Neurobargining – Ex Ed brain circuits in action?

February 2, 2012 at 6:37 PM
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Neurobargining – Ex Ed brain circuits in action?


Alexandra Hilbert QC 13 and Jim Stellar


We have been reading this 9/19/10 on-line paper with the title “Neural signatures of strategic types in a two-person bargaining game.” The paper aims to get at what the authors call “The management and manipulation of our own social image in the minds of others” particularly in the area of strategic deception, e.g. bluffing in a poker game.  The paper appeals to AH’s quantitative interests as an accounting major and both of our interests more generally in how people learn from each other through experience, using principles from the new field of neuroeconomics.  Let’s start with a basic summary of the paper and then get back to experiential education.


The paper uses a two person bargaining game between buyers and sellers to explore the behavior patterns exhibited by the buyer and what areas of the brain are activated when different strategies are employed. The game is played in rounds. The way each  round works is that the buyer is assigned a value for an object, for example $6 and the buyer then sends a suggestion to the seller for a price for the object, for example $5. The seller then accepts that price or not and if the accepted price is lower than the value the buyer receives the profit, in our example $1. The catch is that the seller does not know whether the trade went through or not, so the seller cannot learn from the outcome of previous rounds. The only information about the buyer the seller gets is the suggestions the buyer sends.


The paper only brain scanned the buyers.  But first it analyzed how the buyers used their suggestions in the game. The buyers fell into three categories: the “incrementalist” who was relatively honest with their price suggestions, the “conservative” who would consistently send low values and thus hope to make a profit every time, and the “strategists” who mimics the incrementalist while actively deceiving the sellers and behaving like a conservative when there is a high profit to be made. The paper focused on the strategist type.


The strategist takes the long view of the game they are trying to maximize their profit over the course of all the rounds and are willing to sacrifice a little profit to make more over the course of the game. Strategists realized that if they send low prices when they have high values and high prices when they have low values they will make more profit over the long run then if they are truthful about their suggestions. The paper was interested in what traits and what brain areas were associated with implementing such a strategic plan. Two traits that were not correlated with performance type were IQ and socioeconomic status; that is, strategic deceivers did not differ in these traits.  What they did find was that the strategic group knew what they were doing and reported so in the debrief session after the study was over.


One of the brain areas activated in this group was the left-side, rostral or anterior (front of brain), prefrontal cortex.  This is an area of the brain known as Brodman area 10.

As an aside, these cortical areas come from painstakingly anatomical research by Korbinian Brodman in the early 1900s in which he identified each area by the different distribution of the cells that compose it.  The resulting map, much like a geographic map of regions of lakes, planes, deserts, mountains, guides much of modern neuroscience as very often functions attach to these areas. Perhaps the most famous is the primary visual cortex (V1 or Brodman area 17) where your cortical interpretation of input from the eyes begins in earnest. 

The activated left anterior prefrontal cortex has been associated with keeping in mind multiple strategies as one executes a particular task, a trait that would seem necessary in a complex world.  Another area they found activated was at the boarder of the temporal and parietal lobes of the brain (the Temporoprarietal junction), an area that may be associated with understanding the beliefs of others as well as re-orienting attention in tasks that do not involve understanding the minds of others or what is called Theory of Mind.

Understanding the minds of others or Theory of Mind is a very important concept in psychology and neuroscience where we attribute certain qualities to the unobservable mind of another (or ourselves) and then act accordingly. Clearly, in making a deal, even one as simple as executing a bluff in a poker game, one has to think about what the other person is thinking.  The concept seems simple, but is powerful as certain brain areas appear to be dedicated to it and important social concepts, such as empathy, may rely on it. It even applies to animals as one of the first theory of mind papers by Premack was on chimps.

The temporoparietal junction area is particularly interesting since its activation seems to be related to the value of the object (where the money is to be made by the deception).  The authors note that this area may play a role “particularly in the attribution of false or incongruent beliefs to another person.”


So what, if anything, does this study have to do with the theme of this blog, learning from experience.  We see a few important connections.  First, the paper shows that complex human interactions are starting to be studied now in terms of brain function to a surprising extent.  Will it be possible someday to brain scan a student returning from an internship experience to see what they have learned…probably not.  But the idea that there is an underlying mechanism begs the question of how we in higher education are preparing the students by training these mechanisms. If that makes you squeamish, how do you feel about someone practicing a skill such as playing the violin or learning calculus only to use that skill later in some important performance?


Another important implication to us, concerns the identification of the skill as a subject of learning in higher education.  One does not need a brain area or a brain scan to let us know that a subject area is important and can be mastered.  What Language or Accounting Department justifies itself in terms of neuroscience.  But when one refers to “soft-skills” being learned on an internship, one has to wonder whether that is fair.  Is learning to position oneself strategically with regard to others a soft skill if it leads to making money vs. something we can easily certify, like knowing calculus at the College level.  We are not sure, but it does seem to add emphasis to the conversation if one can also point to a brain region or regions that are specifically activated when one does it.

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1 Comment

One Response to “Neurobargining – Ex Ed brain circuits in action?”

  1. Sarah V. Platt says:

    I like the way the stories are narrated in such a simple manner in spite of sometimes presenting complicated terminology and theoretical frameworks. You take the reader by the hand step by step and connect all of these fields with what the main thesis of the blog is- learning from experience and maximizing college students´ experiences in order to produce mature, creative, all-around humans.

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