From the Archives: Paul Glimcher and Decision-Making


Paul Glimcher at Neuroscience 2013, in San Diego. Photo: Nicky Penttila

Our latest Report on Progress is a clear and accessible review of the field of neuroeconomics. “Understanding Human Decision-Making: Neuroeconomics” is by Dana Alliance member Paul Glimcher, Ph.D. Glimcher embodies the Alliance’s commitment to sharing brain science information and discoveries with all—science-curious, science-committed, and even intrigued sports fans.

In 2014, Glimcher interviewed famed New York Knicks legend Walt “Clyde” Frazier during a Brainwave event at the Rubin Museum called “The Basketball Champion.”  My colleague Bill Glovin wrote for the blog:

The mental aspect of what makes champions was the central theme of the discussion. Formative experiences helped shape Frazier as a player and a person. Raised in Cleveland in a single-parent home, he was the oldest of seven sisters and one brother. In high school he worked at a diner and was the quarterback of the football team. “Leadership and hard work came naturally because of those things,” he said.

A few years earlier, Glimcher took the stage solo at the American Museum of Natural History, giving a lively tour of various studies to highlight “hidden” aspects decision-making. My colleague Andrew Kahn wrote for the blog:

Glimcher also referred to “the curse of choice,” and gave an example of a researcher posing as a jelly salesperson to highlight our errors in decision-making. In the experiment, the researcher offered potential customers six different flavors of jelly. If they sampled all six, they got a $1 discount on their purchase of any one jar. If they bought a jelly, the researcher e-mailed them to follow up on their satisfaction with their purchase. She found that 30 percent of people made the purchase and, of those people, 80 percent were satisfied.

The researcher upped the flavors of jellies to 24, but offered the same deal: sample six, get a $1 discount for one of the 24 jars. If you already have a favorite jelly, this should be a favorable offer—either you stick with your favorite or you prefer one of the six you sampled. Instead, as the number of options increased, peoples’ choices became less efficient. Only 3 percent of participants made the purchase, and there was just a 20 percent satisfaction rate. Glimcher said this problem could be fixed by devoting more neurons to the task, but neurons are “costly;” in other words, it’s inefficient to devote so many neurons to jelly selection.

In 2013, I caught up with him at the big US neuroscience conference hosted by Society for Neuroscience. The conference always has scads of lectures and poster sessions, and also a lot of career-development sessions. Glimcher was one of the experts volunteering for a “Meet the Expert” session on a Saturday morning. The room was packed, mostly with students and postdoc researchers wondering about they might get into neuro-economics.

The goal, from a neuro-grad student’s perspective, is “to be able to teach economics, to see their argument and love it and repeat it—and disagree,” he said. Glimcher disagreed with one questioner’s description of his role as being a bridge between disciplines: “Don’t imagine you’re the bridge, but on both shores. If you stand in the middle, then everybody hates you.” Instead, you want everyone—economists, scientists, all and sundry—to think you are “one of us.”

Glimcher himself is pretty sturdily on both beaches, having advanced degrees or faculty positions in neuroscience and economics, but even after steeping himself in these disciplines, he can get tripped up. He told us this story: Giving introductions of researchers before they spoke to economists, he would always describe their grad work, postdoc, the usual sciencey spiel. Finally, one of the economists came up to him after one such intro, and said, ‘why do you always mention their postdocs? It must be embarrassing for them.’

– Nicky Penttila


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