A team of neuroscience researchers at the University of Texas at Austin has discovered a method of enhancing the subjectively perceived value of a product without actually changing the product itself.
In a paper published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, the UT researchers describe experiments they conducted with volunteers, results of which indicate that adding a superfluous pushbutton that triggers an irrelevant sound that induced participant subjects to value the associated products more highly, even though the intrinsic value of the item had not been changed.
In one experiment these volunteers, after fasting for at least four hours, were asked to look at images of various common food items after first citing what they thought a fair valuation for such an item would be. Some of the photos were displayed with a button to be pressed when a meaningless noise sounded, and others not.
Subsequently, when the experiment participants were requested to choose between two food items to which they had assigned equal perceived value prior to viewing the pictures — one with the button-press/noise associated and the other without, in 60-65 percent of instances, they chose the button/noise item, and when asked said they would be willing to pay more for the “enhanced” item as well, even though nothing but the superfluous button and irrelevant sound had been added.
The Nature Neuroscience paper, entitled “Changing value through cued approach: an automatic mechanism of behavior change” (Nature Neuroscience (2014) doi:10.1038/nn.3673), is coauthored by Tom Schonberg, Akram Bakkour, Ashleigh M Hover, Jeanette A Mumford, Lakshya Nagar, Jacob Perez, and Russell A Poldrack of the UT Austin Imaging Research Center; and Jeanette A Mumford of the UTA Department of Psychology. Russell A. Poldrack is also affiliated with the UTA Department of Psychology and Department of Neuroscience.
The researchers conclude that the subjectively perceived value of goods can be manipulated through reward-based learning mechanisms, as well as by modifying the description of the decision problem, but note that it has yet to be shown that preferences can be perceptively altered by “perturbing intrinsic values” of individual items. In the paper, they demonstrate that the subjectively perceived value of food items can indeed be enhanced by concurrent presentation of an irrelevant auditory cue to which subjects must make a simple motor response (i.e., cue-approach training). They observe that follow-up testing showed the effects of this pairing on choice lasted at least 2 months after prolonged training, and also note that eye-tracking during choice confirmed that cue-approach training increased attention to the cued items, and that neuroimaging revealed the neural signature of a value change in the form of amplified preference-related activity in ventromedial prefrontal cortex.
Dr. Russell Poldrack is Director of the UTA Imaging Research Center and a Professor of Psychology and Neurobiology. His research interests are very generally centered around the questions of how new skills are acquired, how existing skills are expressed, and how people exert executive control during thought and behavior. His lab examines these questions using functional brain imaging techniques, particularly functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Dr. Poldrack is also interested in conceptual and methodological issues surrounding the relation between cognitive and neural processes. The Poldrack Lab’s research is strongly focused on translation of basic cognitive neuroscience into the clinical domain, with collaborations on studies of schizophrenia, ADHD, Tourette Syndrome, and drug addiction. The lab’s interests are generally centered around the study of learning and memory, decision making, and executive control. Much of their work is focused on basic cognitive and neural mechanisms, but we are also heavily involved in translational research into the mechanisms of neuropsychiatric disorders.
Dr. Tom Schonberg’s research focus is on understanding how humans make decisions involving different types of rewards and characterizing the neural mechanisms underlying these processes. He has used reinforcement learning models to study the role of the striatum in simple decision making in healthy individuals,and investigated how these learning signals are affected by the dopaminergic dysfunction in Parkinson’s disease patients. Recently, Dr. Schonberg has been focusing on two lines of research; First examining risky decision-making with a specific focus on relating laboratory tasks to to real-world risk-taking, and second, developing new paradigms to influence choices and preferences via automatic mechanisms, and using fMRI to study how these affect value-related circuitry in the brain. His goal is to understand the neural mechanisms that are involved in overcoming maladaptive habitual behaviors and how we can encourage the adoption of new ones.
Akram Bakkour is a graduate student in the UTA Neuroscience (INS) program, and the Poldrack lab, he says he is interested in investigating ways to influence human behavior during decision making using behavioral paradigms and fMRI.
University of Texas at Austin
The Poldrack Lab
The Poldrack Lab