Getting the Goods

Getting the Goods
Reported by
Sheri Fink

Posted March 13, 2010

Presented By

Imaging Discussion Group


On October 26, 2005, the Imaging Discussion Group of the New York Academy of Sciences sponsored a special symposium that explored unexplained aspects of human decision making and the brain processes that may underlie them. The event was organized by B. J. Casey of Cornell University's Weill Medical College. A generous grant from the Social Relations of Knowledge Institute Inc. supported the program.

The quest to describe and explain human behavior has long been the purview of anthropologists and psychologists. The advent of neuroscience, however, opened a new avenue for understanding choices that people make. Functional magnetic resonance imaging, in particular, allows researchers to visualize which parts of the brain are active during different tasks. Rapidly expanding knowledge of brain functioning can also be used to construct model hypotheses that explain the behavioral tendencies witnessed in psychological experiments. Speakers at this symposium studied various aspects of decision making—whether to cheat, to trust, or to delay gratification when it comes to "getting the goods" people want.

Use the tabs above to view the meeting report and multimedia presentations.

Web Sites

Center for Behavioral Neuroscience (CBN)
Research at the CBN looks at the basic neural systems governing social behavior in animals. One goal is "to explain how social experience and the environment alter the nervous system." Several research programs rely on imaging technology.

Center for Research in Experimental Economics and Political Decision Making (CREED)
CREED, a research institute at University of Amsterdam, focuses on three principal projects: the economics of political decision making, bounded rationality and instutions, and experimental economics

Interdisciplinary Center for Economic Science (ICES)
ICES focuses on the interplay between cognitive neuroscience and economics, or the study of neuro-economics. Research at the center examines how the embodied brain produces economic behavior. They hope "to understand, and build, economic institutions that serve as extensions of our minds' capacity to make sound economic decisions and enable social exchange."

The Society of Neuroeconomics, founded in 2005, "promotes research and dissemination of knowledge in neuroeconomics."

Organization of Human Brain Mapping (OHBM)
The OHBM focuses on the field of human functional neuroimaging. It "provide[s] an educational forum for the exchange of up-to-the-minute and ground breaking research across modalities exploring human brain mapping."



Heyman, J. & D. Ariely. 2004. Effort for payment: a tale of two markets. Psychol. Sci. 15: 787–793. Full Text (PDF, 182 KB).

Heyman, J., Y. Orhun & D. Ariely. 2004. Auction fever: the effect of opponents and quasi-endowment on product valuations. J. Interactive Market. 18:4–21. Full Text (PDF, 172 KB).

Norton, M., J. DiMicco, R. Caneel & D. Ariely. 2004. AntiGroupWare and second messenger. BT Technol. J. 22(4): 83–88. Full Text (PDF, 203 KB).

Shin, J. & D. Ariely. 2004. Keeping doors open: the effect of unavailability on incentives to keep options viable. Manage. Sci. 50: 575–586. Full Text (PDF, 176 KB).


Bodner, R. & D. Prelec. 2002. Self-signaling and diagnostic utility in everyday decision making. In The Psychology of Economic Decisions, Volume 1: Rationality and Well-Being. I. Brocas & J. Carillo, Eds. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Camerer, C., G. Loewenstein & D. Prelec. 2005. Neuroeconomics: how neuroscience can inform economics. J. Econ. Lit. 34: 9.

Prelec, D. 2004. A Bayesian truth serum for subjective data. Science 306: 462–466.

Prelec, D. & R. Bodner. 2003. Self-signaling and self-control. In Time and Decision: Economic and Psychological Perspectives on Intertemporal Choice. G. Loewenstein, D. Read, & R. F. Baumeister, Eds. Russell Sage Press, New York.

Learning, Trust, Morality, and the Neural Circuitry of Reward

Delgado, M. R., R. Frank & E. A. Phelps. 2005. Perception of moral character modulates the neural circuitry of reward during the trust game. Nature Neurosci. 8: 1611–1618.

Delgado, M. R., M. M. Miller, S. Inati & E. A. Phelps, E.A. 2005. An fMRI study of reward-related probability learning. NeuroImage 24: 862–873.

Phelps, E. A. 2006. Emotion and cognition: insights from studies of the human amygdala. Annual Rev. Psychol. 57: 27–53.

The Grasshopper and the Ant

Cohen, J. D. 2005. The vulcanization of the human brain: a neural perspective on interactions between cognition and emotion. J. Econ. Perspectives 19: 3–24. Full Text (PDF, 239 KB).

McClure, S. M., D. I. Laibson, G. Loewenstein & J. D. Cohen. 2004. Separate neural systems value immediate and delayed monetary rewards. Science 306: 503–507.

Montague, P. R., S. E. Hyman & J. D. Cohen 2004. Computational roles for dopamine in behavioural control. Nature 431: 760–767.

Sanfey, A. G., J. K. Rilling, J. A. Aronson et al. 2003. The neural basis of economic decision-making in the ultimatum game. Science 300: 1755–1757.


Dan Ariely, PhD

Massachusetts Institute of Technology
e-mail | web site | publications

Dan Ariely is Luis Alvarez Renta Professor of Behavioral Economics at the Sloan School of Management and the Media Laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Most of his research focuses on the determinants of individual preferences and their outcomes, with an emphasis on questions concerning context and environmental effects, time dynamics, intertemporal choice, learning, and pricing. Within this generic area of decision making, Ariely's research can be divided into two separate yet related subareas: the ways in which individuals use their environment and the information around them to form and construct preferences, and the psychology of money, reward, and motivation. In the Media Lab, Ariely attempts to use these insights to build technological tools to overcome some of these built-in human "shortcomings." He is spending the current academic year at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Drazen Prelec, PhD

Massachusetts Institute of Techonology
e-mail | web site | publications

Drazen Prelec is the Digital Equipment LFM Professor of Management at MIT, where he has taught since 1991. He received his AB (applied mathematics) and PhD (experimental psychology) from Harvard. He was a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, and has received fellowships from the Russell Sage Foundation, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Stanford, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where he is spending the current academic year. His research deals with behavioral economics, decision theory, neuroeconomics, and opinion research. Two current projects are (1) the design and testing of simple, incentive-compatible mechanisms for eliciting subjective information, such as forecasts, political or historical inferences, and artistic or legal interpretations, and (2) self-signaling, or reconciling noncausal or "quasi-Calvinistic" motivation with normative theory.

Elizabeth A. Phelps, PhD

New York University
e-mail | web site | publications

Elizabeth Phelps received her PhD from Princeton University in 1989, served on the faculty of Yale University until 1999, and is currently a professor of psychology and neural science at New York University. Her laboratory has earned widespread acclaim for its groundbreaking research on how the human brain processes emotion, particularly as it relates to learning, memory, and decision making. Phelps is the recipient of the Twenty-first-Century Scientist Award from the James S. McDonnell Foundation and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Jonathan D. Cohen, MD, PhD

Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology, Princeton University
e-mail | web site | publications

Jonathan D. Cohen received his undergraduate degree from Yale University, medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and residency training in psychiatry at Stanford University. He earned a PhD degree from the department of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. Since 1989 he has held a faculty appointment in the department of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh. From 1991 to 1998, he also served on the faculty at Carnegie Mellon University. He then became professor of psychology at Princeton University.

Cohen founded and continues to direct the University's Center for the Study of Brain, Mind and Behavior. This center brings together psychologists, neuroscientists, mathematicians, chemists, and physicists in an effort to break new ground on one of the most exciting frontiers in scientific inquiry: the relationship of mind to brain. Cohen also directs Princeton's NIMH-funded Silvio O. Conte Center for Neuroscience Research and serves as the director of Princeton's undergraduate and graduate programs in neuroscience as well as an innovative new training program in quantitative neuroscience. Last year he was appointed as the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and, most recently, as a founding director of Princeton's new Neuroscience Institute.

Sheri Fink

Sheri Fink is the author of War Hospital: A True Story of Surgery and Survival (PublicAffairs, 2003). Fink obtained her MD and PhD in neurosciences at Stanford University and now, based in New York, writes about medicine, public health, and science for a range of publications.