No more free (as in beer) rides?

The field of neuroethics is concerned with the ethical, legal, and social implications of neuroscience research. Often this concern is expressed in cautionary and implicitly disapproving terms; for example, on the use of fMRI for lie detection. However, neuroethicists also point out the upside of neuroscience advances, as in the cognitive enhancement debate: While enhancement could lead to ethically troubling dilemmas, there is also a potential upside to society if safe and effective forms of enhancement are developed.
A recent paper by Krajbich et al. is a welcome example of this upside, in which the authors present a method for using fMRI to solve the “free rider problem.” This refers to the observation that individuals pay less for a public good than it is worth to them. Since the good will be produced anyway, they “ride free,” to the detriment of the group as a whole. A related problem is that individuals tend to underreport how much a public resource is worth to them if the amount they pay for it depends on their report. But it is of course difficult to know by how much they underreport. fMRI gets around this problem by “predicting” the value of the good directly from neural activity (or, more accurately, blood flow associated with neural activity), without relying solely on the individual’s report. See the paper for all the gory details.
There are several practical reasons that this method can not be immediately applied to solve actual real-world problems. First of all, it is not trivial to record brain activity (even with methods other than fMRI), and there’s no “bulk discount” where large groups are involved. Second, the resolution with which the investigators were able to predict individual’s assignments of value in this study is not sufficient to actually be of use to solve the free rider problem.
Even if these problems are overcome, which is feasible, concerns about privacy would remain. If it were viable to use brain activity to mitigate a social problem, should individuals be forced to reveal their true preferences (i.e., brain activity)? You can file that under the individual-rights vs. greater-good debate.
Nevertheless, this paper serves as a welcome reminder that new neuroscience research and technology can be used for good, despite the numerous examples of its ethically troubling uses. Part of our role as neuroethicists is to leverage the benefits of neuroscience for the betterment of society, or at least to point out when others do so, so it’s nice to see research along these lines.