Monday, April 07, 2008

A Lovely Bit of Research

Or a lovely popularization of a bit of research is this one:

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.

Their research appears in the current edition of the peer-reviewed journal NeuroReport.

The study only involved 15 heterosexual young men at Stanford University. It focused on the sex and money hub, 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.

So we learn what financial titans feel from looking at the brain scans of fifteen heterosexual young men at a university? Ok. And then we learn that "You have a need in an evolutionary sense for both money and women. They trigger the same brain area."

What about chocolate, then? The psychologist (as opposed to the finance professor) noted that it's about arousal and not necessarily about sex, but still, the researchers didn't test anything on women. Nada, because they couldn't figure out anything that would arouse women. Not even chocolate!

I find these types of popularizations endlessly fascinating. From the findings we go straight to speculations:

The link between sex and greed goes back hundreds of thousands of years, to men's evolutionary role as provider or resource gatherer to attract women, 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.

So. Professor McCabe is an economist, by the way. 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.

To clarify the above criticisms: The study findings do not mean that these speculations have been confirmed. Note, first, that no women were tested at all. Suppose that they had tested women and that those tests would have found a similar relationship to hold for women. Would that then mean that women were the providers and needed to take risks, hm?

If you didn't get my major disgust with this article, read the final quote:

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."

Yet another economist writing about genes. My, how we do get around. And he's writing about women as something we all get, but only after power and money. That leaves any heterosexual female reader -- where, exactly? As the thing to be gotten, of course.