Archive for December, 2008

Here is a video interview of Peter Bossaerts, one of the foremost neuroeconomist around. He specializes in neurofinance, and in this interview he explains the basics of it to Arvetica, a Swiss consulting firm. Bossaerts is indeed based at the Swiss Finance Institute and Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, in addition to CalTech.


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^Version française ci-dessous^

I found a nice and short video interview of Pierre Moorkens, CEO of the Institute of Neuromanagement in Belgium. Useful, since “neuromanagement” is still not very well defined: it provides some tentative directions.


As it is in French, it reminded me that even if I blog in (a clumsy) English, I see no reason why a blog couln’t be multilingual. My native language is French, and it might be enriching to use it when some “neuro-” topic is available in French. Even if that seems dead obvious, I am struck by the lack of multilingual blogs on the web. So here is the beginning of the experiment: on this blog, you might read posts in different languages.


J’ai trouvé une vidéo courte et sympa d’une interview de Pierre Moorkens, CEO de l’Institut de Neuromanagement, en Belgique. Utile, puisque le “neuromanagement” reste mal défini: l’interview fournit quelques pistes de développement.


Comme la vidéo est en français, cela me rappelle que bien que ce blog soit en anglais, je ne vois pas pourquoi il ne pourrait pas acueillir d’autres langues aussi. Ma langue natale est le français, et ce serait enrichissant de l’utiliser quand un sujet “neuro” est développé en français. Ca semble archi-évident, mais je suis frappé par l’absence de blogs multilingues sur le web. Donc voici le début d’une expérience: sur ce blog, vous pourrez trouver des postes en plusieurs langues.

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Buyology, the book by Martin Lindstrom, got critically reviewed yesterday in the Financial Times. The key paragraph is:

Unfortunately, Lindstrom’s book is more speculation than serious science. Little of it actually reports on his own neuro-research; the rest consists of marketing war stories that are rehashed with speculative spin on unrelated topics such as mirror neurons and neurotransmitters.

The reviewer, Alan Mitchell, makes several points. He first finds the whole fMRI methodology dubious. This is not because a consumer’s brain lights up in regions related to religious feelings in previous studies that buying and praying are related.

Second, he mentions that according to the very researchers who did the studies for Lindstrom, the reported results are not statistically significant.  Finally, Mitchell points to the rhetorical power of brain science, the reference to the “brain” bringing immediately an argument of authority that biases judgment, even in informed persons.

The reviewer concludes by warning that the brash claims of Lindstrom’s neuromarketing can in fact “blind” executives. Ironic I find, for a science so full of visuals.

To put this review in perspective, it is good to know that Alan Mitchell is involved in an academic and business project aiming at putting the consumer at the center of marketing practices. He calls that “VRM“, or vendor relationship management, in a 180 degree twist of the usual CRM.

Alan Mitchell

Alan Mitchell

As I understand it, the basic idea is simply to start with the consumer. When you start thinking marketing from the firm’s side of the buying relationship, you end up sweating on market studies, harassing prospects on the phone, and doing a lot of guess-work about buyer’s intentions. VRM says that it would be much simpler to let consumers voice their preferences, and facilitate their finding a matching offer. This insures to be right on target, it is cost-effective since firms cease to blind-search for customers (they stand up voluntarily), and it is more ethical, as consumers willingly share their private information about their tastes and buying intentions.

It is clearer to me now why Mitchell could be skeptical of the whole neuromarketing thing, even if he reserves for it some soothing words at the end of his review. If one sees marketing as an activity that should empower the consumer, then Lindstrom’s insistence that the consumer is not aware of its own desires must be discomforting. What do you make of a consumer who states that s/he prefers not to smoke, and who actually craves for a cigarette? Or somebody who expresses the wish to eat healthy food, but who would be actually disappointed if served vegetables instead of French fries? It is certainly not easy for a firm to take action based on these mixed signals.

Maybe that neuromarketing could help disentangling explicit from implicit wishes of the consumer, actually making a contribution to the VRM that Mitchell is trying to promote.

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Following on last post, here is a radio show with Martin Lindstrom (author of Buyology) being interviewed and asked questions by callers: enthusiasts and critics. Interesting.

[Thx to Meghan Dougherty]

Click here: Talk of the Nation, December 9, 2008

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And this is the last leg of the three-steps guide to neuroeconomics, dealing this time with neuromarketing.

It is useful to remark first that the identity of neuromarketing is still unclear: if you take the big-hit “Buy-ology“, neuromarketing seems to be a business venture driven by consulting firms rich enough to run fMRI studies.

But if you check the program of the 2008 Conference of the Society for Neuroeconomics, neuromarketing appears then as an academic field allied to neuroeconomics. They both deal fundamentally with decision-making in economic contexts, with neuromarketing focusing more specially on consumer behavior.

To see how it works, we are lucky enough to have a (fairly) non-technical, bilingual, audio and video presentation on neuromarketing soon available on the web, and in preview on this blog. You’ll see Britney Spears and Andre Agassi, and how their expertise can (or not!) influence your buying decisions.


It was Ale Smidts (director of my lab) presenting in Paris La Sorbonne,  last October. Just click and wait for the presentation to load:

Ale Smidts on expert power

[The paper presented is published in the current issue of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (Dec. 2008)]

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In interesting news: At the International network for Economic Methodology annual conference the big plenary session being advertised is on Neuroeconomics… Now methodology is not the mainstay of orthodox economics but this is another indication of the fields’ growing impact within economics at least.

It is also interesting to note session participants, as it is being coordinated by Don Ross (U. of Alabama at Birmingham & U. of Cape Town Philosopher), with the participation of Mark Dean (NYU Economist working on microeconomics and Beliefs/Rewards vis-a-vis Neuroecon) & Benoit Hardy-Vallee (University of Toronto philosophy, cognitive scientist, entrepeneur)

This could be interesting to watch… (http://www.econmethodology.org/ for the conference call for papers – deadline 1 April 2008)

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That’s the 2nd part of a three-easy-steps-guide to neuroeconomics (see previous post).

Image with fMRI

Image with fMRI

As is obvious if you ever perused through an article in neuroeconomics, brain images have a central role in social neuroscience. So a question that is often asked in the corridors and conference rooms is how trustful those visual representations are. In particular, how trustful are the visuals showing well-defined zones of activations in the brain?

An entry point to this issue can be to develop a critical comparison between the localizationist view of brain activity (cognitive skills would be organized in independent scattered patches) and the old-time phrenology.

Brain in the phrenology mode

Brain in the phrenology mode

This is the view suggested by the cognitive neuroscientist Guy Tiberghien, who recently made a presentation “against spectacular neuroimaging” (in French), indicting the simpleness of the localizationist view. Clever replies to this argument exist (the connectivist, network view), but it remains that by definition, brain images display a very static snapshot of the mind-in the-brain.


Anne Beaulieu

A different perspective consists in studying the emergence of brain imaging technologies from the sociological and historical point of view, focusing on the transformations in their use since the 1970s. This is precisely the topic of Anne Beaulieu‘s PhD dissertation (2000). In “The Space Inside the Skull“, she unraveled the “archeology” of brain functional imaging (mainly PET at the time). She shows how in the late 70s and 80s, brain imaging was conceived primarily or exclusively for clinical applications, like for mapping the brain of a patient before surgery, or to obtain a standardized brain atlas. It is almost as an afterthought that in the late 80s, functional imaging technology was used to trace “mind” activities, diverging then from the agenda of the clinicians.

This history of functional brain imaging is supplemented by a reflection on the epistemic status of the visuals, drawing on the work of Michael Lynch and Karen Knorr-Cetina. Doing anthropological field work in the McConnell Brain Imaging Centre at McGill University, the center which designed maps of “average” brains, Anne Beaulieu reveals in detail how neuroscientists build a justification for their use of brain images. In interviews, they display a love-hate relationship with images: both useful for synthesizing large amounts of data, convenient to communicate results to a large audience, but also threatening the seriousness of science because of their non-quantitative nature, and their aesthetic properties.

I find this approach promising: instead of attempting to define a border separating “real” from “fake” science in brain imaging, as the title of this post would provocatively suggest, I believe rather that tracing the changing practices and conventions in the field allows for a deeper understanding of the meanings of brain images.

The next step probably consists  in comparing the epistemic status of images in neuroscience, with their status in economics. To do that, you’d have to read another PhD dissertation (in French) by my colleague Yann Giraud, precisely asking “Is Economics a Visual Science? (1932-1969)“. But that’s enough dissertations for today.

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