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Scientific American

Free to Choose

published April 2007 | comments (6)
The neuroscience of choice exposes the power of ideas
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Have you ever watched a white rat choose between an 8 and 32 percent sucrose solution by pressing two different bars on variable-interval schedules of reinforcement? No? Lucky you. I devoted two years of what would otherwise have been a misspent youth to running choice experiments with rats in Skinner boxes for my master’s thesis on “Choice in Rats as a Function of Reinforcer Intensity and Quality.” Boys gone wild!

Since then, the behaviorists’ black box has been penetrated by neuroscientists; most recently by Read Montague of the Baylor College of Medicine with Why Choose This Book? (Dutton, 2006). Montague argues that our brains evolved computational programs to evaluate choices in terms of their value and efficiency: “Those that accurately estimate the costs and the long-term benefits of choice will be more efficient than those that don’t.”

Life, like the economy, is about the allocation of limited resources that have alternative uses (to paraphrase economist Thomas Sowell). It all boils down to energy efficiency. To a predator, Montague says, prey are batteries of energy: “This doctrine mandates that evolution discover efficient computational systems that know how to capture, process, store, and reuse energy efficiently.” Those that do so pass on their genetic programs for efficient computational neural processing to make efficient choices. As a result, our brains only consume about one-fifth the energy of a lightbulb.

Unfortunately, these evolved computational programs can be hijacked. Addictive drugs, for example, rewire the brain’s dopamine system — normally used to reward choices that are good for the organism, such as obtaining food, family and friends — to reward choosing the next high instead. Ideas do something similar, in that they take over the role of reward signals that feed into the dopamine neurons. This effect includes bad ideas, such as the Heaven’s Gate cult members who chose suicide to join the mother ship they believed was awaiting them near Comet Hale-Bopp. The brains of suicide bombers have been similarly commandeered by bad ideas from their religions or politics.

In The Science of Good and Evil (Times Books, 2004), I argued that we evolved moral emotions that operate similarly to other emotions, such as hunger and sexual appetite. Thinking of these emotions as proxies for highly efficient computational programs deepens our understanding of the process. When we need energy, we do not compute the relative caloric values of our food choices; we just feel hungry, eat and are rewarded with a sense of satisfaction. Likewise, in choosing a sexual partner, the brain employs a computational program to make you feel attracted to people with good genes, as indicated by such proxies as a symmetrical face and body, clear complexion, and a 0.7:1 waist-to-hip ratio in women and an inverted pyramid build in men. Similarly, in making moral choices about whether to be altruistic or selfish, we feel guilt or pride for having done the wrong or right thing. But the moral calculations of what is best for the individual and the social group were made by our Paleolithic ancestors. Emotions such as hunger, lust and pride are stand-ins for such computations.

How can we utilize this theory of choice to our advantage? Montague employed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans to discover that certain brands, such as Coke, “change dopamine delivery to various brain regions through their effect on reward prediction circuitry.” The Coke brand has a “flavor” in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a region essential for decision making. Just as Coke is a proxy for flavor, hunger a proxy for caloric need, lust a proxy for reproductive necessity, and guilt and joy proxies for immoral and moral behavior, so, too, can we market moral brands to rewire brains to value and choose good ideas.

In honor of the late economist Milton Friedman, author of the radical book Free to Choose, I propose that we begin by marketing this brand — the Principle of Freedom: all people are free to think, believe and act as they choose, as long as they do not infringe on the equal freedom of others.

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6 Comments to “Free to Choose”

  1. Virgil Scott Says:

    I would like to commend Mr. Shermer for the wonderful article. As always, it is well informed and well written (and as a college graduate with a BA in English, this latter part is very important to me).

    Lately, I’ve been reading several books on the brain and the way it influences our behavior and decision making. This article certainly compliments the theory of memes as well as other aspects of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. It’s interesting, at least to me, to observe in people how this same “freedom” of choice interacts with the memes that our mirror neurons allow us to imitate.

    This material can be disheartening to some people. I’ve often compared it to the idea of a watch suddenly achieving consciousness only to realize that it’s only function in life is to tell time. “Genes and memes” I’ll tell people, imitating machines whose sole purpose in life is to procreate. This is what they find disheartening, that we are only machines. But, I continue, we are the only animals/machines on the earth that can actually go against our biology (in fact, this ability seems to come from those same genes and memes) — think of people who commit suicide, either for psychological or political and religious reasons.

  2. Greg Says:

    Mickey gets right to the point. Or at least the SA editor crunched what he wrote until the article did. ;-)

    But I wanna hijack this thread and talk aboot Ben Stein……

  3. elmancero Says:

    Great reading. It reiterates a recent article I read, “Asshole: how to get ahead by being nasty” We are all selfish and exist for ourselves. As they say, charity begins at home. Communism does not work for the same reason, there is always someone or thing that wishes to gain the upper hand. Competition, thats the name of the game!! And beware of those GOD people with their battlions of saints and miraculous events. Or you could join the Scientologists and their alien friends!! Have fun, I’m all for science and reason, not blind faith and indoctrination. Keep up the good work. Elmancero

  4. Gary Sloan Says:

    Note to Virgil Scott: Presumably Mr. Shermer’s article complements, not compliments, the theory of memes. (I have evolved a neuronal computational program that feeds into my dopamine system when I distinguish commonly confused words. Ah, what inimitable pleasure in playing the schoolmarm. Speak by the card, dear reader, or equivocation will undo you!)

  5. Virgil Scott Says:

    Thank you Mr. Sloan. I must admit that I wrote in haste. I am always thankful when my mistakes are pointed out to me (that’s not sarcasm, I really do mean that). As a writer it is always helpful when something like the confusion of “complements” and “compliments” is corrected — it only helps one get better. (One would be surprised at how many successful authors — including the so-called “serious” writers — confuse “lay”, “lie”, “laid”, and “lain”; it’s very common.)

    Anyway, I was wondering if anyone could suggest any authors that deal with this topic. I’ve read Steven Pinker, Cordelia Fine, Thomas Kida, Susan Blackmore, and of course Mr. Shermer — I am always on the look-out for more.

  6. Tommy Byrd Says:


    When you write “…could [anyone] suggest any authors that deal with this topic…” I am only guessing that your unspecified “topic…” refers to cognitive science, brain functions, etc. But, I’m not entirely sure.

    I can suggest a book that addresses the shortcomings most of us have with the trickiness and (it appears) the fickleness of the English language. I suggest that you look for a copy, easy to find and plentiful, of John Simon’s “Paradigms Lost: Reflections on Literacy and Its Decline.” I also suggest that you do not use quotation marks around the title of a book, as I have just done, but instead find the correct manner of indicating that a title IS of a book, rather than, perhaps, a magazine article. I’m not sure what the correct practice is when one quotes from a book and has no idea whether italics or underlining will make it through the limitations of a word processing program.

    But, DO find the book and read it. Mr. Simon came to English, I believe, as his fifth language and has earned his daily bread for many years now as film and theater critic for various publications, including forty or so years as theater critic for “New York Magazine,” after what he has referred to as a “misspent youth” as a college professor here and there.

    His book tutors national English literacy and, along the way, provides more chuckles and outright belly laughs than I can describe in this short comment. His style is curmudgeonly and acerbic at times, but he fairly compliments the artists’ who have worked hard to display excellence in their chosen professions, whether in acting, writing, set design, costumes, music, or any other part of a film or play on stage.

    Read his book and never again will you stumble over “lay” and “lie,” substitute “disinterested” for “uninterested,” or make the mistake of using “enormity” when you actually mean “enormousness.”

    Best wishes and I find it absolutely wonderful that someone still cares about the health of the language of Shakespeare.