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What is NESSHI?

NESSHI stands for “The Neuro-turn in European Social Sciences and Humanities: Impact of neuroscience on economics, marketing and philosophy”.

It is a 3-year European project involving partners from the UK, Netherlands, Germany and France, which started in June 2011. It aims at providing a better view of the transformation of disciplines from SSH (social sciences and humanities) under the influence of neuroscience. Didn’t you notice that they became more “brainy” lately? NESSHI wants to investigate how, when, why this happened, and for what consequences for our societies. Quite an ambitious program!

We choose to include a strong sociological, empirical dimension: with field work, lots of interviews and also with a bit of scientometrics, we hope to get as close as possible to the daily practices of researchers. The hope is to better understand why, from their point of view, neuro-SSH have been deemed interesting, irrelevant, hype, or revolutionary, and what difference did it make in their research routines. The utlimate end is to understand how these changes have already had an impact down the road on our societies: has marketing changed? (oh yes!), have economic policies changed? (soon, we’re told!), and what about the very notion of an individual’s autonomy?

The NESSHI team had its first workshop in Leiden on June 9, with each partner laying out their work plans for the next three years. Check the website of the project and participate in the associated forum (can be accessed from the website) to get news and add your voice to the conversation: Did you experience the neuro-turn in your discipline?

– Website of NESSHI: www.nesshi.eu

– Press release by Erasmus University Rotterdam (a participant to the project): http://www.rsm.nl/home/faculty/Research%20News?p_item_id=6635945

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Video and slides of my presentation at the “Imaging the Mind” Conference:


(does not properly display on Google Chrome 11 beta, looks fine on Internet Explorer 9 and Firefox 3.6)

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Darts and pool

This is the second annual meeting of the SfN that I attend, and this time I am there to do interviews and publicize an online survey on interdisciplinarity which I designed for neuroeconomists (are you a neuroeconomist? Drop me an email at clevallois@rsm.nl, and I will send you the link to it).

The program is remarkably different from the last year. Much less rat studies, and a lot of papers and posters on social interactions in humans. I am not sure whether it reflects an inflexion in the selection process by the organizing committee, or a new direction in neuroeconomics. A participant at the diner hinted that it merely reflects the changes in priorities laid out by funding agencies.

A few labs are overrepresented – Duke and CalTech; and the usual big names are all around. I could interview Peter Bossaerts, Colin Camerer and Paul Gimcher, and I should continue this series tomorrow.

For this evening, I hesitate between catching up with some sleep and fight the jetlag, or join the conference-sponsored dart-and-pool evening at the pub around the corner. Hm.

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That is big, really big.

The free-rider problem is simple. It describes those situations when a group of individuals would benefit from a common action, but each individual separately would prefer not to make any effort to make this action happen.

Like: as a group, we would like to have an environmental policy to stop global warming, but when asked how much tax I personally would be ready to pay to implement this policy, I refuse to declare that I’d be willing to pay much. Even if the amount that I would pay would be more than compensated by the benefits of an environmental policy! Simply because hey, if the environmental policy is decided by others and payed by others, once implemented it will also benefit me, so why would I bother paying for it? It is much easier to let others pay for it, and then, I’ll benefit from it anyway!


Another free rider

It is the eternal problem of the free rider: “I would like to have the benefits of the collective action, but I would prefer if the costs were payed by my neighbor.” The problem is, of course, that if everybody thinks like that, then everybody states that they would not pay much, and the budget for the collective action is never gathered. That’s too bad, because the collective good would have enhanced everybody’s welfare!

It has huge implications for tax policy, or any issue where a collective action would be required. And the difficulty faced has always been that when you ask people “how much would you be ready to pay for this collective good”, they tend to understate what they are really willing to pay – always hoping that the collective good will be build anyhow – but payed by their neighbors.

What if we could “read” in people’s mind what they would really like to pay for a collective good? This would allow to know how much people would each be ready to pay for the collective action. The collective action would then be undertaken, only if its benefits would be superior to the sum of the payments that each individual declared to be ready to make.

This is the experiment conducted by a team of CalTech neuroeconomists, just published in Science. They gathered groups of subjects, and scanned their brain while they stated the amount they were willing to pay for a given collective investment.

To be precise, this what not a simple lie-detector mechanism: the accuracy of the scan to detect the “honesty” of your choice was just 56%. But it is enough to act as a threat to participants: they will be punished with heavy taxes if they are found to be willing to pay very little for an investment which will repay them much. It acts as an incentive for participants to reveal their true preference each time they are asked about a potential collective investment!

Ian Krajbich, lead author of the study

Ian Krajbich, lead author of the study

The results of this “Neurally Informed Mechanism” as they call it are astounding: the total welfare achieved by this experiment is 93% of the ideal case, which means that free-riding has almost completely disappeared! This is a remarkable result, given that traditional experimental settings do not score better than 23%.

So, the free-rider problem, or the problem of collective action finally solved? Neuroeconomics made an interesting step in this direction. Huge!

The study raises some questions though. For example, the procedure followed shows that the participants were convinced with lengthy, technical arguments that the “not free-riding” strategy was the most advantageous one.  Those arguments were true, and the experimenters deduce that if the participants did not free-ride, it is because they understood it was in their best interest. But one can also object that they did not free-ride simply because they had been brain-washed about not free-riding: they simply trusted the experimenter and played in the fashion that was strongly suggested. If that is the case, then the 93% result is not so amazing.

This doubt is even greater when one wonders about the actual role played by the fMRI scan: crucial or not? At 56% of free-riding detection, just above fifty-fifty, one doubts whether the participants refused to free-ride because the threat of the scan detection made it the best strategy to play, or simply because they were impressed by this big machine and the intense strategical training they received from the researchers (see the supplement online material of the article, esp. the section “strategy” on pp. 42-45, which shows how much the participants were lectured about NOT free-riding. )

More about it? Antonio Rangel, an economist in the CalTech team reports on the Science article in an interviewed by James Hugues, from the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Click here for the interview.

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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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memoryI have always thought of memory and the ability to retain information as something akin to a filing system. You learn something new, and duly the mind makes a copy on a piece of paper and stores it in the relevant drawer, ready for being picked out when it is needed. Some people may have more space than others, file faster or simply copy things quicker, but the filing cabinet was always the analogy of choice. That could be why teachers are so keen on covering the same thing again and again, as this will create highlights in our filing system, and why course outlines and bulletpoints are so popular, as we imagine that students add to some existing mental archive.

Imagine my surprise when I came across research that argues that memory is not like a filing system, but rather it works like Velcro (cf. Rubins (Ch. 2), Mayer [1980], Fiske & Taylor [Ch. 4-5]) … This “velcro theory of memory ” argues that when we get a new piece of information we instantly try to relate it to other things that we know (using a ‘Schema’) in our head. For example if you are going to learn about a new fruit – The Pomelo – and you don’t know what a Pomelo is (or if you do, pretend that you don’t), I can give you the facts:

“The Pomelo is the largest citrus fruit. The Rind is very thick but soft and easy to peel away. The resulting fruit has a light yellow to coral pink flesh and can vary from juicy to slightly dry and from seductively spicy-sweet to tangy and tart”

Look away, and explain to me what a Pomelo is… … If you didn’t know a Pomelo, odds are that you will remember maybe the colour, or the tangy option, or something else. This is all correct knowledge but it is not connected to any pre-existing ‘schema’ in the mind, so your knowledge of the Pomelo is probably not very good, and one would struggle to relate to others what a Pomelo is, without reading the above statement again and again. Now if we use a ‘schema’, one can describe the Pomelo as: “basically a big grapefruit with a thick and soft rind.” (Pomelo example from Heath & Heath (2008: 53))

Money says that the latter description is both easier to remember, and that you would be able to relate both what a Pomelo is quickly, and know quite a bit about it. It connects with things we know (pre-existing schemas) about grapefuits and builds on top of them. So metaphors are very helpful not just because they may illustrate a point, but they tug at existing memories (and schema’s) and thus help retain information more easily. (cf Lakoff & Johnson on metaphors)

How one can apply this in teaching and business is then the next step, although I suspect that marketing departments around the world are already in the know… But maybe not? This was news to me, but what do the scientists make of this claim?

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