Mental Shortcuts, Not Emotion, May Guide Irrational Decisions

If you participate in a study in my lab, the Huettel Lab at Duke, you may be asked to play an economic game. For example, we may give you $20 in house money and offer you the following choice:

  1. Keep half of the $20 for sure
  2. Flip a coin: heads you keep all $20; tails you lose all $20

In such a scenario, most participants choose 1, preferring a sure win over the gamble.

Now imagine this choice, again starting with $20 in house money:

  1. Lose half of the $20 for sure
  2. Flip a coin: heads you keep all $20; tails you lose all $20

In this scenario, most participants prefer the gamble over a sure loss.

If you were paying close attention, you’ll note that both examples are actually numerically identical – keeping half of $20 is the same as losing half of $20 – but changing whether the sure option is framed as a gain or a loss results in different decisions to play it safe or take a risk. This phenomenon is known as the Framing Effect. The behavior that it elicits is weird, or as psychologists and economists would say, “irrational”, so we think it’s worth investigating!

Brain activity when people make choices consistent with (hot colors) or against (cool colors) the Framing Effect.

Brain activity when people make choices consistent with (hot colors) or against (cool colors) the Framing Effect.

In a study published March 29 in the Journal of Neuroscience, my lab used brain imaging data to test two competing theories for what causes the Framing Effect.

One theory is that framing is caused by emotion, perhaps because the prospect of accepting a guaranteed win feels good while accepting a guaranteed loss feels scary or bad. Another theory is that the Framing Effect results from a decision-making shortcut. It may be that a strategy of accepting sure gains and avoiding sure losses tends to work well, and adopting this blanket strategy saves us from having to spend time and mental effort fully reasoning through every single decision and all of its possibilities.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we measured brain activity in 143 participants as they each made over a hundred choices between various gambles and sure gains or sure losses. Then we compared our participants’ choice-related brain activity to brain activity maps drawn from Neurosynth, an analysis tool that combines data from over 8,000 published fMRI studies to generate neural maps representing brain activity associated with different terms, just as “emotions,” “resting,” or “working.”

As a group, when our participants made choices consistent with the Framing Effect, their average brain activity was most similar to the brain maps representing mental disengagement (i.e. “resting” or “default”). When they made choices inconsistent with the Framing Effect, their average brain activity was most similar to the brain maps representing mental engagement (i.e. “working” or task”). These results supported the theory that the Framing Effect results from a lack of mental effort, or using a decision-making shortcut, and that spending more mental effort can counteract the Framing Effect.

Then we tested whether we could use individual participants’ brain activity to predict participants’ choices on each trial. We found that the degree to which each trial’s brain activity resembled the brain maps associated with mental disengagement predicted whether that trial’s choice would be consistent with the Framing Effect. The degree to which each trial’s brain activity resembled brain maps associated with emotion, however, was not predictive of choices.

Our findings support the theory that the biased decision-making seen in the Framing Effect is due to a lack of mental effort rather than due to emotions.

This suggests potential strategies for prompting people to make better decisions. Instead of trying to appeal to people’s emotions – likely a difficult task requiring tailoring to different individuals – we would be better off taking the easier and more generalizable approach of making good decisions quick and easy for everyone to make.

Guest post by Rosa Li

Hidden No More: Women in STEM reflect on their Journeys

Back when she was a newly-minted Ph.D., Ayana Arce struggled to picture her future life as an experimental physicist. An African American woman in a field where the number of black women U.S. doctorates is still staggeringly small, Arce could not identify many role models who looked like her.

“I didn’t know what my life would look like as a black postdoc or faculty member,” Arce said.

But in the end, Arce – an associate professor of physics at Duke who went on to join the international team of physicists who discovered the Higgs Boson in 2012 — drew inspiration from her family.

“I looked to the women such as my mother who had had academic careers, and tried to think about how I could shape my life to look something like that, and I realized that it could be something I could make work,” Arce said.

Adrienne Stiff-Roberts, Fay Cobb Payton, Kyla McMullen, Robin Coger and Valerie Ashby on stage at the Hidden Figures No More panel discussion.

Adrienne Stiff-Roberts, Fay Cobb Payton, Kyla McMullen, Robin Coger and Valerie Ashby on stage at the Hidden Figures No More panel discussion. Credit: Chris Hildreth, Duke Photography.

Arce joined five other African American women faculty on the stage of Duke’s Griffith Film Theater March 23 for a warm and candid discussion on the joys and continuing challenges of their careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

The panel, titled “Hidden Figures No More: Highlighting Phenomenal Women in STEM,” was inspired by Hidden Figures, a film which celebrates three pioneering African American women mathematicians who overcame racial segregation and prejudice to play pivotal roles in NASA’s first manned space flight.

The panel discussion was spearheaded by Johnna Frierson, Director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at the Pratt School of Engineering, and co-sponsored by the Duke Women’s Center. It was followed by a free screening of the film.

Though our society has made great strides since the days depicted in the film, women and minorities still remain under-represented in most STEM fields. Those who do pursue careers in STEM must overcome numerous hurdles, including unconscious bias and a lack of colleagues and role models who share their gender and race.

“In my field, at some of the smaller meetings, I am often the only black woman present at the conference, many times I’m the only black person at all,” said Adrienne Stiff-Roberts, an Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Duke. “In that atmosphere often it can be very challenging to engage with others in the way that you are supposed to, and you can feel like an outsider.”

Valerie Ashby and Ayana Arce onstage at the Hidden Figures No More panel discussion

Valerie Ashby and Ayana Arce shared their experiences. Credit: Chris Hildreth, Duke Photography

Stiff-Roberts and the other panelists have all excelled in the face of these challenges, making their marks in fields that include physics, chemistry, computer science, mechanical engineering and electrical engineering. On Thursday they shared their thoughts and experiences with a diverse audience of students, faculty, community members and more than a few kids.

Many of the panelists credited teams of mentors and sponsors for bolstering them when times got tough, and encouraged young scientists to form their own support squads.

Valerie Ashby, Dean at Duke’s Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, advised students to look for supporters who have a vision for what they can become, and are eager to help them get there. “Don’t assume that your help might come from people who you might expect your help to come from,” Ashby said.

The importance of cheerleading from friends, and particularly parents, can never be overestimated, the panelists said.

“Having someone who will celebrate every single positive with you is a beautiful thing,” said Ashby, in response to a mother seeking advice for how to support a daughter majoring in biomedical engineering. “If your daughter is like many of us, we’ll do 99 great things but if we do one wrong thing we will focus on the one wrong thing and think we can’t do anything.”

Women in STEM can also be important and powerful allies to each other, noted Kyla McMullen, an Assistant Professor of Computer and Information Science at the University of Florida.

“I have seen situations where a woman suggests something and then the male next her says the same thing and gets the credit,” McMullen said. “That still happens, but one thing that I see help is when women make an effort to reiterate the points made by other women so people can see who credit should be attributed to.”

With all the advice out there for young people who are striving to succeed in STEM – particularly women and underrepresented minorities – the panelists advocated that everyone to stay true to themselves, above all.

“I want to encourage everyone in the room – whether you are a budding scientist or woman scholar – you can be yourself,” Ashby said. “You should make up in your mind that you are going to be yourself, no matter what.”

Kara J. Manke, PhD

Post by Kara Manke

Closing the Funding Gap for Minority Scientists

DURHAM, N.C. — The barriers to minority students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) don’t go away once they’ve finished school and landed a job, studies show. But one nationwide initiative aims to level the playing field once they get there.

With support from a 3-year, $500,0000 grant from the National Science Foundation, assistant professors and postdoctoral fellows who come from underrepresented minorities are encouraged to apply by May 5 for a free grant writing workshop to be held June 22-24 in Washington, D.C..

It’s no secret that STEM has a diversity problem. In 2015, African-Americans and Latinos made up 29 percent of the U.S. workforce, but only 11 percent of scientists and engineers.

A study published in the journal Science in 2011 revealed that minority scientists also were less likely to win grants from the National Institutes of Health, the largest source of research funding to universities.

Based on an analysis of 83,000 grant applications from 2000 to 2006, the study authors found that applications from black researchers were 13 percent less likely to succeed than applications from their white peers. Applications from Asian and Hispanic scientists were 5 and 3 percent less likely to be awarded, respectively.

Even when the study authors made sure they were comparing applicants with similar educational backgrounds, training, employers and publication records, the funding gap persisted — particularly for African-Americans.

Competition for federal research dollars is already tough. But white scientists won 29 percent of the time, and black scientists succeeded only 16 percent of the time.

Pennsylvania State University chemistry professor Squire Booker is co-principal investigator of a $500,000 initiative funded by the National Science Foundation to help underrepresented minority scientists write winning research grants.

“That report sent a shock wave through the scientific community,” said Squire Booker, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and chemistry professor at Pennsylvania State University. Speaking last week in the Nanaline H. Duke building on Duke’s Research Drive, Booker outlined a mentoring initiative that aims to close the gap.

In 2013, Booker and colleagues on the Minority Affairs Committee of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology decided to host a workshop to demystify the grant application process and help minority scientists write winning grants.

Grant success is key to making it in academia. Even at universities that don’t make funding a formal requirement for tenure and promotion, research is expensive. Outside funding is often required to keep a lab going, and research productivity — generating data and publishing results — is critical.

To insure underrepresented minorities have every chance to compete for increasingly tight federal research dollars, Booker and colleagues developed the Interactive Mentoring Activities for Grantsmanship Enhancement program, known as IMAGE. Program officers from NIH and NSF offer tips on navigating the funding process, crafting a successful proposal, decoding reviews and revising and resubmitting. The organizers also stage a mock review panel, and participants receive real-time, constructive feedback on potential research proposals.

Participants include researchers in biology, biophysics, biochemistry and molecular biology. More than half of the program’s 130 alumni have been awarded NSF or NIH grants since the workshop series started in 2013.

Booker anticipates this year’s program will include more postdoctoral fellows. “Now we’re trying to expand the program to intervene at an earlier stage,” Booker said.

To apply for the 2017 workshop visit http://www.asbmb.org/grantwriting/.  The application deadline is May 5.

s200_robin.smith

Post by Robin Smith

The Fashion Trend Sweeping East Campus

During the months of January and February, there was one essential accessory seen on many first-year Duke students’ wrists: the Jawbone. The students were participating in a study listed on DukeList by Ms. Madeleine George solely for first-year students regarding their lives at Duke. The procedures for the study were simple:

  1. Do a preliminary test involving a game of cyberball, a game psychologists have adapted for data collection.
  2. Wear the Jawbone for the duration of the study (10 days)
  3. Answer the questions sent to your phone every four hours. You will need to answer five a day. The questions are brief.
  4. Answer all the questions every day (you can miss one of the question times) and get $32.

About a hundred first-year Duke students participated.

Some of the questions on the surveys asked how long you slept, how stressed you felt, what time did you woke up, did you talk to your parents today, how many texts did you send, and so on. It truly did feel as though it were a study on the daily life of Duke students. However, there was a narrower focus on this study.

Ms. Madeleine George

Ms. George is a Ph.D. candidate in developmental psychology in her 5th year at Duke. She is interested in relationships and how daily technology usage and social support such as virtual communication can influence adolescent and young adult well-being.

Her dissertation is about how parents may be able to provide daily support to their children in their first year of college as face to face interactions are replaced by virtual communication through technology in modern society. This was done in three pieces.

The jawbone study is the third part. George is exploring why these effects occur, if they are uniquely a response to parents, or if people can simply feel better from other personal interactions. Taking the data from the surveys, George has been using models that allow for comparison between each person to themselves and basic ANOVA tests that allow her to examine the differences between groups. She’s still working on that analysis.

For her first test, she found that students who talked to their parents were feeling worse. But, on days students had a stressor, they were in a better mood after talking to their parents. In addition, based on the cyberball experiment where students texted a parent, stranger, or no one, George infers that texting anyone is better than no one because it can make people feel supported.

So far, George seems to have found that technology doesn’t necessarily take away relationship value and quality. Online relationships tend to reflect offline relationships. While talking with parents might not always make a student feel better, there can be circumstances where it can be beneficial.

Post by Meg Shieh.

What is Money Really Worth?

“Yesterday, I was at an event and I sat next to an economist,” Brian Hare told my class. “I asked him: how old is money? He was completely lost.”

I was in Hare’s class on a Monday at noon, laughing at his description of the interaction. We had so far been exploring the origins of humans’ particular ways of making sense of the world through his course in Human Cognitive Evolution and we were faced with a slide that established the industrial period as less than 200 years old. As compared to a hunting and gathering lifestyle, this stretch of time is minuscule on an evolutionary scale.

Slide from Dr. Hare’s class. Reproduced with permission.

Why then do so many studies employ money as a proxy for the measurement of human behaviors that have been shaped by hundreds of thousands of years? This kind of research is trying to get at “prosociality,” (the ability to be altruistic and cooperative towards others) or empathy and guilt aversion, just to name a few.

I had started to wonder about this months before as a summer intern at the University of Tokyo. As I listened to a graduate student describe an experiment employing money to understand how humans behaved cooperatively, I grew puzzled. I eventually asked: Why was money used in this experiment? The argument was made that money was enough of a motivator for this sample population of college students to generalize that if they chose to share it, it must mean something.

During a panel discussion about prosociality at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston last month, my chance came to ask the question again. Alan Sanfey, professor at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behavior, used experimental paradigms that rewarded participants with money to tease out the particular effects of guilt on generous behavior.

“Is money a good proxy for understanding evolutionarily ancient behavior?” I asked. Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University took a dig at my question and mentioned that the barter system would have likely been the best ancient representative of money. However, the barter system likely came to life during the agricultural period, which itself is less than 10,000 years old.

Dollar bills. Public domain.

Stephen Pluháček, an attendee at the event and a senior scholar at the University of New Hampshire, said in a followup email to me that he “was interested in [my] question to the panel and disappointed by their response — which I found indicative of the ways we can become so habituated to a way of looking at things that we find it difficult to even hear questions that challenge our foundational assumptions.”

“As I said in our brief conversation, I am not convinced that money can stand as a proxy for prosocial behavior (trust, generosity) in humans prior to the advent of agriculture,” Pluháček wrote. “And even barter or gift exchange may be limited in their applicability to early humans (as well as to modern humans prior to the cognitive revolution).” 

So, I’m not alone in my skepticism. However, in my discussion with Leonard White, my advisor and associate director for education in the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, he pointed out:

“The brain is remarkably facile. We have this amazing capacity for proxy substitution.”

In essence, this would mean that our brain would be able to consider money as a reward just like any reward that might have mediated the evolution of our behavior over time. We would thus be able to test subjects with “modern” stimuli, it appears.

It is clear that an evolutionary narrative is important to creating a more complete picture of contemporary human behavior. But sometimes the proxies we choose to make these measures don’t fit very well with our long history.

By Shanen Ganapathee

 

The Road to a Tastier Tomato

This week, I discovered that I’ve lived life deprived of a good tomato.

As a tomato-lover, I was surprised to learn from Professor Harry Klee of the University of Florida that the supermarket tomatoes I’ve enjoyed throughout my 18-year existence are all flavorless compared to the tomatoes of the past. He spoke at Duke as a guest of the University Program in Genetics and Genomics on Feb. 28.

It turns out that commercial tomato growers, by breeding more profitable (i.e. higher-yield, redder-color, larger-fruit) tomato varieties over the past 50 years, inadvertently excluded what Klee believes is the most important tomato trait of all:

Commercial tomato growers have bred larger, redder tomatoes that are less flavorful than heirloom and older varieties. Image courtesy of Harry Klee.

Flavor.

Apparently, I was one of very few people unaware of this issue. The public outcry in response to the increasing flavorlessness of commercial tomatoes began over a decade ago, when Klee first began to study tomato genetics.

From his research, Klee has drawn several important, unexpected conclusions, chief among them:

1: Flavor has more to do with smell than taste;

2: Lesser-known biochemical compounds called “volatiles” influence the flavor of tomatoes more than sugars, acids, and other well-known, larger compounds;

3: These “volatiles” are less present in modern tomato varieties than in tastier, older, and heirloom varieties;

But fear not—

4: Tomatoes can be back-bred to regain the genes that code for volatile compounds.

In other words, Klee has mapped the way back to the flavorful tomatoes of the past. His work culminated in a cover story of the Jan. 27 issue of Science. The corresponding paper describing the analysis of over 300 tomato strains to identify the chemicals associated with “good” and “bad” tomatoes.

Dr. Harry Klee and collaborators in his lab at the University of Florida. Image courtesy of Harry Klee.

To prove that modern tomatoes have less of the compounds that make them tasty, Klee and his team recruited a panel of 100 taste-testers to rank 160 representative tomato varieties. According to Klee, the team “developed statistical models to explain the chemistry of ‘liking’ [tomatoes],” then narrowed down the list of compounds that correlated with “liking” from 400 to 26. After tracing these 26 compounds to genetic loci, they used whole-genome sequencing to show that these loci are less expressed in modern tomatoes than in “cerasiforme” (i.e. old) and heirloom tomato varieties.

Further studies showed that tomato weight is inversely correlated with sugar content—in other words, “a gigantic fruit doesn’t taste as good,” Klee said.

If Klee can convince tomato growers that consumers value flavor over size, color, and quantity, then he might just single-handedly put flavorful tomatoes back on the shelves. Nevertheless—and despite the publicity surrounding his work—Klee understands it make take a while before commercial tomato growers see the light.

Klee and his team of scientists have genetically mapped the way back to the tasty tomatoes of the past. Image courtesy of Harry Klee.

“Growers get no more money if the tomato tastes good or bad; they’re paid for how many pounds of red objects they put in a box…[but] we can’t just blame the modern breeders. We’ve been selecting bigger and bigger fruit for millennia, and that has come at the cost of reducing flavor,” Klee said.

Post by Maya Iskandarani