Bad brain science: Boobs caused subprime crisis

I’m too busy to be blogging right now; I’m putting in an application for academic promotion, and like much else in academe, that means reams of paper must be offered up to the cruel, fickle gods of bureaucracy. But this example of the reporting on brain imaging research, drawn to my attention by Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon’s, Using 15 college age boys and some reactionary reporting, we are able to blame the coming depression on boobage, couldn’t pass by without comment. Thank YOU Amanda for getting me worked up enough that I won’t need a morning cup of coffee to get through several hours working on my promotion application, if I can just get back to that. (Thanks also to Echidne of the Snakes.)

The article which inspired this train of commentary is ‘Sex and financial risk linked in brain,’ by Seth Borenstein, who probably needs some sort of award for this piece. I’ll let you decide:

A new brain-scan study may help explain what’s going on in the minds of financial titans when they take risky monetary gambles — sex. When young men were shown erotic pictures, they were more likely to make a larger financial gamble than if they were shown a picture of something scary, such a snake, or something neutral, such as a stapler, university researchers reported. The arousing pictures lit up the same part of the brain that lights up when financial risks are taken.

“You have a need in an evolutionary sense for both money and women. They trigger the same brain area,” said Camelia Kuhnen, a Northwestern University finance professor who conducted the study with a Stanford University psychologist.

(I’m deleting some of the paragraph returns in these quotes. Like with many internet news sources, the authors or editors seem to think that a paragraph should ideally be two sentences. It just makes everything hard to read onscreen in our blog, I think. If your attention span is two sentences, reading Neuroanthropology is gonna be frustrating.)

Alright, before we get too far along, lets stop and think about this: need for money is an evolutionary pressure? In what sort of time frame? And does this mean that everything we ‘need’ ‘triggers’ this ‘brain area’? So might oxygen, drinking water, food, and shelter also ‘trigger the same brain area?’ Why are we restricting ‘evolutionary needs’ to pornographic images of women and cash? (We won’t even get into issues with using pornographic images as a stimulus for an ‘evolutionary drive to reproduce’ — are other stimuli associated with reproduction, say pictures of one’s mate or infants, also exciting this ‘brain area’?)

But I’ll just let Mr. Bornstein explain without too much interruption (must. not. interject. snarky. comments…):

The study only involved 15 heterosexual young men at Stanford University. It focused on the sex and money hub ['the sex and money hub'?! can't help myself...], the V-shaped nucleus accumbens, which sits near the base of the brain and plays a central role in what you experience as pleasure. When that hub was activated by the erotic images, the men were far more likely to bet high on a random chance game that would earn them either a dollar or a dime. Each man made more than 50 gambles under brain scans.

Stanford psychologist Brian Knutson, a lead author of the study, says it’s all about the power of emotion and arousal and our financial decisions. The trigger doesn’t have to be sex — it could be chocolate or a winning lottery ticket. [But isn't it 'the sex and money hub'?!] “It didn’t matter if the sexy woman didn’t tell you anything about the odds of winning a roulette game,” Knutson said. “What really matters is that the sexy woman is having an emotional impact. That bleeds over into your financial decisions.”…

The link between sex and greed goes back hundreds of thousands of years [money's been around for 100,000s of years?], to men’s evolutionary role as provider or resource gatherer to attract women [has he read any recent evolutionary theory of sexual division of labor?], said Kevin McCabe, professor of economics, law and neuroscience at George Mason University, who wasn’t part of the study. “Risk-taking is a natural way of increasing your relative success, but, of course, there’s a downside to it, what we’re seeing right now in the economy,” McCabe said.

The results of the study jibe with the real life on the trading floor, said Phil Flynn, a former Chicago commodities floor trader and current analyst at Alaron Trading Corp. “I’m not shocked that it may be part of the deal,” Flynn said Friday. “When you talk about all the euphemisms for trading (on the floor), they can be used for sex as well.” [Oh, now I'm persuaded... Would there also be sports or war metaphors, too? Maybe they're also in the 'sex and money hub.']

[Again, had to take out some of the paragraph returns.]

Let’s just assess this research again before we move on in the article (and we’ll get to the original article abstract, too, in a bit). We’ve found that there is a part of the brain, which some want to call the ‘sex and money hub,’ which gets active when shown erotic images (at least in men), AND when men are shown erotic images, they are more likely to make risky bets on chance games. In addition, the ‘sex and money hub’ appears to be a bit indiscriminate: the ‘trigger’ could be chocolate or a winning lottery ticket. Either way, if he gets excited, a man’s more likely to gamble. If you scare a man with pictures of snakes or spiders, he’s less likely to gamble money. Scared men less likely to take risks… yeah… and the news here is? Ah, of course, the brain imaging data…

But the study conducted at Stanford, funded by the National Institutes of Health, went deeper, using functional magnetic resonance imaging machines. It’s part of a new but growing field called neuroeconomics that attempts to take the hard-wired [wired?] science of brain biology and mix it with the softer sciences of psychology and economics to figure out why we make the financial decisions we do.

An earlier study by the same team found that the brain’s reward area lit up at about the same time as risky decision-making. The erotic pictures experiment was designed to find which was the cause and which was the effect. The answer: Lighting up the reward area, in this case with soft-core pictures, caused the risk-taking, Kuhnen said. “The more activation there you have, the more prone you are to taking more risk,” Kuhnen said. “It could be a feedback loop.”

Okay, I’m getting distracted by all the talk of ‘lighting up’ in brain areas, but the bottom line seems to be that reward assessment is allegedly linked to risk taking. But for the life of me, I can’t figure out from this article what the hell the experiment is supposed to show. I’m not even sure that the AP author understands. (Like I said, I’ll get to the real research report in a few minutes.)

Fortunately, the author, in conjunction with an economist gives us the bottom line, and it happens to be from a movie:

This all makes sense to Harvard economist Terry Burnham, author of the book “Mean Genes.” Burnham said it could be all summed up in a famous line from the movie “Scarface.”

“In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women.”

This article is so mind-staggeringly crap-tastic that I’m driven to write (my crap detector mechanism must be ‘lighting up’). Echidne of the Snakes and Amanda Marcotte both pick up on the potential for misogynist implications: women are to blame for men’s bad financial decisions (after all, can’t blame it on the distracting effects of chocolate). As Marcotte writes:

But if you read a slightly less sensational version of the story, it turns out that the findings aren’t so much that men get stupid when they see naked women—making it easy to blame women for our current financial crisis—but that once the pleasure parts of the brain are activated, people are more willing to engage in risky behavior.

The abstract from NeuroReport of the original article is far more interesting, in my opinion, than the shonky (that’s Australian for ‘crap-tastic’) science reporting. The abstract:

In functional magnetic resonance imaging research, nucleus accumbens (NAcc) activation spontaneously increases before financial risk taking. As anticipation of diverse rewards can increase NAcc activation, even incidental reward cues may influence financial risk taking. Using event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging, we predicted and found that anticipation of viewing rewarding stimuli (erotic pictures for 15 heterosexual men) increased financial risk taking, and that this effect was partially mediated by increases in NAcc activation. These results are consistent with the notion that incidental reward cues influence financial risk taking by altering anticipatory affect, and so identify a neuropsychological mechanism that may underlie effective emotional appeals in financial, marketing, and political domains.

Wait! Where’s the stuff on evolution, and the ‘financial titans’ thinking about naked women when they drove the financial system off road into tarpits? That’s right, the study does NOT show that men are thinking about sex when they take financial risks. I don’t know who came up with this interpretation, but it’s clear that Kuhnen, the finance professor on the study, thinks that we ‘have a need in an evolutionary sense’ for both money and sex (of course, they only studied 15 university-aged men). So is this how we got from the experiment to an ‘evolutionary need’ to a full-blown evolutionary explanation for this?

In fact, this article undermines a key point in neoclassical economic theories of the actor; if an actor were purely ‘rational,’ he (or she) would not be affected on decisions to gamble by irrelevant stimulation like soft porn pictures. That is, the risks and potential rewards of the game of chance are the same with or without the erotic pictures, so the behavioral differences in the experiment are ‘non-rational’ in the microeconomic sense. As the press release from Stanford reports:

“If you go to the casinos, people are wearing skimpy costumes, they’re giving you free alcohol, there are bells and lights and things like that, which don’t necessarily seem related to the odds of the gambling,” Knutson said. “But these are cues that might activate brain regions that encourage risk-taking and therefore get people to gamble more.”

The brain imaging, the areas ‘lighting up,’ are really showing a fascinating anticipatory and lateral effect that is feeding back into the decision making, even when the reward stimulus has nothing to do with the risk on the table. Yes, there are all kinds of implications for the behavior of ‘financial titans,’ but it has nothing to do with the evolution of men’s sex drives or the role of women in causing men to make bad decisions. Rather, the research shows that the NAcc is indiscriminate; if you surround people (at least college-aged men) with rewards, they are more likely to be stimulated to take risks. The implication, in my opinion: if you want risk-taking from your decision-makers, surround them with rewards or reminders of rewards, even if they have nothing to do with performance. If you want more sober assessment of risks, don’t let your decision maker’s NAcc get wound up before the decision. One could — if one were the type to jump to social implications from brain research — argue that overly risky behavior might be linked to an environment with too many rewards, including money, women, chocolate, fancy suits, sports cars, and the like. In other words, ‘financial titans’ should be a bit more deprived if they’re going to make rational decisions about risks.

But the simpler discussion is to say that decision making is driven by ‘non-rational’ experiences of potential reward and utterly irrelevant rewards, which wouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to anyone who has read Antonio Damasio’s book, Descartes’ Error, which explores the way in which emotional parts of the brain affect all sorts of decision making.

So why discuss this shoddy piece of science writing? Well, when I’m not hatin’ on twin studies, I’m hatin’ on evolutionary psychology. Most of the leading evolutionary psychologists are interesting, although I likely disagree with most of their arguments, but I respect them for their thought and seriousness. However, ‘evolutionary psychology’ as a style of thinking — coming up with ‘evolutionary explanations’ for what are alleged to be ‘universal human traits’ — tends to attract the wrong sort of element (of course, one could say this about many theoretical perspectives). So around the core of formidable, responsible thinkers, folks like John Tooby, Leda Cosmides, Robert Trivers, and Richard Dawkins, there’s a penumbra of social conservatives, misogynists, racists, ethnocentrics, hare brains, and other quacks. Although these people are typically just echoing some ‘folk wisdom’ about human nature (which is usually ethnocentric, essentializing, reductionist, etc.), they do so with a sheen of ‘evolutionary theory.’

One of my issues with the disreputable proponents of ‘evolutionary psychology’ is that they take extremely good theory (evolutionary theory), great data (paleoarchaeological data and brain imaging and the like), interesting experiments (in psychology, principally), a wonderful cross-cultural approach (oooo… I wish I had their financial support), mix it all together, and come up with some of the WORST arguments imaginable. The explanations tend to be pretty formulaic, as the Evolutionary Psychology Bingo Card satirizes, but that predictability in no way means that they are not amazingly creative, in a devious, we-already-know-the-conclusion-so-lets-work-backward kind of way. I won’t go into all my criticisms on evolutionary psychology because that’s not what this post is about; besides, it’s been done much better by authors such as Sahlins, Gould, Lewontin, and Fodor, and I’m a blogger so I have to dole out my limited supply of my ideas.

But I need to point this out again: much of the worst ‘evolutionary psychology’ is practiced by people who know very little about evolutionary science, psychology, or genetics, a point that Echidne makes:

So. Professor McCabe is an economist, by the way [he's the one who thinks sex and greed have been linked for hundreds of thousands of years]. I’m always astonished to find that evolutionary psychologists don’t have to have the kind of training I would have expected them to have. You know, something to do with psychology and genetics. Perhaps that is the reason I’m beginning to feel like an expert in that field, too.

This is actually a key point. Evolutionary psychology is an analytical or theoretical perspective, and anyone from any field is welcome to use it. HOWEVER, some of those using it say things that no evolutionary theorist, geneticist, or psychologist would ever say. Because it is a kind of inter-disciplinary meeting place, the backgrounds of many working on these sorts of theories differ radically. Unfortunately, some of the shallower proponents don’t take the time to get a firm grounding in any of the relevant fields. The wild logical leaps that take this interesting research paper through various layers of interpretation until we get to the off-the-cuff comment by Borenstein that ‘financial titans’ are thinking about chicks when they make risky investments reveals, reveals not just a bad understanding of the research, but several different, compounding layers of misunderstanding, slipshod thinking, and biases.

Let me give some advice to people in the brain sciences interested in this sort of work who might be reading this: stay away from economists. I’ve got an undergraduate degree in economics, and I quite like economics, but evolutionary economics, right now, is experiencing some teething problems. Sure, there’s some good work being done (I know, I know, you’re welcome to write a comment to bite my head off on this one, but I’m going to stand by it), but the excitement being generated among economists may be leading some of them to get ahead of themselves. Not all evolutionary economists are really keeping up with evolutionary theory.

No, seriously, go ahead, talk to the psychologists or the sociologists. Hey, even give us in anthropology a call. As Echidne points out, ‘The psychologist (as opposed to the finance professor) noted that it’s about arousal and not necessarily about sex…’ But for god’s sake, if an economist starts talking about how sex and money and chocolate and hot cars and new electronics are all equivalent in our perceptions, due to ‘Evolution,’ you should be deeply suspicious. Some economists have an ideological commitment to the equality of all stimuli that’s just not grounded in biology or evolutionary theory. The slippage this causes can severely impair any research agenda. If the economist starts talking like this, about evolution and sex and greed and how it all goes back to getting women, back away from the economist before he (or she) gets to your expensive time with brain imaging equipment. Or at least talk to someone in evolutionary science before you get too deeply enmeshed in these projects…

Knutson, Brian, G. Elliott Wimmer, Camelia M. Kuhnen, and Piotr Winkielman. 2008. Nucleus accumbens activation mediates the influence of reward cues on financial risk taking. NeuroReport 19(5):509-513. (abstract)

10 thoughts on “Bad brain science: Boobs caused subprime crisis

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  8. It requires a substantial leap of logic to assume that positive stimulus that elicits heightened pleasure response via the NAcc or any other neurological path followed by an associative activity equals a causative or corollary response. The “experiment” has no control. Show me boobs and re-runs of Gilligan’s Island or gartered legs and “Extreme Sports Vol.II” It’s entirely feasible that my opinion of self powered flight and skydiving may have improved. Bad science.

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