Death Becomes Us

In Do the Right Thing, Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, highlights new research that “our decisions kill us.” He draws on the work of Ralph Keeney, whose paper (pdf) Personal Decisions Are the Leading Cause of Death, uses US data to show that “44.5 per cent of all premature deaths in the US result from personal decisions — choices such as smoking, not exercising, criminality, drug and alcohol use and unsafe sexual behaviour.”

This phenomenon is not limited to developed/industrial countries. Nicholas Kristof writes:

If the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed. Much suffering is caused not only by low incomes, but also by shortsighted private spending decisions by heads of households.

And it’s not just premature deaths and worse education, these types of behaviors cost a lot. Just take the May headline, Governments’ Drug-Abuse Costs Hit $468 Billion, Study Says. Most of those costs were in health or law enforcement, with just 2 percent spent on prevention, treatment, and research.

This is where we need really innovative approaches to understanding consumption, human decision making, and how we regulate our behavior. Behavioral economics is not all that; we do WEIRD research, instead of MYOPICS studies; we say poverty poisons the brain, but forget about just how poverty comes to be; we blame bad behavior on bad hormones, rather than doing more substantive work to understand people’s behavior.

Neuroanthropology can offer novel approaches, from understanding the development of addiction in four steps to better grasping the integrated dimensions of post-traumatic stress disorder to examining different components of food, obesity and eating and understanding the complexities of video games and other modern obsessions.

These problems are not all caused by biological mechanisms or social construction, they are not all rooted in human psychology or deviations from rationality. They are human phenomena, requiring that we integrate ideas across multiple domains. To do that, anthropology needs psychology and neuroscience, just as they need anthropology. The impact of what we DO is enormous. And I’m betting that understanding what we do better will help us become more human – to find ways to deal with our own decisions and flaws, not just through technical fixes or imposed solutions, but also through finding ways to better promote our potential.

Globalisation: the products but not the ethics


One of the ‘Quotes of the day’ in Time Magazine on the 21st of April 2010 was:

“They have made the mistake of letting the Marlboro Man into the country. “

A photo is featured alongside the quote. In the photo, there is a billboard advertising L.A. Lights cigarettes and an upcoming Kelly Clarkson concert in Indonesia. The Tapei Times writes: “Just a few kilometers after passing a towering Marlboro Man ad, a second billboard off the highway promotes cigarettes with a new American face: Kelly Clarkson.” Radiosophie report: “The marketing ploy comes two years after Alicia Keys objected to a similar tobacco-fuelled sponsorship deal in Indonesia.” The Los Angeles Times and Jakarta Globe also covered the story.

Since the scandal, Kelly Clarkson has allegedly cancelled her tour and her Tobacco-company sponsorship, but the same cannot be said for the Tobacco-company sponsored tours of Incubus (Jakarta, 5 March 2008), James Blunt (Jakarta21 May 2008), or Jamiroquai (Bogor, 8 April, 2009). Tickets to these concerts cost little more than Four US dollars ($US4), so it is clear that without huge sponsorship deals from Tobacco companies, the big artists simply would not perform in Indonesia. It makes me wonder, how many other Pop artists escape the Paparazzi radar and perform with Tobacco-company sponsorship in Indonesia?

For me, these billboards exemplify what globalisation brings and what it doesn’t bring to the developing world. It brings the products but not the ethics. 

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Gambling and Compulsion: Neurobiology Meets Casinos

Slot MachinesBy Jarred Carter, Andrew Cavanagh, Elizabeth Olveda, and Meredith Ragany

Vegas baby, Vegas!

So you’ve finally made it out to Sin City, setting aside a few hundreds dollars to gamble. Maybe even a thousand. You’re hoping to get lucky and have some fun. A few hours and a half-dozen drinks into your weekend, you find yourself at the craps table, dice in hand. You’re feeling good, ready to turn your recent down streak into big bucks. Where does that leave you?
Right where the casino wants you.

The game is rigged. Everyone loses money eventually, if not immediately. But just like gamblers grab hold of that lever and pull, society has stepped up to the gambling craze. And now gambling is pulling people for all they’re worth: emotionally, mentally and, most notably, financially.

This post will look more closely at casino’s techniques to draw gamblers back to the slot chairs and the tables, focusing on both physiological aspects and engaged decision making. Ultimately, these observations will demonstrate that casinos create more than entertainment; they develop an entire compulsive experience.

The Gambler’s Rush

The casino’s greatest asset might be the very personal, very intense rush that gamblers experience as they step up to the blackjack table or slot machine, hoping to strike it rich. This characteristic “rush” or “high” stems from the series of steps and actions that are involved in addictive behavior. Stimulation from the surrounding atmosphere and the thrill of a big risk drives the “high”. Ultimately, the “rush” from gambling can be as intense as a drug fix.

Dealing Emotions

Excitement, making a quick buck, or even the possibility of financial independence is enticing. From experience, most people know that emotions are difficult to control. From a neurological standpoint, the amygdala is situated in the limbic system and is one main centers of emotion (pdf) in the human brain. Other parts of the brain, like the prefontal cortex, display less activity (pdf) during the act of gambling.

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Is Your Brain Green?

Why Isn’t the Brain Green? asks Jon Gertner in the feature article of the “Green Issue” in this week’s New York Times Magazine. The issue is worth a visit alone for the striking photos, where the Momix Dance Troupe form vivid images of the head and the brain. But Green Lantern is going to come in handy.

So who wants to know why the brain isn’t green? CRED – Center for Research on Environmental Decisions – where they use behavioral research and decision science to understand “the green mind” (or lack thereof). As seems de rigeur today, any topic where we don’t act on the information available and seem to make irrational decisions is the target of this new decision science.

CRED has the primary objective of studying how perceptions of risk and uncertainty shape our responses to climate change and other weather phenomena like hurricanes and droughts. The goal… is to finance laboratory and field experiments in North America, South America, Europe and Africa and then place the findings within an environmental context.

So what are the problems? We’re bad at long-term decision making; we see environmental problems as far away from our everyday lives; we seem to have a “finite pool of worry” and make an occasional decision to help the environment while continuing on with our overall lifestyle.

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What Is The Value of Neuroscience?

Jonah Lehrer has a great post, The Value of Neuroscience, over at The Frontal Cortex. He writes about struggling with a common question he got during his recent tour for his new book, How We Decide.

The question is, “What practical knowledge have we gained by looking at decision-making in the brain that we didn’t already have, either through introspection or behavioral studies?”

His answer is, “The best answer, I think, is that learning about the brain can help constrain our theories. We haven’t decoded the cortex or solved human nature – we’re not even close – but we can begin to narrow the space of possible theories.”

That is both an elegant and a practical answer – it claims neither too much nor too little for neuroscience, and provides a way to think about neuroscience. Ways of thinking are often much harder to grasp than what to think, where neuroscience churns out an enormous quantity of information but not necessarily an enormous range of hypotheses about people as people.

Lehrer’s answer echoes my own view of evolutionary theory, that its greatest utility is in limiting the range of possibilities when confronting the diversity and commonality of people’s behavior lives today and in the recent past. People are often aghast when I say this – but what about all the predictions, the selective forces, Darwin’s genius? But there is evolution’s strength – certain possibilities are more likely, and others are often not on the table. Combine that with the mechanistic understandings from neurobiology–the outcomes of evolutionary adaptations and present function–and suddenly the range of possibilities is constrained further.

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Studying Sin

By Daniel Lende

“You study sin,” my dinner companion said with a smile at a recent conference. I reached for my wine, and after a modest sip (really!), replied, “Vicio. In Colombia it’s called vicio. Vices.”

In Colombia vicio covers a whole range of activities—video games, playing pool, and yes, drugs. Even better, when vicio becomes the adjective “enviciador,” favorite snacks and sweets come into the picture. People start to eat, and it’s hard to stop until every piece of candy is gone.

I like the Colombian category of vicio, because I see something common in the way people get hooked on things, the way they want and crave this or that. I have seen it with food, with sex, with gambling and smoking cigarettes in both the United States and Colombia. But I have seen “getting hooked” best with drugs.

In today’s world drugs stand in for sin pretty well. Just in April Pope Benedict XVI declared drug use a deadly sin. In the United States drug users are often seen as moral degenerates. In this moral model of addiction, people lack willpower. As the tagline to a recent HBO series on addiction went, Why can’t they just stop?

But with addiction, the disease model has slowly come to the fore, highlighted by Alan Leshner, the then-head of the National Institute of Drugs Abuse, declaring in Science that “Addiction Is a Brain Disease, and It Matters.”

Morals versus brains. Or culture versus biology. Just yesterday in a talk someone asked about gender, “So is this biology or is this culture?”

How can we escape this constricting dichotomy? As I discussed in an interview with Jonah Lehrer over at Scientific American’s Mind Matters, I think a focus on concrete problems is the way to go. Specifics will help get us to where we need to go, not theories based on old ideas.

Indeed, grand pronouncements of consilience or some over-arching theory forget about Newton and his very concrete apple. As the poet Lord Byron wrote:

When Newton saw an apple fall, he found
In that slight startle from his contemplation –
‘Tis said (for I’ll not answer above ground
For any sage’s creed or calculation) –
A mode of proving that the earth turn’d round
In a most natural whirl, called “gravitation;”
And this is the sole mortal who could grapple,
Since Adam, with a fall or with an apple.

Today we’ve got the physics of an apple down, and we are turning back to the problem facing Adam. The tree of knowledge is both tempting and sweet. So just how are we to understand the apple of my eye?


My concrete problem has been craving, that compulsive desire drug users can experience and which plays such a powerful role in relapse in excessive use and relapse. In both the popular accounts and scientific literature on addiction, dopamine often takes the blame for addiction. In understanding dopamine function, two prominent ways have been developed over the past decade – one focused on incentives and motivation, and the other on computation and learning. With addiction, the incentives and motivation approach has gained more traction, largely through the “incentive salience” work of Terry Robinson and Kent Berridge. Robinson and Berridge have often glossed dopamine function as “wanting” – and wanting just needs a little push to get to craving.

Their elegant work and sophisticated hypothesis testing have helped tease out a particularly thorny problem around addiction, that of pleasure versus desire. Earlier behaviorist theories largely assumed that pleasure was the ultimate reinforcer; no other mechanism was necessary to account for why animals went towards something rewarding. The work by Robinson and Berridge helped separate “wanting” versus “liking,” or as I explain to my students, the difference between that late-night craving for pizza, just a phone dial away, and that first exquisite bite of cheese and sauce and dough.

So the leap from lab to real life can be perilous. It’s a leap that I think anthropologists are better equipped to make than most. For my research on compulsive wanting and craving, what really made the difference was the combination of two strange bedfellows – evolution and ethnography. While for many that combination would be sinful in itself, the two helped take research on dopamine function and translate it into something I could use.

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