Enough Is Enough

It goes without saying, doesn’t it?: More is better — at least, when we’re talking money, ice cream, or the other good things in life.

Actually, it’s not so simple. Economists have long known that as the magnitude of some good increases, people’s subjective evaluations of the worth of that good may not increase proportionally. A 10-ounce serving of chocolate ice cream is appealing, but not fully twice as appealing as a 5-ounce serving. A nice juicy steak is appealing. Two nice juicy steaks? No, thank you.

This quirk of human behavior has usually been chalked up to two psychological processes: satiation (after the first 5 ounces of ice cream, we’re not as hungry for the second 5) and diminishing sensitivity (the more units of a stimulus we’re exposed to, the less we register additional ones; for example, a 20-pound weight feels heavier than a 10-pound weight, but not twice as heavy).

Now a team of researchers led by Christopher K. Hsee (University of Chicago, Graduate School of Business) has identified a number of other reasons why people may value things differently depending on their quantity. In their article “When Is More Better: On the Relationship Between Magnitude and Subjective Value,” in the October 2005 issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, Hsee, Yuval Rottenstreich (Fuqua School of Business, Duke University), and Zhixing Xiao (China Europe International Business School) show that the circumstances under which evaluation takes place and the particular manner in which people make their evaluations powerfully affect the subjective value they place on things.

Evaluations are different, first of all, depending on whether people are guided more by their feelings or by calculation. In one study, the authors asked participants how much they would donate to save either one or four endangered pandas. In one group, the pandas were represented by cute panda pictures, encouraging participants to make their judgments based on their feeling about pandas; in the other group, the pandas were represented by dots, encouraging “colder” calculation.

As the researchers expected, the participants who were shown dots were willing to donate significantly more to save four pandas than they were to save just one panda — evaluating by calculation made the group magnitude-sensitive, in other words. The group shown panda pictures, who evaluated by feeling, were magnitude insensitive, donating no more to save four pandas than to save one.

People are also affected in the value they place on things by their prior knowledge, and whether or not they judge objects in isolation or in juxtaposition with other objects for comparison.

We generally experience the fruits of our decisions in a very different mindset from the one we were in when we made them.

A traveler shopping for jade jewelry in Asia who examines a 10-carat stone may, if he knows nothing about jade jewelry or how it is valued by weight, place a similar value on it to the value placed, in another store, by a similarly ignorant shopper, on a 15-carat stone. Lack of background knowledge makes these pieces of jade jewelry inevaluable; and lack of evaluability, like judgments based solely on feeling, will cause valuations to be relatively magnitude insensitive.

On the other hand, being able to compare two pieces side by side, or else possessing the necessary background knowledge to evaluate single pieces in isolation causes shoppers to be relatively sensitive to magnitude (i.e., weight).

This research has big implications for human motivation. The authors point out that, quite often, the big decisions we make — not just purchases, but life decisions such as jobs — occur in contexts that promote calculation and comparison — and thus, sensitivity to magnitude, and the corresponding assumption that “more is better.” Yet this may not always be a good thing.

“Suppose someone must choose between a job paying $60,000 and a second, more tedious job paying $70,000,” the authors write. “In choosing, this person will likely be sensitive to salary magnitude … The person may therefore opt for the higher-paying job …”

The problem is that we generally experience the fruits of our decisions in a very different mindset from the one we were in when we made them. The tedium of the $70,000 job will probably make the worker unhappy, despite the salary she is receiving.

Since daily life (as opposed to decision time) generally promotes valuation by feeling, without the benefit of comparison to some alternative, our magnitude-sensitive decisions may make us unhappy in our magnitude-insensitive daily lives. The authors conclude that, “in decision making, more often seems better, yet in life, more is often not better.”

The Ethical Brain

Advances in neuroscience, genetics, and brain-mapping have taught us so much about how the brain works, how people behave, and what predicts human behavior. With this knowledge comes a host of new ethical issues: Where do we draw the line on making clones, or on convicting or excusing people of crimes based on genetic and neurological data? How do we define what it means to be a human being?

A panel of distinguished neuroscientists, psychologists, and ethicists discussed these and similar questions in a “virtual” symposium sponsored by the Dana Foundation and simulcast between London and Washington, DC.

In Washington, Dana chair William Safire served as the moderator, with APS President Michael Gazzaniga, Dartmouth College, and Paul McHugh, a psychiatry professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, as panelists. In London, their counterparts were moderator Christine McGourty, BBC News science correspondent, and panelists Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas, and Colin Blakemore, vice chair of the European Dana Alliance for the Brain. The symposium explored issues addressed in Gazzaniga’s recent book, The Ethical Brain, published by Dana.

One particularly controversial question posed by McGourty was, “We allow people who suffer from dementia to take cognitive-enhancing drugs to improve their memory. Should we allow students to use these drugs to do better in school?”

Fox noted that people have already been using medical and non-medical enhancement treatments to improve performance and said that the broader political issue is that parents are “using medication to avoid doing the real thing that makes kids excel at school” – working with them, and reading to them and helping them through problems.

Blakemore argued that the discussion should focus on the potential harm to the individual, such as negative side effects and the potential for abuse, rather than on moral or ethical questions. “We are already do other things that enhance learning, so I can’t see, in principal, why popping a pill should be any different.”

Across the Atlantic, McHugh, referring to the steroids scandals in US professional baseball, said that “games and sport, as William James said, ‘is the moral equivalent of war,’” it is a place where we can see human excellence, development, prudence and commitment…. To cheat that goal, because we think we can get ahead with a pharmacist’s help, is to lose an end by the misuse of a means.”

Gazzaniga noted that every drug has potential side effects, and every drug has the potential to be abused. “I’m not so upset about people using enhancers to gain on their personal cognition, as I am on the playing field. One is a self-abuse personal issue, and the other one is a social issue. You have entered in a contract with the team to enter on a level playing field, and if one person is using drugs, that’s not fair.”

One thing the panelists agreed on is that ethical issues are an inherent part of science. As Gazzaniga said, “I’m reminded of William James’ famous remark that ‘the last word on ethics will be said when the last man on earth has his say.’” We will always be discussing ethics and ethics will always be a controversial issue.

The webcast is available on the Dana Foundation’s Web site at www.dana.org/broadcasts/webcasts.

O’Leary Honored By Alma Mater

Virginia O’Leary, Auburn University, received the Distinguished Alumna Award from Chatham College for her work in psychology. After completing her bachelor’s degree at Chatham in 1965, O’Leary went on to get her master’s and PhD in social psychology at Wayne State University.

Her first book, “Toward Understanding Women,” earned her the Association for Women in Psychology’s Distinguished Publication Award in 1978. She has taught at several universities including Boston University, Oakland University, and the George Washington University. More recently, O’Leary has been in Kathmandu, Nepal on a Fulbright Grant doing cross-cultural research. She has held the position of president of the APA’s Society for Psychology of Women and of Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues.

Look for coverage of O’Leary’s experience as a Fulbright Scholar in Nepal in an upcoming Observer.

Landau Awarded $1.7M to Study Rare Brain Disorder

The Johns Hopkins University has received a five-year, $1.7 million grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke to support research into the cognitive problems experienced by people with a rare genetic disorder known as Williams syndrome.

APS Fellow Barbara Landau, a professor of cognitive science, will be principal investigator. The grant will fund her team’s investigation of the origins of spatial impairments suffered by people with this syndrome, which is characterized by difficulty with tasks such as assembling simple puzzles, copying basic patterns and navigating through the physical world.

“We are specifically looking into the hypothesis that certain areas of the brain — the parietal regions, in particular — are the key to those deficits,” said Landau, the Dick and Lydia Todd Professor in the department of cognitive science at the university’s Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.

Williams syndrome, caused when a small amount of genetic material is missing from one human chromosome, occurs in approximately one of every 20,000 live births. The parietal regions are the lobes in each cerebral hemisphere of the brain that lie between the rear — called the “occipital” — and the frontal lobes.

The researchers will test individuals with William syndrome who are between 8 and 15 years old, as well as adults, to ascertain whether the spatial deficits will resolve in adulthood, though Landau hypothesizes that they will not.

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