Solving Social Problems with a Nudge
MacArthur winner Sendhil Mullainathan uses the lens of behavioral economics to study a tricky set of social problems — those we know how to solve, but don’t. We know how to reduce child deaths due to diarrhea, how to prevent diabetes-related blindness and how to implement solar-cell technology … yet somehow, we don’t or can’t. Why?
There has been a long controversy as to whether subjectively ‘free’ decisions are determined by brain activity ahead of time.
We found that the outcome of a decision can be encoded in brain activity of prefrontal and parietal cortex up to 10 s before it enters awareness.
This delay presumably reflects the operation of a network of high-level control areas that begin to prepare an upcoming decision long before it enters awareness.
fusiform face area (FFA, red) and parahippocampal place area (PPA, blue). A human observer, who was only given signals from the FFA and PPA of each participant, was able to estimate with 85% accuracy which of the two categories the participants were imagining.
Recent advances in human neuroimaging have shown that it is possible to accurately decode a person’s conscious experience based only on non-invasive measurements of their brain activity. Such ‘brain reading‘ has mostly been studied in the domain of visual perception, where it helps reveal the way in which individual experiences are encoded in the human brain.
The same approach can also be extended to other types of mental state, such as covert attitudes and lie detection. Such applications raise important ethical issues concerning the privacy of personal thought.
when we are talking about elite art, such as art galleries, classic music, even very good rock concerts, there is much more to it than just hyper-stimulation. There is an aspect of cleverness involved. One of them has to do with what Ramachandran calls a “pick-a-boo” principle in our brain. This is perfectly illustrated in Richard Gregory’s Dalmatian image.
Now, if you look at the image, you see pure black spots on a white background. But if you keep looking at it, you’ll notice a “pattern”, that of a dalmatian dog. When your mind finds out that it fits the Dalmatian pattern and “solves” the image puzzle, it reacts as if it said “Aha! There it is!”
By combining the models and tasks of Game Theory with modern psychological and neuroscientific methods, the neuroeconomic approach to the study of social decision-making has the potential to extend our knowledge of brain mechanisms involved in social decisions and to advance theoretical models of how we make decisions in a rich, interactive environment.
Research has already begun to illustrate how social exchange can act directly on the brain’s reward system, how affective factors play an important role in bargaining and competitive games, and how the ability to assess another’s intentions is related to strategic play.
These findings provide a fruitful starting point for improved models of social decision-making, informed by the formal mathematical approach of economics and constrained by known neural mechanisms.
Choosing to accept enough risk, but not too much, is an important survival skill, and depending on the circumstances, animals may either seek or avoid risk.
Given the choice between a sure bet and a larger but uncertain reward, a paper in this issue reports macaques consistently take the riskier option, and posterior cingulate cortex neurons represent the riskiness of those choices.
Brain regions implicated in decision making under uncertainty:
insular cortex (INS)
ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (vlPFC)
medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC)
dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC)
posterior parietal cortex (PPC)
Many decisions involve uncertainty, or imperfect knowledge about how choices lead to outcomes.
Colloquial notions of uncertainty, particularly when describing a decision as ‘risky’, often carry connotations of potential danger as well. Gambling on a long shot, whether a horse at the racetrack or a foreign oil company in a hedge fund, can have negative consequences, but the impact of uncertainty on decision making extends beyond gambling.
Indeed, uncertainty in some form pervades nearly all our choices in daily life.
Stepping into traffic to hail a cab, braving an ice storm to be the first at work, or dating the boss’s son or daughter also offer potentially great windfalls, at the expense of surety.
We continually face trade-offs between options that promise safety and others that offer an uncertain potential for jackpot or bust. When mechanisms for dealing with uncertain outcomes fail, as in mental disorders such as problem gambling or addiction, the results can be disastrous.
Thus, understanding decision making—indeed, understanding behavior itself—requires knowing how the brain responds to and uses information about uncertainty.