

Posted in Neuroscience, Video | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Rubber Hand Illusion

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 22, 2008

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For related Situationist posts, see “The Body Has a Mind of its Own,” “A (Situationist) Body of Thought,” and “A Closer Look at the Interior Situation.”

Posted in Illusions, Neuroscience, Video | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Al Seckel’s Happy Illusions

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 10, 2008

Posted in Illusions, Neuroscience, Positive Psychology, Uncategorized, Video | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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