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New Job for Brain Scientists: Pitching Mutual Funds

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Professor Gilbert

I was watching one of the March Madness games recently with my son Benjamin. He is the only one in the world I can do this with because I can ask him what the difference is between the shot clock in the NBA and the one in the NCAA without being asked to immediately produce a green card.

During a commercial break, a familiar face popped onto the screen. The bald head, the gray goatee. What da hey, it was  Daniel Gilbert, Harvard psychology professor, host of the PBS special This Emotional Life,  author of the bestselling Stumbling on Happiness and purveyor of memorable aphorisms derived from social-psychology research: money does matter but only up to a point and marriages without children are happier.

In the game commercial, Gilbert was talking to millions of people about the need to better plan for retirement, people whose main foray into the investment world had to date been a contribution to the office betting pool on the game we were watching. The Prudential commercial was built around a faux social-science experiment in which a crowd of Austin, Tex. residents was recruited to put large stickers on a 1100-square foot wall in answer to the question: Who is the oldest person you know? Stickers on the wall bunched near the mark for  the tenth decade, demonstrating the wide gap on the wall between the oldest old and the line marking the traditional retirement age of 65. The implication, of course, was that you better start thinking about more than March Madness winnings if you were going to make it to 102.

Wow, neuroscience has really hit the big time. First, the Obama administration agreed in early April to spend $100 million to construct a brain map, making brain research  a centerpiece of a second-term effort to create a  legacy in the science arena. No Super Colliders or pitched battles against lymphoma, just brains all the way down. Now  Gilbert has given the profession unprecedented visibility by elevating social psychology and behavioral economics/finance to the level of the GEICO cave men and the Aflac duck. The “nudge” philosophy of behavioral economics—or the “shove” entreaties of Michael Bloomberg—(here’s why you “should” grow that nest egg or “must” forego that Dr. Pepper) has now officially entered the deepest reaches of the popular psyche .

Is this just the beginning? Will Walter Mischel of “the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment (think delayed gratification) act as spokesman for Weight Watchers? Will Michael Jordan describe the subtleties of the Morgenstern-Von Neumann utility theorem in examining the relative merits of boxers vs. briefs when pitching Hanes? Maybe not, but the Century (Millenium?) of the Brain is no doubt upon us. The future consists of axons and synapses. Benjamin, in medical school, is trying to decide on a specialty. This is terrible but I can’t resist: One word, neurology, Benjamin. 

Source: Jon Chase/Harvard University






Gary Stix About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. davenussbaum 5:03 pm 04/10/2013

    I think Dan’s perfectly capable of making his own decisions, but more generally I guess the worry is that money will interfere with the science (more directly than it already does). Doctors don’t think they’re affected by gifts from pharmaceutical companies, but they are. So why expose ourselves to this sort of pernicious force? Well, I guess money’s a good reason ;)

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