The cognitive economy of emotions

David Brooks has an opinion piece in The New York Times entitled ‘The New Humanism”.  A prelude to his pending book The Social Animal, Brooks points out that “We have a prevailing view in our society — not only in the policy world, but in many spheres — that we are divided creatures. Reason, which is trustworthy, is separate from the emotions, which are suspect. Society progresses to the extent that reason can suppress the passions. He correctly identifies this way of thinking as a fallacy, and drawing upon modern findings in neuroscience (some call it social neuroscience, behavioural economics, etc., but to me, if it is about the brain, it fits under the umbrella of neuroscience), he reminds us that “emotion is not opposed to reason; our emotions assign value to things and are the basis of reason.”

What Brooks does not mention is the reason that emotions are (to a certain degree) the basis of reason. Emotions are probably best viewed as heuristics – shortcuts to arrive at a decision that is consistent with our previous experiences, without expending the computational energy required the first time that we encountered a similar situation. Gidon Felsen and I have discussed this perspective on emotions as a type of of cognitive economy in a paper that is in press in AJOB Neuroscience entitled “How the neuroscience of decision making informs our conception of autonomy.” Here is an (edited) excerpt of the relevant section of the paper.

“The emotional influence on decision making postulated by Damasio’s somatic marker hypothesis (SMH) can be thought of as a more elaborated form of the primitive “fight-or-flight” response exhibited throughout the animal kingdom. This response enables the nervous system to make rapid survival-promoting decisions when confronted with dangerous situations: with very little deliberation required, the stimuli directly trigger the motor output necessary for either escaping or confronting the danger. The SMH extends this idea in two ways. First, it suggests that not only do instinctive emotions influence decisions (as they do during fight-or-flight), but secondary emotions, which are learned through trial and error, do so as well. Second, it posits that these emotions change the likelihood of particular decisions being undertaken, rather than being “hardwired” to produce a particular stereotyped response. Just as the fight-or-flight response is evolutionarily advantageous, so too are the associations between secondary emotions and decisions.

It is important to note that the SMH does not suggest that emotional and rational decision making are incompatible. In Damasio’s words, “The action of biological drives, body states, and emotions may be an indispensable foundation for rationality” (Damasio 1994, p. 200). In particular, emotional decision making may act in a “cognitively economical” manner by narrowing the set of options on which the computationally expensive value-based processing described above must be performed in order to select the ‘best’ option. Although this initial winnowing stage would not traditionally be considered rational because it eschews deliberation, the outcome (i.e., the ultimate decision) may match the result of a truly deliberative process. Indeed, somatic markers are only advantageous to the extent that they provide an efficient heuristic for making adaptive decisions (Marewski, Gaissmaier et al. 2010). If we allow that a rational decision could be produced by a previously learned “shortcut” yielding an identical outcome to a deliberative process, a premise that might be termed neurobiological consequentialism, emotions would not pose a threat to rationality, but rather may provide an efficient mechanism for it (Frank 1988; De Sousa 1990; Evans, Over et al. 1993; Chase, Hertwig et al. 1998).”

Link to David Brooks op-ed piece.

Neurosociety Conference: podcasts and more

The Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS) and the European Neuroscience and Society Network (ENSN) recently jointly organised an international conference at Oxford’s Saïd Business School on Neurosociety. The theme of the conference was the rise of the brain and the emergence of the brain industry or ‘neuro markets’. The aim was to explore how, why and in what ways the figure of the brain has come to permeate so many different areas of thinking and practice in academic and commercial life. What are the consequences for academia, business, commerce and policy?

They have now posted podcasts and slides for many of the talks here.

Speakers include:

  • Kelly Joyce (College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA)
  • Sabine Maasen (University of Basel)
  • Patricia Pisters (University of Amsterdam)
  • Nikolas Rose (London School of Economics and Political Science)
  • Jonathan Rowson (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA)
  • Steve Woolgar (InSIS, Said Business School, Oxford)
  • Paul Wouters (Leiden University)

Payday loans

We will begin with a little experiment in behavioural economics. Which would you prefer – receiving $100 today or $200 one year from now?  If you are like most people, you would take the $100 today. Once you stop to think about it, the decision to take the $100 today is really quite silly, as you would receive 100% more money in one year’s time, and unless you are a very savvy investor, there are few opportunities to make that kind of return.  But we humans consistently choose the $100 today, a phenomenon which goes by the cumbersome name of hyperbolic temporal discounting. Made famous by George Ainslie who carried out his groundbreaking work in pigeons, temporal discounting is everywhere around us but we rarely take note. Moreover, temporal discounting applies not only when we think about getting money, but even more insidiously, the same thing happens when we are borrowing money.

The arena of modern life in which temporal discounting plays out with perhaps its most disastrous consequences is the spectacle of payday loans. The idea behind payday loans is simple: the loans are short-term (usually one to two weeks) and allow people to get an advance on their paycheck. Typical rates are $15 for a two-week advance of $100, which seems reasonable when you are hungry. Or need a roof over your head. But if you do the math, the numbers turn out to be terrible. The nominal annual percentage rate or APR is a whopping 390% (15% x 26). That is what you will be charged if you payback your loan on time. In order to get around usury laws, payday lenders generally require you to completely payback your loan at the end of the loan period, in this case two weeks.  What happens if you don’t have the cash? Well, your friendly payday lender will be happy to advance you another loan to cover your losses, again at the rate of 15% for two weeks. As you can imagine, by the time payday comes around, many people are again in trouble, and have no choice but to take out another loan. If you continued doing this for an entire year, you would now be paying 3,685%, which is called the effective annual rate. Sound confusing?  It is. And unless you have a mind that pays more attention to figures than desires, you will completely ignore the interest rates, nominal, effective, or whatever, and just go for the cash. Today. In your pocket.

It does not take a great deal of experience in the field of neuroethics to recognize the issue here. The payday industry capitalizes upon a very common mental trap – temporal discounting – to allow charging rates of interest that are, without invoking too much hyperbole, outrageous. Continue reading

On Cooperation

handshakeOne of the enduring questions of human existence relates to the tension between private and common interest. Often framed as the distinction between cooperation and individualism, it can be summarized as asking, “to what extent are my actions determined by my desire to pursue my own self-interest versus the interests of others.”  The dilemma was certainly recognized by Darwin, but has been the focus of several bursts of academic interest in the last 50 years.  In the 1960s, William Hamilton began to formalize the idea that altruism towards kin – those with whom we share some genetic heritage – made sense using the tools of evolutionary theory, and Richard Dawkins famously added a laser-like focus to this formalism with his selfish gene hypothesis.

But what are we to make of the fact that humans regularly help individuals who are not kin?  In the 1970s, Robert Trivers developed the notion of reciprocal altruism to explain such cooperative behaviour – essentially, if you help me I’ll help you.  Soon thereafter, game theory began to be applied to the paradigm, and has turned out to be an exemplary way of probing the tension between cooperation and selfish behaviour (a previous post dealt with game theory and reciprocal altruism).  In one prominent series of studies, Ernst Fehr and his colleagues have amassed a substantial body of data showing that the kind of large scale cooperative behaviour exhibited by humans is dependent primarily upon the threat of punishment: the tit for tat hypothesis.  Now, in a new paper in Science, Rand et al. challenge this view, showing that in a public goods game, positive interactions promote cooperation when repeated interactions are expected to occur.  From the abstract.

The public goods game is the classic laboratory paradigm for studying collective action problems. Each participant chooses how much to contribute to a common pool that returns benefits to all participants equally. The ideal outcome occurs if everybody contributes the maximum amount, but the self-interested strategy is not to contribute anything. Most previous studies have found punishment to be more effective than reward for maintaining cooperation in public goods games. The typical design of these studies, however, represses future consequences for todays actions. In an experimental setting, we compare public goods games followed by punishment, reward, or both in the setting of truly repeated games, in which player identities persist from round to round. We show that reward is as effective as punishment for maintaining public cooperation and leads to higher total earnings. Moreover, when both options are available, reward leads to increased contributions and payoff, whereas punishment has no effect on contributions and leads to lower payoff. We conclude that reward outperforms punishment in repeated public goods games and that human cooperation in such repeated settings is best supported by positive interactions with others.

This work from Nowak’s group reprises a theme that is important in considering neuroeconomic studies of human behaviour: it is important to model the behaviour as closely as possible on the real world conditions in which humans live (and thrive), while trying to limit confounding variables as laboratory experiments are wont to do. [For another take on the issue, see this paper in Nature from earlier in the year, also from Nowak’s group.  Also, there is an excellent commentary in the recent issue of Science on the origins of cooperation by Elizabeth Pennissi.]

The tension between private and common interest is certainly of interest to academics studying the evolution of social behavior, but it is also central to nearly every debate about political life in the modern world.  Examples abound (the current health care debate in the US is an obvious one), but as a citizen of both the US and Canada, one comment in a recent issue of The New Yorker by Adam Gopnik strikes me as particularly relevant.  The article is a profile of Michael Ignatieff, Leader of the Official Opposition and the Liberal party in Canada, and possibly the next Prime Minister of the country.  Because Ignatieff is both a politician and a political philosopher who spent 25 years abroad including a long stint on the faculty of Harvard, it was perhaps inevitable that Gopnik’s prose would wander into describing the unique brand of glue that holds together the country known as Canada.

We are not, and have never been, the Canadian collectivists argue – in conscious opposition to older Anglo-American traditions – the rational individuals of liberal contract theory.  No man is an island, and rules made for imaginary islands ignore the fragile ecology of the archipelago.  We are people who live in communities, and our sense of who we are derives from what the people around us are like.  To exalt the individual and his rights at the expense of nurturing the tenuous threads of togetherness leads to violence, alienation, political apathy, and the growth of crazy movements that can supply, in moonshine form, the sense of solidarity that pure “rights” liberalism can’t – the very traits that Canadians see in a nearby country, they name no names.