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October 24, 2002 Nobel Prize goes to a Concordia collaborator



Peter Shizgal

Concordia’s Peter Shizgal (above) collaborated with Princeton’s Daniel Kahneman, awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic sciences earlier this month.

File Photo

by Mirjana Vrbaski

Concordia’s Peter Shizgal, Director of the Centre for Studies in Behavioural Neurobiology, rejoiced on Oct. 9, as the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences went to a collaborator, Princeton’s Daniel Kahneman.

A study by Shizgal and Kahneman of the brain in the act of gambling bears the imprint of Kahneman’s groundbreaking contributions to the integration of psychological research into economics, for which Kahneman has been rewarded with the world’s most prestigious prize.

Kahneman, a psychology and public affairs professor at Princeton University, N.J., is especially prized for his work on human judgment and decision-making under uncertainty. This research is vital to understanding the mental processes of gamblers, investors, medical diagnosticians and decision-makers in many realms. The implications of this work are being pursued here at Concordia by Shizgal and his PhD student, Bonnie Sonnenschein.

“My research, like some aspects of Kahneman’s research, consists of trying to understand the psychological mechanisms and neural machinery involved in evaluation and decision-making processes,” Shizgal said in an interview.

To better grasp the way various parts of the human brain respond to the anticipation of winning money, Shizgal and Kahneman teamed up with Hans Breiter, Itzhak Aharon and Anders Dale, of Massachusetts General Hospital, to bridge psychology and neural science in a brain-imaging experiment.

Twelve volunteers were given $50 and then shown a sequence of spinners divided into three sectors, each with a different monetary value. A spinning arrow delivered either a loss or a gain to each participant.

The subjects’ brain activity was measured through a neuro-imaging process both during anticipation and when they realized, or processed, the outcome of the spin.

This novel application of the psychology of judgment and decision to mapping brain function supports the view that common brain circuitry processes different types of rewards. In other words, a socially conditioned reward, such as money, produced patterns of brain activity that overlaps those seen during anticipation or experience of other rewards, such as addictive drugs, pleasant tastes, or preferred pieces of music.

Such findings may one day enable scientists to use brain scans to measure the neural correlates of our subjective likes and dislikes. They may also help understand impulse-control disorders, such as drug abuse and compulsive gambling.

The design of the brain-imaging experiment reflects a longstanding program of research on evaluation and decision-making by Kahneman and his colleague, Amos Tversky, who died in 1996. They described shortcuts people take and the biases they have in making decisions — results that challenged the basic model of how individuals behave economically.

Before their work was published, economists tended to portray humans as engaged in the rational maximization of their self-interest. Kahneman and Tversky’s work challenges this view, and has played a seminal role in the development of behavioural economics, a field that seeks to build a psychologically realistic portrayal of human behaviour in economic contexts.

“By giving economists different ways of understanding how people make decisions, psychology has brought in more flexibility into economics research, which was traditionally much more restricted,” said Ian Irvine, economics professor at Concordia. “In turn, a more flexible way of perceiving human behaviour impacts public policy.”

Kahneman’s contributions to economics, together with those of Vernon Smith, will be officially celebrated Dec. 10 at the glittering Nobel Prize awards ceremony in Stockholm.

Shizgal continues to study brain mechanisms underlying evaluation and decision-making, both in laboratory animals and in humans. His work may have implications for understanding impulse-controlled disorders. For example, he looks forward to experiments that would compare self-controlled groups — gamblers who can get up and walk away — to groups with no such control. However, he warns that, at this stage, we have no assurance that a cure for compulsive gambling is around the corner.

“Even if we do succeed in developing a good neurological account of impulse-control disorders, effective treatments are not guaranteed. However, we may well have a better chance of developing such treatments if we can understand the processes in the brain that determine impulse control.”