Your Body Chemistry and Professional Status

Your Body Chemistry and Professional Status

Harvard Kennedy School

August 25, 2015

Doug Gavel
Power and professional status are often associated with myriad environmental factors including education and upbringing, but a new research study provides compelling fresh evidence linking professional status attainment with the interaction of two biological hormones.

“Testosterone, Cortisol and Attained Status” is co-authored by five leading academics in the field of bio-behavioral science, including Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Professor Jennifer Lerner. The lead author is Gary D. Sherman, who conducted the project while he was a post-doctoral fellow in Lerner’s lab at HKS, now a faculty member at SUNY Stony Brook; Robert A. Josephs, Professor at the University of Texas, Austin; Jonathan Renshon, formerly a doctoral student in Lerner’s lab, now on faculty at University of Wisconsin, Madison; and James J. Gross, Professor at Stanford University. The paper is forthcoming in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“Social positions matters. For better or worse, those at the top of hierarchies—whether alpha male baboons or corporate CEOs—have disproportionate influence on groups and organizations,” the authors stipulate. “Thus, it is important to determine the factors influencing who attains high-status social roles.”

Prior research has shown that high-level male executives have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than their peers, and that cortisol can inhibit the influence of testosterone. To build upon the existing research, the authors in this study examined both testosterone and cortisol levels in a sample group of high-performing private and public-sector executives. The findings were clear.

“As predicted, testosterone was positively associated with attained status—the number of subordinates over which an executive has authority—but only for low-cortisol executives,” the authors conclude. “More specifically, high-testosterone, low-cortisol executives were particularly likely to occupy high status positions whereas low-testosterone, low-cortisol executives were particularly likely to occupy lower status positions.”

The authors argue that “these findings cast cortisol as an equalizer between high- and low-testosterone individuals. When cortisol is low, low-testosterone individuals are likely to hold lower-ranking positions whereas high-testosterone individuals are likely to hold higher-ranking positions. By contrast, when cortisol is high, low- and high-testosterone individuals possess similar levels of organizational status.”

Numerous employer programs seek to reduce employee stress levels as a means of reducing employees’ health-risk factors. In light of the present evidence, Lerner argues that “reducing stress levels may be a critical goal not only because doing so will improve health but also because doing so may enhance employee’s leadership potential.”

Although this study examined male subjects, Lerner says that future research aims to examine these processes among females, whose endocrine systems differ substantially.

Jennifer Lerner is Professor of Public Policy and Management at Harvard Kennedy School and co-founder of the Harvard Decision Science Laboratory. Drawing insights from psychology, economics, and neuroscience, her research examines human judgment and decision making.


Jennifer Lerner on Emotions and Decision Making

Jennifer Lerner on Emotions and Decision Making

Harvard Kennedy School

April 22, 2015

Doug Gavel
The complex role of emotion in human decision making and choice is a growing field of social science research. One of the leaders in the field isJennifer Lerner, professor of public policy and management at Harvard Kennedy School. Drawing insights from psychology, economics, and neuroscience, Lerner’s research examines human judgment and decision making.

Q. In a recent paper, you and three colleagues reviewed the data on the past 35 years of research on emotion and decision making. What was the first major take-away from that research?

Lerner: The first important take-away is that there has been a revolution in emotion science. Most of the 20th century was dominated by what we call the “cognitive revolution” in psychology, during which we gained tremendous insights into cognitive processes. Important insights in the new field of behavioral decision research led to Nobel Prizes for Daniel Kahneman and Herbert Simon. As the century drew to a close, we learned that although we know a tremendous amount about the nuances of cognitive processing, that knowledge does not go all the way toward explaining human behavior. In fact, emotion turns out to be an enormously powerful predictor of behavior, especially in the area of politics and policy.

Since the end of the last century, there has been a tremendous surge to understand the intricacies of emotion and decision making. The number of scholarly papers published annually on emotion and decision making doubled between 2004 and 2007, and doubled again between 2007 and 2011. In fact, for the first time in its history, the Annual Review of Psychology, which serves as the compendium of all the progress in psychology, requested a review paper on the field of emotion and decision making.

So, the first major take-away from my recent research paper is that there’s tremendous activity in this space, and it’s a terrifically exciting time for what we do here at the Kennedy School. Emotion has been the poorly understood driver of citizens’ behavior and policymakers’ behavior for far too long. Now we are starting to harness the insights needed to advance understanding of public policy and political behavior.

Q. What was the other important conclusion from this research?

Lerner: A second take-away is the fact that it’s useful to talk about two different kinds of emotion. In particular, we make a distinction between integral emotion and incidental emotion.

Integral emotions are those that are normatively relevant to the judgment or decision at hand. If you’re trying to decide whether to make a risky investment, for example, your sense of anxiety about possible stock volatility is integral to the judgment or decision at hand. We consider that emotion a rational input into the decision-making process. So, it would be a crude oversimplification to think of emotion as an irrational input.

One of the key findings in the literature is evidence revealing that when people have damage to important neural circuitry involved with the processing of emotion, they make sub-optimal decisions. For example, they tend to make decisions that lead to financial loss when they’re not able to appreciate the feeling of fear and anxiety that one should normally feel when considering a highly risky gamble. So in that sense, integral emotions are vital inputs to decisions.

What people more generally have in mind when they assume that emotions impair decisions are what we call incidental emotion. An incidental emotion is one that’s triggered by a particular situation that carries over and influences your subsequent judgments and decisions. My research group here at the Kennedy School is very actively involved in research on both kinds of emotion, but we have a larger emphasis on incidental emotion because of the problems that it causes for everyday decision making, particularly in the public sector.

Q. You have done quite a bit of research focusing on the impact of sadness on decision making. Please explain.

Lerner: There are key emotions, like sadness, that make us think quite systematically – but that doesn’t mean we think in an unbiased way. Specifically, we’ve found, for example, that sadness, owing in part to its underlying cognitive components, carries over and makes people extremely financially impatient. That tendency manifests in decisions where people must forego receiving greater amounts of money in the future to enjoy more money immediately. This desire to consume now rather than save is one of the key drivers of the major credit-card debt problem that exists in the United States and elsewhere. Sadness magnifies what is already a significant bias toward the present.

Thanks to our understanding of the cognitive, biological, and motivational components of a given emotion like sadness, we can selectively elicit a complementary emotion to try to impact decision making. In this case, we found that gratitude elicits opposing tendencies from sadness when it comes to economic behavior. We’ve shown that gratitude leads people to think more about future returns. Consequently, they become even more financially patient than when they’re in a neutral state.

This is a key finding because, as it turns out, it’s very easy to elicit a state of gratitude. My Kennedy School colleague Brigette Madrian and I are now working with retirement savings corporations to try to make an impact with citizens who are considering their retirement decisions. It’s not as simple as making people feel happy to help them make better decisions; happiness does not elicit this effect. Rather, the particular properties of gratitude counterbalances the components associated with sadness, leading it to have this effect on one’s long-term financial outlook.

Q. Your research has some very practical implications for public policy. Can you talk about that?

Lerner: In my past work, we have looked a lot at how people’s emotional responses are useful predictors across time, in terms of predicting responses to terrorism and of policy preferences regarding terrorism. That is a part of a broader body of work in which we find very often that emotional reactions actually happen to have more predictive power than people’s attitudes, in terms of driving ultimate behavior. There is something very powerful about a feeling that directly links to behavior, and it has to do, in large part, with the underlying neural circuitry and how close emotion neural circuitry is to motor activity and actual behavior.

We are moving now toward two other new policy areas. The first concerns how medical oncologists make end-of-life recommendations to their parents. End-of-life decision making is receiving a lot of attention lately, in part because we’re all keenly aware of how many choices people face about possible healthcare options near the end of life. Also, we’re aware of the expenses associated with those options and the inherent trade-offs associated with quality of life.

The Institute of Medicine recently came out with a significant report on end-of-life decision making, arguing among other things for the necessity of research to answer some of the thorny questions we are confronting. Most researchers are focusing on patients’ preferences and how to elicit them. My colleagues here at Harvard and at the Cancer Center at Mass. General Hospital and I are focusing instead on the oncologists, which is an unusual thing to do.

We’re doing this because when you do a careful analysis of the actual cases in which the decision is made to discontinue chemotherapy, over 90% of the time, the oncologist is the one who recommended this course of action, and then the patient agreed to it. So, the oncologist’s suggestion is the key driver, and that’s why we’re focusing on oncologists and their emotions.

Having received an initial grant for this work through the National Cancer Institute of National Institute of Health, we are assembling a team from across the country to apply for a larger grant in which we would examine the feelings oncologists have when recommending that patients discontinue chemotherapy. We know, of course, that this is a very difficult choice for the patients, but it is also a very difficult recommendation for the oncologists to make. To see how these decisions are made, we examine the interaction of emotion between the oncologist and the patient for a variety of measures, and we look at a variety of background characteristics as well.

Q. So, where do you see opportunities for future research in this field?

Lerner: Our future research plans in the area of emotion and decision making cluster into two categories: One I would call basic science, in which we look at underlying mind-brain behavior connections using a variety of measures. We’re presently using brain imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital while studying behavioral decisions here in the Harvard Kennedy School’s Decision Science Laboratory.

As we seek to understand some of those key mechanisms, we are engaged in a variety of other key projects looking at the implications for society and policy, such as how to improve the effectiveness of anti-smoking campaigns. The large settlements that have been reached with the tobacco industry in recent years have resulted in large sums of state and federal funding available for anti-smoking campaigns. You have probably seen some of these public service advertisements on television. They are typically terribly sad and focus on death related to smoking; their impact on smoking cessation has been mixed at best.

It turns out that these public service announcements, although they are well-intended, generally have not been informed by emotion or decision science. In collaboration with colleagues at the Harvard School of Public Health, my research group here at the Kennedy School is working on an extensive project in which we design anti-smoking public service announcements informed by science that we hope will be much more effective.

Jennifer Lerner on Emotions and Decision-Making


Experts in Emotion Series; June Gruber, Yale University

Experts in Emotion Series; June Gruber, Yale University

May 24, 2013

Expert in Emotion

Interview with Jennifer Lerner

Overview of Judgement and Decision Making


Women’s Health Blog at the Women’s Center in Orlando: “Your bad traits may not be so bad after all”

Women’s Health Blog at the Women’s Center in Orlando: “Your bad traits may not be so bad after all”

August 29, 2011

Women’s Health Blog: Your Bad Traits May Not Be So Bad After All.

Ever thought that your negativity and pessimism would be considered “good traits”? Our bad traits can actually be beneficial in some situations according to Bryan Gibson, professor of social psychology at Central Michigan University.

Here are five traits that can actually help you reduce or prevent stress, obesity, and other diseases.

Negativity: Remember how we are always asked to remain positive? Positivity breeds success, blah, blah? Well researchers think that pessimism can help prevent future problems according a professor of psychology at Wellesley College, Julie Norem. (Professor Norem has also written a book “The Positive Power of Negative Thinking”.)

Cursing: Ah cursing! How many times have we heard that “swearing is crass”? Now researchers believe that cursing allows the body to copy with pain and stress in a crisis

Doodling: Doodling is for people who can’t focus, right? Wrong! Dooling, it appears can improve the ability of our minds to remember mundane information by almost 30 percent. Researchers from the University of Plymouth state that when we doodle, we use our brain’s visuospacial processes. These processes are normally used for daydreaming but allow the brain to prevent wandering when used during doodling.

Procrastination: Lazy, unable to finish things on time, etc. are all the labels given to someone who procrastinates. But now it appears that by putting off work for a bit to take a nap, surf the web, check Facebook statuses, etc. can make a person approximately 10 percent more productive than those who don’t.

Gossip: Old wives gossip; Gossip is bad form; Gossiping is for immature people, etc. etc. Well, not anymore! Non-malicious gossip is good for forming better friendships and making your “moral compass” stronger.

Anger: Anger is considered to be unhealthy cause it raise blood pressure and creates conflict. But Jennifer Lerner, director of the Harvard Decision Science Laboratory states that by showing anger in situations that are unfair or wrong can actually be good for the body. As long as the anger is not a chronic anger, by getting angry in situations that warrant some good old anger, our body releases cortisol, the stress hormone which can cause depression, obesity, and bone loss.

So go ahead and show your negativity, curse when that hammer hits your thumb instead of the nail, show anger when the dry cleaner loses your best pair of pants, and enjoy some juicy gossip about what’s happening with Brangelina.

As for me, I’m going to go ahead and procrastinate before I decide what else to blog about.


Sharing Science with members of Congress

Sharing Science with member of Congress

April 14, 2010

On April 14, 2010, Professor Lerner met with members of Congress in Washington to discuss her research on economic decision making.

Attached are pictures of Professor Lerner meeting with Congressman Brian Baird (D-WA) and Congressman Vernon Ehlers (R-MI).

Uncategorized “Why sadness is good for you” “Why sadness is good for you”

November 13, 2009

By Stephen Pincock

Online at

The couple in the corner were oddly distracting. It was the summer of 1987, and Joe Forgas, a psychologist who studies the interplay of moods and thinking, had taken his wife out for dinner to a little place in Heidelberg, Germany, where he was on sabbatical for the year. The trouble was that his eyes kept being drawn to the amorous display going on across the room. “I remember it still so clearly,” he laughs. “It was one of those unusual couples, a very attractive young girl and a rather old and unattractive man. They were obviously in a romantic situation, they were cuddling and kissing and everything, and I found myself looking over there repeatedly and sort of just puzzling.

As the minutes went by, and the cuddling continued, Forgas began to think about why he found it all so bewildering. In his professional life, he was exploring the way moods affect memory, and the odd couple got him thinking. “I had this idea: if that was a normal couple, like two young people, I would have produced a judgment fairly quickly. But when you see something that’s puzzling and out of the ordinary, you are forced to make more and more interpretations.

Forgas suspected that this kind of situation offered an ideal way to explore how emotions influence our judgments. Particularly, he suspected that the harder you need to think about a situation – the more you need to think creatively and use your memory to evaluate it – the more likely it is that your judgment will be affected by your mood at the time.

Back at work, Forgas designed a study to explore this theory. He created a set of picture cards showing couples who were well-matched in their physical attractiveness, and another batch showing attractive women and unattractive men, or vice versa. He then asked a group of 186 students to look at the photographs and describe their responses. Half of his group watched a sad film first, the other half, a comedy.

The results confirmed his suspicion. First, it took the volunteers much longer to make judgments of the badly matched couples than of the well-matched pairs. Second, and crucially, their responses were strongly linked to their mood: when a happy person (or rather, a person who’d just watched a happy film) looked at an oddly matched couple, they were more likely to think well of the relationship, whereas if they were sad, they judged it more negatively.

They saw them, both as individuals and as a couple, in more negative terms, says Forgas.

This experiment, conducted at the University of New South Wales in Australia, where Forgas is a professor, contributed to a growing awareness among psychologists that everything we perceive and evaluate is strongly affected by our mood.

It also works for your memories, Forgas explains. Let’s say you had a particularly sad day on October 20 last year. You’ll do a better job of remembering the events of that day when you’re again in a sad mood. Psychologists call this effect “mood congruence”. Out of a large memory store, we tend to pick things selectively that happen to match our current mood.

But the other link between mood and thinking that Forgas and others have more recently unearthed is even more profound. Not only does mood affect what you think about, it affects the very process of thinking. This revelation has contributed to the most remarkable shift in thinking about sadness to date: that being down is not only an intrinsic part of being human, but that it can actually be beneficial.

. . .

Forgas and I arrange to meet in his office one day in September. But when I arrive at his door, there’s a note tucked into the corner of his name plate saying he’ll be late: “Please take a seat inside,” it reads. The office is high up in a tall building, with a long view toward the high-rise centre of Sydney. The sky is blanketed with pale grey clouds– a condition likely to enhance a person’s powers of observation, Forgas later explains. The office is filled with clocks. I count 17, not all of them ticking.

When Forgas arrives, we head downstairs to an outdoor café. He’s contained, slim and modest. His voice is soft against the background noise of undergraduates and retains the dark flavours of his native Hungary. When I ask what interested him in the effect of emotion on thinking, he first says that the relationship between feeling and thinking remains one of the great puzzles of human nature. But he also acknowledges that the appeal was more than purely academic.

I suppose it’s a trite observation that very often psychologists study the sort of phenomena that they personally find intriguing or interesting. I am a reasonably emotional person. I wouldn’t describe myself as bipolar but I’m very much aware of the fact that in our daily lives, emotional fluctuations, mood fluctuations, make a huge difference in how you see the world around you.

The role of sadness was particularly baffling, he says. It’s intriguing that our emotional repertoire is heavily skewed towards negative feelings. Since the pioneering work of scientist Paul Ekman in the 1970s, psychologists have identified six basic human emotions, four of which are negative – fear, anger, disgust and sadness (the other two are happiness and surprise). If all these negative emotions have survived the test of evolution, then perhaps they offer some kind of survival advantage, Forgas says. He set out to see if there was any evidence to show this was the case. And time after time, he found there was.

In the second half of the 20th century, psychologists began increasingly to strive to understand the functions of our emotions. Instead of seeing our moods as simply getting in the way of rational judgment, they began to find in them a useful component of our responses to social situations. In one study last year, Forgas and his colleagues asked happy and sad volunteers to judge the truth of a range of urban myths and rumours, and found that sad people tended to be more sceptical. They set up a computer game in which a series of images were quickly flashed up on a computer screen. Some showed people carrying guns, others bearing innocuous things, such as cola bottles or a coffee Thermos. The researchers asked participants to “shoot” at the images if the characters had a gun in their hands, but spare them if they were carrying other things.

Forgas and his colleagues mixed things up further by making another set of targets who were identical to the first set, except they were made to look Muslim by the addition of an Islamic headdress or hijab. This test was based on an earlier US study, where other scientists had found that US volunteers were more likely to shoot at black targets than white ones. Because the game required the volunteers to make snap decisions about whether the target was carrying a gun, or something harmless, the researchers thought it likely that their responses were being influenced by underlying stereotypes.

When Forgas and his team flashed up the Muslim and non-Muslim targets in quick succession, they found that, overall, people were more likely to “shoot” the Muslim targets. But that bias was reduced among sad people, a result supported by other research showing that negative moods lessen the likelihood that a person will rely on simple stereotypes when responding negatively to minority groups.

All these experiments suggested to Forgas and other psychologists, such as the German researcher Herbert Bless, that being happy or sad fundamentally changes the way your mind processes information. When you’re happy your brain is more likely subconsciously to base decisions on experience and knowledge you’ve already accumulated, such as stereotypes. When you’re sad, you pay more attention to new information in the outside world – a style of thinking psychologists refer to as “accommodative”.

. . .

In 2007, Forgas and his team began to take their research one step further. They wanted to know whether being a little down could actually make you more convincing. “We expected that accommodative processing should promote more concrete and factual thinking and result in superior persuasive messages,” he and colleagues wrote in a paper.

In a series of studies, they asked happy or sad volunteers to produce persuasive arguments for or against propositions such as increasing student fees, Aboriginal land rights, or whether Australia should become a republic. They then had those arguments rated by independent scientists and by an audience of undergraduate students. Every time, the sad people produced the more convincing arguments, giving Forgas and his colleagues even more reason to argue that being sad promotes a more concrete, systematic and solid processing style.

The icing on the cake came last year, when Forgas published perhaps his most intriguing study to date, one that took place in a corner shop not far from his office on the campus of the University of New South Wales. The testing ground for the experiment was the counter of the shop, on to which he and his colleagues placed a random selection of trinkets, the kind you might pull out of a Christmas cracker – plastic toy figurines, a toy cannon, a miniature red London bus and a tiny tractor.

The researchers wanted to see whether slight variations in mood would affect whether shoppers noticed and remembered these out-of-place items. So, on seven sunny days, and seven miserable, cloudy days, they asked customers coming out of the shop how many of the objects they could remember. To enhance the sad or happy mood, they also played appropriate music – Verdi’s Requiem on the cloudy days, for example, or a jaunty piece of Gilbert and Sullivan in the sunshine. Forgas and his team weren’t surprised by the result, although at first glance it might seem counterintuitive. On the grey, gloomy days, when people were likely to be a little sadder, participants in the study tended to recall what was on the shop counter more accurately. They were paying more attention.

For much of the 20th century, studying emotions was out of favour, says Jennifer Lerner, director of Harvard University’s Laboratory for Decision Science. As a result, most of the big questions in the field remain unanswered. In that context, she says, Forgas has made a significant impact. “He has made tremendous contributions to the field,” Lerner says, “systematically testing and analysing the ways in which emotion shapes the depth or shallowness of cognitive processes and the consequences for judgment outcomes.”

. . .

WH Auden described the years that followed the second world war as the “age of anxiety”. We seem to be living in the age of depression. According to the World Health Organisation, depression will become the second leading cause of worldwide disability by 2020, second only to heart disease. A report in 1997 showed that 40 per cent of all psychotherapy patients had been diagnosed with a mood disorder, the larger category that mostly comprises depression. A decade earlier, the proportion was half as great. In the US, one in five people suffers from severe depression.

But do these numbers really reflect an epidemic of clinical depression? In their book The Loss of Sadness, the American psychiatrists Allan Horwitz and Jerome Wakefield argue that perhaps they don’t. They say doctors have been regularly labelling people as depressed when they are simply sad. Normal sadness, they say, tends to have an identifiable cause of some kind, particularly a loss, and is proportional in its intensity to the seriousness of that cause.

But normal sadness can also be accompanied by sleeplessness, lack of concentration and changed appetite. It can be distressing and can last for two weeks. Under the current definitions used by doctors and scientists, these criteria would make “sadness” fit the category of “depression”, a mental disorder suitable for treatment with a growing list of antidepressant drugs.

Horwitz and Wakefield are not for a minute suggesting that such pathological depression does not exist. Far from it. But they do argue that if doctors were to focus more on the context in which people’s “depression” arises, they might find that in many cases it is just plain sadness – an inherent part of the human condition.

For his part, Forgas is careful to point out that any benefits that he has found apply only to the passing mood or emotion of sadness, rather than the devastating illness that is severe, clinical depression. The biologist Lewis Wolpert, who himself has suffered disabling bouts of depression, has a nice analogy for how those two conditions are related. In his book Malignant Sadness he argues that depression is what happens when the normal emotion sadness has become pathological, just as cancer comes about when the normal processes of our cells become deranged.

Intuitively, these explanations all make sense. The kind of depression that destroys lives is clearly a disorder that needs treating. On the other hand, we know it’s understandable that we feel sad when a loved one dies, or when we lose a job we love, or even if our football team loses. Sadness is normal.

For Joe Forgas and other scientists like him, this “normalness” – the sheer prevalence of sadness – raises questions related to evolution. Every part of our humanity, from our little toes to the hairs on our head, is the way it is because of the actions of evolution over countless generations. “Starting with Charles Darwin’s book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, many have argued that all emotions have adaptive benefits,” says Jennifer Lerner. “I subscribe to this view myself.”


The Boston Globe: Spotting a terrorist

The Boston Globe: “Spotting a terrorist: Next-generation system for detecting suspects in public settings holds promise, sparks privacy concerns”

September 18, 2009

By Carolyn Y. Johnson

From The Boston Globe

CAMBRIDGE – Metal detectors, X-ray machines, and dogs are used at security checkpoints to look for bombs. Now a next-generation technology under development in Cambridge will look for the bomber.

With funding from the US Department of Homeland Security, Draper Laboratory and other collaborators are building technology to detect potential terrorists with cameras and noninvasive sensors that monitor eye blinks, heart rate, and even fidgeting.

The project, called the “Future Attribute Screening Technology,” is aimed at allowing security checkpoint personnel at airports or large public events to make better, faster decisions about whether a person should get follow-up screening.

At a demonstration of the technology this week, project manager Robert P. Burns said the idea is to track a set of involuntary physiological reactions that might slip by a human observer. These occur when a person harbors malicious intent – but not when someone is late for a flight or annoyed by something else, he said, citing years of research into the psychology of deception.

The development team is investigating how effective its techniques are at flagging only people who intend to do harm. Even if it works, the technology raises a slew of questions – from privacy concerns, to the more fundamental issue of whether machines are up to a task now entrusted to humans.

“I know what they’re doing, and I’m ambivalent,” said Paul Ekman, a consultant on the project and an eminent psychologist who pioneered the study of facial expression and emotion.

“I can understand why there’s an attempt being made to find a way to replace or improve on what human observers can do: the need is vast, for a country as large and porous as we are. However, I’m by no means convinced that any technology, any hardware will come close to doing what a highly trained human observer can do,” said Ekman, who directs a company that trains government workers, including for the Transportation Security Administration, to detect suspicious behavior.

The researchers hope to have the device ready for field testing in 2011, perhaps at a border crossing. If it works – even Burns concedes that’s no sure thing – it could be used by government agencies. There are no immediate plans for commercializing the technology, which has cost about $20 million to develop.

At the demonstration, actors walked one-by-one into a room with a metal detector, a guard, and a set of sensors that monitored their reactions while they spent a few minutes answering a dozen questions, ranging from where they lived to whether they planned to detonate a device.

Most of the system’s sensors are commercially available. An eye tracker measures blinks, gaze direction, and pupil dilation. Two separate devices track heart rate and respiration. A thermal camera measures the way heat changes on a person’s face. And underfoot, an accessory normally used with the Nintendo Wii gaming system, has been repurposed to detect fidgeting.

Burns said being able to simultaneously observe a suite of traits – such as slight variations in the interval between heartbeats, the way a person’s pupils dilate, the way the heat on their face changes, or whether they stop moving when asked a certain question – makes the system more accurate.

“I think it is very interesting, but it also sets off alarm bells,” said Jennifer Lerner, a professor of public policy and management at the Harvard Kennedy School who has studied how facial expressions can be a readout of biological responses to stress. “The key here is to not to get too impressed by the physiological measurement and to pay attention to the validity of the science.”

Researchers are evaluating how well the technology can detect a person’s intentions to do harm, compared with a human observer’s ability to do the same thing. They say initial results are promising.

They also plan to test whether the software can distinguish malicious intent from other things that fluster a person. In the future, for example, experiments might include subjects who have to run to get to the screening checkpoint, or have an initial experience with a rude guard.

Hardened terrorists might be able to control their heartbeat or breath, but researchers say that is one reason they are looking at multiple traits thought to be involuntary. Even if someone could control many physiological factors, researchers said that a person who lacked normal bodily reactions to questions would also raise a red flag.

A privacy watchdog, after being told of the technology, expressed concern the technology would misidentify innocent people who might then be branded as potential terrorists by the Department of Homeland Security.

“For goodness sakes, you are at an airport,” said Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “How many people are calm? People running to get to the gate, sweating through the security line, will I get there before my plane takes off?”

“This agency does maintain watch lists, it does maintain a number of other programs. It’s important for them not to create files or reports or records on individuals because this technology picked up something,” Coney said.

Burns said the technology would erase data after each screening, and no personal information would be used to identify subjects, create files, or make lists. He said there would be close oversight, and regulations would be put in place to protect privacy if and when the technology is deployed.

Ultimately, he hopes the technology can be developed to a point where it does not depend on an interviewer asking questions, but scans people as they walk through a checkpoint.

“I remember when I could freely go through airports, buildings,” Burns said. “I’d like to restore that – walk through security with my 4-year-old daughter, and not have her walk in front of me.”


Talk of the Nation, National Public Radio: “Decoding the Science of Decision Making”

Talk of the Nation, National Public Radio: “Decoding the Science of Decision Making”

Heard on Talk of the Nation, National Public Radio

July 24, 2009 –
This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I’m Paul Raeburn, sitting in for Ira Flatow.

From the time your alarm clock rang today, you’ve probably made thousands of decisions. The first was whether to hit the snooze button. Some of the decisions are big and deliberate. Do I actually go to work today or do I stay home and listen to SCIENCE FRIDAY? Others are miniscule and mostly unconscious, putting the toothpaste down on the right side of sink instead to the left or deciding to quickly and unconsciously scratch that mosquito bite on your elbow.

In the last few decades, psychologists, neuroscientists, even economists have been trying to pull back the curtain on our brains to see what’s going on when we make these decisions, large or small, figuring out for example why someone would decide on Coke instead of Pepsi, could mean millions of dollars for someone in the soda business. If you’re a lawyer, it could be a question of life or death for your client. How does a juror decide whether to convict?

For the first part of this hour, we’ll talk with three researchers studying decision making. If you want to get a piece of the conversation, give us a call. Our number is 1-800-989-8255, that’s 1-800-989-talk. If you’re on Twitter, you can twit us your questions by writing the @ sign followed by Scifri. And if you want more information about what we’re talking about this hour, go to our Web site at,, where you’ll find links to our topic.

Now I’d like to introduce my quests. Michael Frank is assistant professor of cognitive and linguistic science, psychology and psychiatry. He is director of the Laboratory for Neural Computation and Cognition at the Brown University Institute for Brain Science. He joins us today from Providence, Rhode Island. Thanks for being with us, Dr. Frank.

Dr. MICHAEL J. FRANK (Assistant Professor, Cognitive & Linguistic Sciences; Director, Laboratory for Neural Computation and Cognition, Brown University Institute for Brain Science): I’m very happy to be here.

RAEBURN: Jennifer S. Lerner is a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, director of the Decision Science Laboratory at Harvard University. Thanks for talking to us today, Dr. Lerner.

Dr. JENNIFER S. LERNER (Professor, Harvard Kennedy School; Director, Decision Science Laboratory, Harvard University): I’m pleased to be here, thanks.

RAEBURN: And Colin Camerer is the Robert Kirby Professor of Behavioral Economics at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Thanks to you too for joining us.

Professor COLIN CAMERER (Behavioral Economics, California Institute of Technology): My pleasure.

RAEBURN: Again, our number is 1-800-989-8255. Give us a call. Colin Camerer, what are you economists doing messing around with the psychologists and neuroscientists?

Prof. CAMERER: Well, I would say trying to reform economics in the sense that the standard economics theory that was developed mathematically starting around 1950s, and which continues to be taught and subject of every exam and also guides a lot of policies, is that people know what they want; they optimize by choosing the right – spend the right amount of time and money on things, even when decisions are very complicated – hundreds of mutual fund choices, distant – there are words are distant like at age 25, you’d have to choose a package that will give you a term and funds when you’re in your 70s, and there are very complicated probabilities to calculate it or in some cases, what we call ambiguity, we really know very little about the probability.

So, the economic model has been a very mathematical stylized, kind of Martha Stewart meets Mr. Spock on emotional calculating caricature. And it may apply in some cases but often not. It’s not a great model of human nature to build the entire social science on. So, what we’ve been trying to do, is to really import psychology and the increasing (unintelligible) looking directly at brain function when people are making somewhat complicated economic choices.

RAEBURN: Now, people talk about – what you’re talking about I think is behavioral economics or neuroeconomics, what do these terms mean?

Prof. CAMERER: So, behavioral economics takes the idea that people have some normal limits – not pathological limits, although pathology is useful to understand general mechanisms – normal limits on how much they can compute and figure out on greed and on willpower, and try to put those in mathematical terms that kind of soften this sharp caricature of perfect rationality that’s been the standard theory. Behavioral economics basically doesn’t say very much about detailed brain mechanisms, neuroeconomics does.

RAEBURN: Can you do something with the psychology, with mathematics or do you have to abandon the mathematics and use a different approach altogether?

Prof. CAMERER: No, in fact, I think one of the – one of the biggest innovations is that, first the mathematics just becomes harder. But that’s actually great because there are a lot of mathematical economists who’ve figured out all the simple stuff and are actually enjoying the challenge nowadays, or trying to mathematize something like envy or social influence.

RAEBURN: So, harder becomes harder just because these things are so difficult to quantify.

Prof. CAMERER: Yes, exactly. And also there’s a lot of different possible avenues, something like the things we’re talking about, willpower, addiction, exploration. Michal will talk about, often there are, you know, there are a lot of dimensions and you have to kind of comment to a particular approach. So, typically, for example, nowadays economists are very interested in modeling self control, and there’s not a single mathematical model, there are several. So then the ball goes in the court of empiricist to say, which are these seems to be on the right track?

RAEBURN: Michael Frank, it was your paper in Nature and Neuroscience that prompted this conversation today. Tell us a little bit about that. What did you find?

Dr. FRANK: Well, people have an automatic tendency, based on strong drives at the motivational system, to choose actions that have been associated with good outcomes in the past and to avoid those that had negative outcomes. That’s of course, and adaptive thing to do. But, sometimes we don’t know, really, what the best outcome is from our actions until we try other actions, essentially until we explore. And then we have to override this basic reinforcement system in order to gain more information and to explore when we’re more uncertain. So, we found was that people who’d a particular gene variation – their DNA – were more likely to export choices that had uncertain outcomes than those who had the other form of the gene.

RAEBURN: So, if choice that has an uncertain outcome, what would be an example of that?

Dr. FRANK: So, one example would be if you’re just used to going to the same restaurant again and again, and you kind of enjoy it, but you have lots of other options out there and you’re not sure whether you’re actually going to like the other option or you might not like the other option. So, the more you’re uncertain about that, the less you know about it or the more variability that you have in your experience is where the particular choice that you might make, the more uncertain you are both that and then in order to gain more information to find out whether it’s actually better than what you’ve been doing before. That’s the condition where you might want to explore.

RAEBURN: So, when I’m deciding whether to go to my favorite restaurant or to try this new restaurant, you’re telling me that seems like a fairly trivial thing that wouldn’t require a whole lot of computing power up in my head. But you’re telling me that it does require enough to at least be encoded partly in our genes.

Dr. FRANK: Right. I mean essentially you have to compute a lot of the things, you’re not actually computing, explicitly in your head. You’re not sort of measuring in your head exactly how much other uncertainty you have about going to a particular restaurant or anything. But, an example that I like to give sometimes, is if you’re faced with choosing – like you had in your introduction, salmon versus steak – you might have chosen both of those in the past many times and what you go on, which one you chose on a given day, might depend on your sort of integrated experience of all the times you’ve had steak or all the times you’d salmon in the past, together with a bunch of other contextual factors, of course.

But it’s not like you’re remembering each individual instance which you had salmon or which you had steak. Instead your brain essentially is remembering that in one sort of integrated value. But the computations necessary to compute that integrated value is a function of your past experience, of course, require complex brain mechanisms which themselves are influenced by the gene. And similarly the computations of how uncertain you are about that value are also influenced by brain mechanisms.

RAEBURN: I’m little afraid of what we think about this too much. I’m not going to have any idea what I have for dinner tonight by the time we’re done talking about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAEBURN: Dr. Lerner, you’ve talked about emotions and their role in decision making, just to make this thing even more complicated sounding that it already is, go ahead and tell us what role emotions play?

Dr. LERNER: Sure. Well, it’s useful to first think a semantic distinction between two different kinds of emotion that can enter into judgment and decision making. The first is what we call, integral emotion and these are feelings that one may have about the judgment or decision at hand. So, for example, if I’m about to make a decision about whether to invest in a particular stock or change the allocation of my retirement savings, that sort of thing, I may have feelings about that decision and feelings about – and I can anticipate feelings like how I would feel if the market dropped further or if it started to go up, I can have an excitement or worries.

Those are all integral to the judgment or decision at hand, and from a -traditionally a standard economic model can actually do – incorporate those feelings relatively easily.

There’s another kind of feeling, which we call incidental emotion, and these are feeling that one just happens to be having at the time of a judgment or decision and that have no normative relevance to the judgment or decision at hand.

So say, you’ve just had a – you’ve just driven into work and someone cut you off in traffic, which actually happens quite often here in Cambridge, and you nearly had a fender bender, and you’re all mad, and then you go in and you’re making this decision about re-allocating your retirement savings. Your anger over having this unpleasant altercation and the bad driver who ended up maybe treating you badly, your anger about that should not influence your decisions that you’re about to make, and in fact they should just be incidental but not influential.

But what we find over and over again is that once the emotion systems are activated, for example, the anger system in your body, it creates a whole bunch of changes, and the brain is just not wired up to say, oh, that anger is from the traffic and should not be influencing my stock allocations, but instead it just carries over, and very often it carries over when we’re not even aware of it.

So those are the two kinds of emotion in simple terms: integral and incidental. Both have strong influences on judgment and decision-making. One of them is a kind normatively defensible influence because it is relevant to the judgment or choice at hand, and the other is not, but both occur with quite – with intensity and commonly.

RAEBURN: Are you or others trying to quantify that mathematically as well, as we discussed with some of the other aspects of this?

Dr. LERNER: Absolutely. We do experiments in our laboratory, and we – everything, all of our results boil down to a mathematical model, where we can actually quantify the degree of the emotional influence on a variety of judgment and decision-making outcomes.

RAEBURN: And so this is where the Mr. Spock image comes up again. The mathematics of emotions sounds inherently contradictory.

Dr. LERNER: Well, it isn’t really. Actually, emotion for much of the 20th century, there’s an interesting history and philosophy of science story here, was considered unscientific and not worthy of study, and…

RAEBURN: Let me stop you right now. We’ll hear more about that when we come back. We’ll be right back after this short break.

(Soundbite of music)

RAEBURN: From NPR News, this is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I’m Paul Raeburn. We’re talking this hour about the science of decision-making. My guests are Michael J. Frank, assistant professor of cognitive and linguistic science, psychology and psychiatry, and director of the Laboratory for Neural Computation and Cognition at Brown University; Jennifer S. Lerner, professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, director of the Decision Science Laboratory there; and Colin Camerer, the Robert Kirby Professor of Behavioral Economics at Cal Tech.

Jennifer Lerner, you were telling us about the emotions and mathematics. I think you also did an experiment about looking at anger in decision-making. Tell us about that.

Dr. LERNER: Okay. Want to hear about the experiment first or about the issue of whether emotion can be studied scientifically?

RAEBURN: Well, finish the discussion about emotion and scientific study, and then we’ll talk about the experiment.

Dr. LERNER: Okay. So B.F. Skinner, one of the founders of classic behaviorism in psychology right here at Harvard, said this famous quote. In the middle of the last century he said, Emotion is one of the fictional causes to which we attribute behavior. And essentially he thought it did not – emotion didn’t need to be studied at all. We just thought that emotion was influencing our behavior, but it wasn’t really. And his view really did dominate much of the last century’s thinking.

RAEBURN: That was one of the things that made him such a controversial figure, wasn’t it?

Dr. LERNER: It was, and emotion was really not studied very much in the 20th century, and it was – in fact, there’s – one of the first books that Charles Darwin ever wrote is called “The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals,” but for the last century it went out of print, and you couldn’t even purchase that book. That is how out of fashion or out of scientific fashion the study of emotion was. But toward the end of the last century there were a number of methodological advances.

Brain imagining is one of them, also a lot of advances in studying the autonomic nervous system, and advances – some of them have become quite popular – in coding fine muscle movements in the face and being able to quantify different emotion expressions and how those expressions can actually predict underlying biological changes. And so we now internationally, across laboratories, have a number of very good tools for studying emotion, and in part through working with our colleagues in economics, improved tools for studying judgment and decision-making.

So there’s now this really thrilling field that’s burgeoning right at the intersection of psychology, economics and neuroscience and making a number of discoveries and also in particular with an exciting focus on how emotion influences these outcomes, again combining a psychological, an economic, and a neuroscience perspective.

RAEBURN: So tell us about the anger experiment. The anger seems to be – here’s my unscientific view. Anger is responsible for a lot of bad decisions by a lot of people in a lot of circumstances.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. LERNER: Yes. We have been doing research on anger for about 15 years in terms of how it influences judgment and decision-making. So we have a lot of experiments, and the typical paradigm that we’ll use is one where we’re interested in incidental anger.

So as I described a few minutes ago, we’re interested in the times when anger from one situation carries over and influences decisions in another situation, even when people, for the most part, are not aware of it.

This is a very old problem. It was actually Aristotle who first said, Anybody can be angry, but to – and he said, that’s easy, but to be angry with the right person at the right time and in the right way, that’s not easy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. LERNER: And so that is what we find in our empirical data in the lab.

RAEBURN: Now we know Aristotle was right, after all this time.

Dr. LERNER: Aristotle was right. He’s actually – “Nicomachean Ethics.” I highly recommend the book. It has a lot of predictions that are bearing out in our highly controlled laboratory experiments.

RAEBURN: I want to take some calls, but just in a nutshell, what did you find in this experiment, that the anger does carry over to other situations.

Dr. LERNER: Anger does carry over, and I’ll give you one kind of non-intuitive result. Most people think that when you’re in a negative mood, like anger, you’ll have a negative outlook. You’ll be pessimistic. It turns out the opposite.

Anger makes you optimistic and makes you perceive less risk than if you were in a neutral state, and if makes you take more risks. So for example, you’re more likely to choose a gamble over a sure thing when you’re angry.

Anger does a lot of other things, as well. It makes you think more heuristically rather than systematically. It automatically activates relative left frontal hemisphere, which is associated with approach. So when you’re mad, it predisposes you toward believing things are going to work out your way, believing that you have some sense of control. It gives you a sense of certainty, makes you take more risks, perceive less risk, think less deeply, a whole series of choices, and we have, if anyone wants to read, a summary of a lot of these experiments in a paper that is easily accessible online called “Portrait of the Angry Decision-maker.”

RAEBURN: Okay, we’d like to take a question from Jonathan Wesley(ph) via twitter, who wants to know, Michael Frank, if big and small decisions are processed differently in the brain.

Dr. FRANK: Well, I guess it would depend on what big and small mean. If you mean small like some of the examples you gave before, in terms of just simple motor decisions that you’re not aware of, like where you put your soap and things like that, versus big decisions like which career you should take, then I was saw absolutely they’re processed in different ways in different parts of the brain.

Of course, they share some overlap in terms of how value might be assigned to some of these decisions. So where you put your soap originally, when you’re learning to move as a child and through development, you’re trying to figure out what is the best way to move and with the most efficiency and the least cost, the least effort, and some movements work better than others, and so that system slowly gets ingrained until it becomes unconscious.

Similarly, when you’re actually making deliberative decisions, it’s possible that some of the same brain areas that are involved in selecting between simple motor programs are also involved in selecting between sort of more complex cognitive decisions, although they’re not exactly in the same parts of the brain. They’re sort of overlapping circuits, we think.

RAEBURN: Colin Camerer, can you tell us a little bit about what light a functional MRI sheds on some of these questions?

Dr. CAMERER: Well, MRIs has a few advantages. It has severe limits, which people sometimes talk about and sometimes gloss over. It doesn’t have really great temporal and spatial resolution compared to some other techniques, like measuring directly the firing rate of a particular neuron, but at least it gives us a starting point, and it’s often a very useful compliment to other types of tools to try to understand geographical specialization in the brain.

And importantly, that doesn’t mean that we’re going to find, say, an envy region of the brain. More likely what we’ll find is, and what we do find, is sort of neural circuitry, several different regions that are causally influencing one another, maybe in a detectable time path, and that can then be the object of a computational model.

And in a few cases, in what’s sometimes called decision neuroscience, we’ve – there’s very good convergent evidence that in valuing a wide range of objects from very simple things like a drop of juice if you’re thirsty to more complex things like which charity to give money to, that there’s activity in fairly specialized areas in what’s called the medial orbital frontal cortex, that’s in the middle, above the eye sockets.

That’s the orbital part, like, right between your eyebrows, and also in regions called the ventral striatum and caudate(ph), deep in the kind of oldest part of the brain. And a little bit is also known about how people with damage in those regions sort of behave abnormally in terms of simple decision-making.

So there’s some converging evidence on lots of different objects that need to have values that are traded off to make complex in decisions where in the brain that’s occurring, and once we have some clues about where things are happening, then we can start to do other kinds of really interesting causal experiments, which you couldn’t do.

So in our lab and many others, people use something called TMS, transcranial magnetic stimulation. What that is is a magnetic coil that’s held on the outside of the brain and can stimulate an area on the kind of surface of the brain about the size of a quarter.

So if you know, for example, that a particular region is involved in sort of assigning a monetary value to food when you’re hungry, and we disrupt that activity in that area, does that mean that monetary values become more erratic? Does that mean monetary values go down?

So we can actually influence brain activity that way, and then there are lots of other tools for doing this, like electrical stimulation, pharmacological manipulations that adjust the amount of serotonin or dopamine or something in the brain.

So understanding the geography of the brain is really just partly a stepping stone to then be able to really confirm things with lesion patients and these causal influences.

RAEBURN: Jennifer Lerner, we have another question from Twitter from 1213, who asks whether decision-making and things we do based on habit come out of the same parts of the brain or the same system, or whether those are completely different things.

Dr. LERNER: That’s a fascinating question. We don’t have a definitive answer to that yet, but we are starting to make important inroads on that, in part because, for example, in the research that we’re doing on incidental emotion, a lot of times, they carry over a curse without people realizing it.

And so, for example, if they’re in a sad state, we observe that they spent more to buy something than if they were in a neutral state. And we made them sad by having them watch a short little film clip of about four minutes. And they’ve been randomly assigned to watch that clip or randomly assigned to watch a neutral clip.

And then afterwards, we give them a task that involves buying and selling goods, involving real commodities, real money. And afterwards, we’ll ask them, did what you saw in that video clip in any way influence the prices that you set? And people will tell us, no. And they actually are offended. And they say, you know, how could you suggest that I would? That would be ridiculous if it did.

And so, there’s a question between these sorts of non-conscious processes, where emotions are influencing how much we buy and – the price that which we buy and sell. But the process is opaque to intersection. So, the subjects themselves don’t see that it’s going on. And then getting back to your question, how similar different is that kind of non-conscious process from what we would call a habit?

So we are investigating this now on the behavioral level and increasingly on the neuroscience level. And these are some of the fascinating questions about how the mind works that the field is now taking up.

RAEBURN: Michael Frank, can the genetics work that you do be correlated with the geographic work that comes out of the fMRI scans?

Dr. FRANK: Absolutely. And there’s a whole line of research that’s attempting to do so and we’re following up on our original research and trying to do so as well.

What you can do is you can genotype people and put them in the scanner and look at whether activations in particular parts of the brain that are, in this case, involve in decision-making or reward processing, whether the activations that you see very according to the genotype.

So in some cases, you do see that where you’ll put someone in the scanner and then you’ll deliver rewards to them in a form of either financial rewards that are gambling and making money or you can actually deliver juice directly to their mouth if they’re thirsty and you actually can see that the reward area -sorry – the reward areas of the brain can sort of activate, they light up. And to the extent that they have particular genotypes that might actually modulate their sensitivity to reward, which could also predict their sensitivity to reward in other aspects of their life.

RAEBURN: Now, what other types of decisions can you study at the genetic level? These genes involved Dopamine, is that correct?

Dr. FRANK: That’s right. So you can study – and what I mentioned before is there’s the gene that predicts your tendency to sort of override your more basic reinforcement system in order to explore. But, of course, you can study the more basic process itself, and we and others have done that as well, so that your sensitivity to rewards versus your sensitivity to negative outcomes, like losses or punishment, and those depend on separate goal mechanisms within the brain. And there’s also genetics that are associated with us to aspects of learning.

There’s also other ways to sort of carve up the space of sensitivity to reward and decision-making, for example, temporal context. So, if went to a restaurant and you had uh, salmon once, and it was terrible, do you remember that very last experience and decide to change your whole strategy for restaurants, or you do sort of take a longer-term view? And that sort of poses a computational tradeoff in terms of the brain systems that are involved in learning from or responding to very recent history versus integrating sort of over the course of your lifetime what seems to be true on average.

RAEBURN: Let me take a moment to remind everyone, I’m Paul Raeburn. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

So, Colin Camerer, tell us a little bit about the particular work that you do, some of your recent research and how that bears on some of these questions.

Prof. CAMERER: Okay. So a recent study we did, that came out in Science this May, had to do with self-control. And in that study, as I mentioned, it’s something which was talked about a lot. It seems to be a very important in the economy as – and we went down and noticed the savings rate in the U.S. in modern times is quite low, sometimes negative. And credit card debt is enormous, something in the scale of several thousand dollars per household. And in addition, where there’s had been a tremendous worldwide rise in obesity, people just eating too much and not exercising enough. And that has an enormous cause in terms of later health care.

So self-control is a big stakes thing that were interesting philosophically and from a critical point of view. So our paradigm is very simple. People see actual foods: yogurt, Snickers bars, Cheetos, and rate them on how healthy do you think they are and how tasty do you think they are. And then we asked them whether they want to choose this food or kind of a neutral food that’s in between on health and taste.

And these are people who say they’re dieting and struggling a little bit to control their diet. And what we find is that when there’s activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – I apologize for the jargon, but these do have names because we talk about in that way. Dorsal means sort of upward in the brain, lateral is on the side. It’s a spot maybe two or three inches above your eyebrow.

And when there’s stronger activity in that region, that’s predictive of when people are able to exhibit self-control in a sense of say no to things that aren’t healthy but are really tasty.

And as I mentioned, once we know a little bit about the neurocircuitry, the dorsolateral PFC and how it’s kind of modulating the weight that’s placed on health, which is also being expressed in another part of the brain and medial LC. Once we start to know something about the circuitry – and there are other regions involved, too. I’m just highlighting a couple. We can start to ask about genetic influences, particular neurotransmitters, we can do TMS and things like that. So we, you know, interpreted in an overly glib way. It’s something like an attempt to understand the locus of will power in the brain.

And related to what Jennifer works on, another thing which people can do outside of fMRI is – we know that this dorsolateral prefrontal region is also activated in working memory tasks, like if you’re trying to pay attention while driving or remember somebody’s phone number.

So what happens if you overload the DLPFC with an additional kind of cognitive distractor task, does that mean that people then have trouble resisting tempting foods? The prediction would seem to be yes.

So once we know something about these areas and what other things those areas are involved in, we can – it generates a big range of other cognitive experiments you can do. So there really is a kind of – fMRI is sort of the glamorous tool because pictures of the brain is so beautiful, but it also works best when it tells you other kinds of experiments that hundreds of people can’t do if you don’t have brain imaging.

RAEBURN: Well, I think that’s about all the time we have. I’d like to thank my guest for being with us. Michael J. Frank, assistant professor at the Laboratory for Neural Computation and Cognition at Brown University, Jennifer Lerner, professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, director of the Decision Science Laboratory there, and Colin Camerer, Robert Kirby Professor of Behavioral Economics at Caltech.

When we come back, a look at the new science-fiction movie “Moon.” Stay with us. We’ll be right back after this short break.

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.


The Wall Street Journal: “For Mother’s Day, Give Her Reins to the Portfolio”

The Wall Street Journal: “For Mother’s Day, Give Her Reins to the Portfolio”

May 9, 2009

From the Wall Street Journal

By Jason Zweig

Fess up, fellows: The masters of the universe have turned out to be masters of disaster. No matter which aspect of the financial crisis you consider, there is a man behind it.

So, it is worth pointing out, this Mother’s Day weekend, how different things might be if the financial world were female.

Finance professors Brad Barber and Terrance Odean have found that women’s risk-adjusted returns beat those of men by an average of about one percentage point annually. In short, women trade less frequently, hold less volatile portfolios and expect lower returns than men do.

On the other hand, in the testosterone-poisoned sandbox of the male investor, the most important thing is beating the other guy; the second most important: bragging about it. The long term is somebody else’s problem, and asking for advice is an admission of inferiority. Worrying about risk is for sissies. Leverage is good, since it raises returns — while the market goes up. Is it any wonder the male-dominated world of Wall Street has boomed and busted every few years for more than two centuries?

Women, by contrast, put safety first. Even after controlling for age, income and marital status, women are more inclined than men to wear seat belts, avoid cigarette smoking, floss and brush their teeth and get their blood pressure checked. They even have been shown to be 40% less prone than men to run yellow traffic lights.

Women are less afflicted than men by overconfidence, or the delusion that they know more than they really do. And they’re more likely than men to attribute success to factors outside themselves, like luck or fate.

In 2001, a survey of financial analysts and investment advisers found that women felt it was much more important than men did to avoid incurring large losses, falling below a target rate of return and acting on incomplete information. In short, women are more risk-averse than men. And they shy away from uncertainty: Asked whether having ambiguous information would reduce their confidence and raise their perception of risk, 92% of the women said yes, versus just 69% of the men.

“There’s a general emotional difference between men and women as they perceive and take risks,” said Jennifer Lerner, a psychologist at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Negative events like natural disasters, terrorist attacks or a financial crisis usually make men more angry than fearful. Women, on the other hand, tend to feel more fearful than angry.

Those differing emotions lead to divergent viewpoints. Seen through what Prof. Lerner calls “a lens of anger,” the world seems more certain, more amenable to our control and less risky. Viewed through a lens of fear, however, the world appears full of uncertainty, beyond our control and rife with risk.

The results of a nationwide survey of hundreds of investors conducted in March, just days after the Dow bottomed at 6547, show how anger and fear in the minds of men and women can affect their financial decisions. Men were far more likely than women to say they were “more angry than fearful” about the financial crisis. And one in eight men, but only one in every 40 women, had “made riskier investments looking for long-term growth” in the previous week. Female investors were twice as likely to expect the return on stocks over the coming year to be zero or negative and to think stocks will return 5% or less per year over the next 10 years.

“The women were more concerned but took fewer actions,” said psychologist Ellen Peters of the University of Oregon, who co-directed the survey. “They were also more pessimistic — or realistic? — about what to expect from the market.”

Stocks are up 35% since March, so the women’s fears haven’t yet come to pass. But their inaction already looks wise. And their realism can’t hurt, either. “The essential traits and qualities of the male,” H.L. Mencken once wrote, “are at the same time the hall-marks of the numskull. … Women, in fact, are the supreme realists of the race.”

Memo to men: Your household’s investment portfolio will be less risky and more diversified if your wife helps manage it. She will share in what comes out of that portfolio down the road; shouldn’t she share in what goes into it? Chances are, her ideas and emotions will complement yours, and you will both end up wealthier. At least one of you will end up wiser.


Center for Public Leadership: “Lunch Talk: ‘Leadership Decision Making’ with Professor Jennifer Lerner”

Center for Public Leadership: “Lunch Talk: ‘Leadership Decision Making’ with Professor Jennifer Lerner”

April 2, 2009
Jennifer Lerner, director of the Harvard Decision Science Laboratory and CPL faculty member, is joined by doctoral student Viral Gandhi as they present and discuss the efforts of their lab to better understand the decision making process of leaders.