Category Archives: Outlets

Smokers’ Choice

Smokers tend to resist antismoking efforts that rely on “rational” approaches such as taxes, and researchers have pointed to confounding influences, including social factors and addiction. But differences in smokers’ decision-making processes may also be at play.

A recent study from the Baylor College of Medicine found that smokers and nonsmokers react differently to news of how much they could have made in a stock-market game. The feedback was purely incidental: it offered no financial incentive to adjust one’s investment strategy, yet nonsmokers were swayed by what might have been and changed their tactics. Smokers ignored the input, even though they processed the information in the same part of the brain as their nonsmoking peers did.

The study does not address whether smokers’ behavior is a cause or effect of their addiction but rather it adds to the growing list of ways in which human beings sometimes ignore reason when it comes to decision-making. In the book Predictably Irrational (HarperCollins, 2008) behavioral economist Dan Ariely of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology catalogues a bevy of errors, biases and otherwise illogical human behavior. Other behavioral economists are doing the same on the premise that these absurdities are understandable, and they are just beginning to team up with neuroscientists to try to tease out the roots of decision-making biases in the brain.

The hope is that this knowledge will one day inform policy. To combat smoking, for example, policymakers could “use evidence of what brain areas are active during the [decision-making] process to design other strategies” more nuanced than taxation, says behavioral economist Colin Camerer of the California Institute of Technology.

The field of neuroeconomics is in its infancy, however. Neuroeconomists agree with behavioral economists that in the future it will be possible to use our irrationalities to our advantage, but as for whether their work could soon steer policy, “I think it’s just too early” to make a decision, Ariely says.

First published by Scientific American MIND: [html]  [pdf].

Young Swedish Scientist Reveals Fast-Track Career Secrets

Thomas Helleday in his laboratory, 2009. Photo: Lucas Laursen.

Thomas Helleday was precocious long before he started supervising Ph.D. students as he finished his own doctorate. His mother, a banker, bought him his first stock at age 7. At age 16, the Swedish native volunteered in a cancer ward with his older brother and “was terrified” by the harsh side effects of radiation therapy he saw there. Vowing to do something about it, potentially in the pharmaceutical industry, Helleday studied business and molecular biology as an undergraduate.

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Probing Stonehenge

stonehengeArchaeologists broke ground at Stonehenge last week for the first time since 1964, with the aim of using modern technology to pinpoint just when builders dragged the first bluestone pillars to the site some 4500 years ago. The team, which is re-excavating a trench originally dug in the 1920s, plans to analyze short-lived organic material such as twigs or grains with mass spectroscopy. They hope to establish the arrival date of the stones to within a couple of decades.

The dig leaders, Geoffrey Wainwright of the Society of Antiquaries of London and Timothy Darvill of Bournemouth University in the U.K., are looking to bolster their theory that bluestones–dragged 250 kilometers from the Preseli Hills in Wales–were valued for their healing powers. Inscriptions in Wales reveal that locals considered the stones magical. And deformed skeletons recently dug up nearby may have been from pilgrims seeking cures. Precisely dating the different building stages of the monument is “wrapped into a series of interesting debates” about pottery, metallurgy, and spirituality in northwest Europe, says Darvill. The project is part of a broader National Geographic-sponsored effort covering nearby Neolithic sites.

Originally appeared in Science Magazine as a Random Sample: [html] [pdf]