Peart on Leadership
Zak Responds

Beware the Neuro Bunk

Jonathan B. Wight

Readers of this blog know that I am an admirer of Paul Zak (see here, here, and here). Zak is a pioneer in neuro-economics and the discoverer of oxytocin in exchange, the alleged "moral molecule." But the potential for abuse in neuro studies is enormous. Marketers are circling like vultures to take the information gleaned and use it for nefarious purposes.

Molly Crockett tackles this in an interesting TED talk, "Beware the Neuro Bunk." In it, she takes a swipe at Zak for stretching his conclusions on "love" beyond the findings of the study data. That's a good point. Words are a tricky thing, and English is not particularly adept when it comes to the concept of "love"—an all-encompassing phrase that means everything and nothing. Moreover, brain scans and hormones might tell us about biology, but not about intentions or ultimate meaning. So Zak has played a little loose with language and it's been a good selling point for his books.

I don't begrudge him for trying to connect biology with the emotional. I think that's what Adam Smith was also trying to do. Smith called affection "habitual sympathy" which is a stab at some version of love, arrived at by the steady co-mingling of emotional mirror-neurons.

Crockett cites another interesting paper by McCabe and Castel (2008), "Seeing is believing: The effect of brain images on judgments of scientific reasoning," Cognition 107(1): 343-362. In the images to the left, the same brain scan data is presented first as a map and second as a picture image.

Readers of a scientific article are "fooled" into rating as more believable the article with the picture image compared to the map. Why do plausible pictures resonate more with our sense of trust?

This is not news to marketers, who have known for decades that an actor wearing a white lab coat can usually convince an eager and gullible patient to buy almost any placebo. There was a time in recent past when Marcus Welby, MD was the nation's most trusted physician, despite the fact that Robert Young, the actor, never got beyond high school. The white lab coat gave him all the credibility he needed.


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Thanks, Jonathan--great post!

1. Your point about reductionist views of love reminds me of a newly published book, Love 2.0--see this article about it to see what I mean:

2. Your point about the cognitive effect of brain imaging reminds me of my earlier post about research showing the same effect from nonsense math:

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