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Archive for the ‘neuroeconomics’ Category

Once again, what is neuroeconomics? I would argue that 2 coming symposia organized in The Netherlands are about neuroeconomics. At least two prominent figures in neuroeconomics present talks – Allen Sanfey from the University of Arizona, and Scott Huettel from Duke University. The topic of the symposium is about decisions, reward, punishment, fairness, risk taking, … which are the bread and butter of neuroeconomics.

The Invisible Man

Yet, “neuroeconomics” is nowhere to be seen in the program. So I would argue that this is brand management in action here: depending on the audience, the place, and the strategic goal pursued in a given communication exercise, the displayed identity is molded with care. Now, the question is: what makes the brand “neuroeconomics” suitable in some circumstances, and undesirable in others? What are the reasons that make of neuroeconomics a brand to promote, or to keep invisible?

Program of the 2 symposia in decision-making (aka neuroeconomics):

(20-22 April 2009, Nijmegen, Netherlands)

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mere voodoo?

Statistics in fMRI studies: mere voodoo?

“Do you think the media are partly responsible for sensationalizing the findings of social neuroscience? And how can the media do a better job of reporting on brain scanning data?

Ed Vul: In general, I would advocate a bit more skepticism on the part of reporters, with respect to all scientific findings. I think reporters generally try to write up conclusions in slightly grander terms than the scientists used originally. What they may not realize is that scientists themselves have often oversold the implications of their findings a bit. You put these things together and you can end up with really overblown coverage. (On the other hand, perhaps if this advice were followed, science columns would end up dull and unread, so perhaps I should withdraw the suggestion.).”

This is from an interview of Ed Vul, a graduate student with an inquisitive mind.

Ed Vul

Ed Vul

He has an article in press which caused big waves in the small community of social neuroscientists and neuroeconomists. In this paper, he makes a strong critique of the statistical methods used to correlate a behavioral trait with a particular brain region – which is the bread and butter of fMRI studies. For the interested readers, here is the exchange in chronological order:

Ed Vul and al., article in press: Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience

Original Rebuttal by incriminated scientists (including Tania Singer, a neuroeconomist at Zurich), new version of their rebuttal – and they work on an article-length version as well.

Rejoinder by Ed Vul (to the first version of the rebuttal)

Interview of Ed Vul for Scientific American

My bet on the final issue of this debate, for what it is worth? From the quick look I had on the papers, it seems that “regression to the mean” is a central issue in this statistical debate. And ah! if there is one topic where nobody agrees on (among and between statisticians, biologists, and economists), this is this one.* So in my humble opinion, the debate is ripe for taking a turn that is very common in these cases: “It always ends in statistics“. Participants will retort with increasingly sophisticated and intractable analytical refinements, obfuscating the core issue that draw a large audience to the debate in the first place.

* See an article by Stephen Stigler on the topic

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This is not everyday that a research group gets the attention of international media. That was the case a few days ago with a study published by my colleagues at the Erasmus Centre for Neuroeconomics, on social conformity, ie peer-pressure: they got CNN coverage!

Vasily Klucharev, lead author on the study of social conformity

Vasily Klucharev, lead author on the study of social conformity

You can check it out there: http://edition.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/01/15/social.conformity.brain/#cnnSTCVideo

Or for a popular-science version, click there: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/01/090114124109.htm

And the original article:

http://www.cell.com/neuron/abstract/S0896-6273(08)01020-9

What accounts for such a huge reaction from the media? I tend to think that the seriousness of brain research and the sexyness of probing social issues in relation to our daily lives makes it a very efficient cocktail. It secures both the publication of the study in a top journal with a lot of exposure (its impact factor has two digits…!!), and the intelligibility of the research question to a wider audience, which makes it easy for journalists to “translate” the results into broad moral lessons. Note, by the way, how the journalists on CNN conclude the story by denying completely the results suggested by the study!

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Arminius - 20 Sept 2008

Arminius - 20 Sept 2008

The conference organized by the EIPE in the Arminius Centre, Rotterdam was well attended – about 40 people in the audience for each of the 3 days. Speakers where mainly philosophers, and the audience was a mix of economists, philosophers, and neuroeconomists. So, hype or hope?

Speakers and members of the audience seemed to make a distinction between two kinds of neuroeconomics, to start with. One of them is the “Camerer – Glimcher” variety, and is supposed to  represent a solid extension to behavioral economics.

Arminius - 21 Nov 2008

Arminius - 21 Nov 2008

This got some praise, which was not the case of the second brand of neuroeconomics – loosely if ever defined, but criticisms often seemed to include in it Paul Zak’s way of doing neuroeconomics: brash claims, fMRI scans all over the place, amateurish statistics and no clear scientific agenda but a well-rounded rhetoric. Zak was attending the conference and surely seemed himself hype, with his looks of young and sportive Californian athlete.

Paul Zak

Paul Zak

So when he presented his talk on Saturday morning, surprise: not an fMRI image in sight, but plenty of measuring of blood samples. Many subjects (around 80) for every task, and a simple-steps way to describe his experimental protocol and conclusions. Strong conclusions, by the way: in the experiments (dictator’s game but not only) this oxytocin stuff demonstrates a clear influence on trust in simple monetary transactions. Suddenly, this brand of neuroeconomics looked much less hype (does it generate hope or fear is another issue). You could almost feel the audience reckoning that after all, that kind of neuroeconomics was indeed sound and interesting science.

This left me with the impression that listening to and actually frequenting neuroeconomists (or any scientist for this matter) is a healthy prerequisite upon commenting on their work. Reading reviews about their work and programmatic statements is not enough, and can actually be misleading. The conference talked a lot about the neuroeconomic approach to empathy – more empathy is surely needed before pronouncing final judgments on neuroeconomics.

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