The paradoxes of mental accounting

The Washington Post has a fascinating article on the psychology of mental accounting – a seemingly simple process but one which seems to have curious effects on how we decide to spend our money.

The article suggests we mentally divide our money for different purposes, and tend to be reluctant to change our thinking, even when it is against our interests.

There’s a nice example of turning up to the cinema and discovering you’ve lost your $20 ticket. How would you feel about shelling out for another one?

Compare this situation to one in which you turn up to the cinema to buy a ticket, but find you’ve lost a $20 bill. How would you feel about buying a cinema ticket in this situation?

Intuitively, it seems as if the first situation is worse, because you’re buying another ticket, when, in fact, the loss is exactly the same in both situations.

It also seems that we assign different sources of money to different purposes, despite the fact that money is completely interchangeable:

Arkes and his colleagues once cited an anecdote in a study: Employees of a publishing firm who were in the Bahamas for an annual meeting were each given a cash bonus for getting a big contract. Almost to a person, the bonus recipients took the money to a local casino and blew it. What is interesting is that most of these people did not lose more than the $50 — they slowed down or stopped when they felt they were playing with their “own” money rather than with the $50 of “free” money. The irony, of course, is that the $50 these people lost was their own money, too.

The article has got some more great examples of how we make spending decisions based on our own idosyncratic internal accounting schemes.

UPDATE: An interesting note from jswolf19, grabbed from the comments:

In my mind, the loss of the ticket and the loss of $20 are not the same. It’s possible that I might find either the ticket or the $20 later (that it’s misplaced instead of lost). However, the ticket will have become useless to me whereas the $20 will not have.

Link to Washington Post article ‘mental accounting’ (thanks Enchilada!)

Virtual insanity

Wired and The New York Times have just each published an article about the use of virtual reality to simulate the experiences of schizophrenic psychosis. This is a PR success for its creator, Janssen-Cilag Pharmaceuticals, but its hardly news, as they’ve been showing the system since 2000.

The system originally had the appalling name ‘Paved With Fear’ and was unveiled in September 2000.

The company, who manufacture the antipsychotic drug risperidone (aka Risperdal), toured the world with the ‘Paved with Fear’ truck.

The rig allows users to put on the VR goggles and explore a virtual world, while the software is programmed to simulate hallucination-like experiences – abusive voices, visual scenes transforming into sinister images and so on.

It was covered in 2002 by an NPR radio show that has some audio and images from the simulation.

In one simulation, a schizophrenic has auditory and visual hallucinations while trying to refill a prescription, and sees the word “poison” on a bottle of pills.

Its not often you meet psychotic patients who hallucinate drug company PR, but Janssen seem to think that refusing their product is a sign of madness.

The system has been taken around the world and show to police, psychiatrists and families of people with mental illness.

The system has since been re-branded with the less stigmatising name ‘Virtual Hallucinations’ and continues to make the headlines, despite the fact that many other people have used VR to simulate psychosis.

I wrote an article in 2004 about some of the systems and talked to their creators, and got some feedback from a programmer and a psychologist who have experienced psychosis themselves.

They concluded that while VR simulations might be a useful simulation of the perceptual disturbance in psychosis, it also involves distortions of meaning and thinking that can’t be captured.

The systems covered in the article were based on experiences taken from patient interviews and were made independently.

Psychiatrist Dr Peter Yellowless recently published a paper on the system he developed, and one system has been built in online virtual word Second Life. There are instructions online so you can try it yourself.

Link to NYT article ‘A Virtual Reality That’s Best Escaped’.
Link to 2004 article on using VR for psychosis simulation and research.
Link to summary of Yellowlees’ paper on psychosis simulation.
Link to instructions for Second Life simulation.

Polish psychologists ordered to assess Tinky Winky

A Polish government minister has ordered psychologists to investigate whether BBC TV show Teletubbies promotes homosexuality in children.

Yes, you read that right the first time.

Here’s some of the story from BBC News:

The spokesperson for children’s rights in Poland, Ewa Sowinska, singled out Tinky Winky, the purple character with a triangular aerial on his head.

“I noticed he was carrying a woman’s handbag,” she told a magazine. “At first, I didn’t realise he was a boy.”

Ms Sowinska wants the psychologists to make a recommendation about whether the children’s show should be broadcast on public television.

A 2004 study on the accessibility of mental health services in Poland found that the interval between being first assessed and getting mental health care was 12 weeks – much longer than all other European centres in previous studies.

A study on work difficulties in Poland published in 2006 found that mental and behavioural disorders were among the main causes of early inability to work.

And the government is ordering psychologists to assess Tinky Winky. It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic.

Link to BBC News story.

The state of commercial neuroscience

NeuroInsights have released a report on the neurotechnology industry that uncovers the growing market for brain-based goods and services.

The 350 page report will set you back $4,500 (that’s almost $13 dollars a page!), but has been summarised by Zack Lynch, the company’s managing director, on his blog.

Some of the highlights include:

2006 venture capital investment in neurotechnology rose 7.5% to $1.666 billion

Neurotech industry revenues rose 10% in 2006 to $120.5 billion; this includes neuropharmaceutical revenues of $101 billion, neurodevice revenues of $4.5 billion, neurodiagnostic revenues of $15 billion

The Neurotech Index of publicly-traded neurotechnology companies was up 53% from its December 31, 2003 conception to March 31, 2006, outpacing the NASDAQ Biotech Index which gained 7% during the same period

In other words, the brain is big money, and it’s only likely to get bigger.

Needless to say, this makes us, the brain-owning public, equally blessed and cursed.

Commercial companies want us to spend our money on their products, meaning as well as developing technologies, they are likely to promote new ideas of well-being or ill-health to motivate us to use them.

This also tends to mean that problems faced by those with money (i.e. people in developed countries) get priority over the problems more typical of less developed countries.

So, treaments for diseases endemic in the developing world, like sleeping sickness, caused by trypanosoma infection and leading to brain disorder and eventual death, will likely be slow in coming.

However, we can be sure that some new advances in commercial neuroscience will be of huge benefit to many people.

The difficulty for us, and the investors, is that sometimes it is only clear which of the advances is significant with the benefit of hindsight.

Link to NeuroInsights industry report with free executive summary.
Link to Zack Lynch’s summary and comments.

Brain patch

An artist on Etsy is selling this wonderful iron-on brain patch based on an antique anatomical illustration.

For only $5 plus packing, you can get one of these delivered to your door and attached to, well, whatever you’d want a beautiful brain illustration attached to.

And if you can’t think of any reason you’d want a iron on brain patch, go see the drawing in more detail.

The cortex has obviously been subject to a little ‘artist license’, but it’s still a striking image.

Link to vintage medical anatomy illustration of the head and brain fabric patch.

Setting yourself back 30 years with hypnosis

Celebrity hypnotist Paul McKenna on BBC Radio 4’s music programme, Desert Island Discs:

“When you hear a song, back in say the 70s, the first time you heard it, it sounded absolutely fantastic and it’ll never sound like that again. So, I age regressed myself – I know this sounds a little unusual – and took myself back and then whacked on Sister Sledge, and it just sounded phenomenal. It sounded like it did years ago. It was fresh, with those amazing big disco drums…”

Paul McKenna, confusing the sound of drums with the sound of serious hypnosis researchers banging their heads against the wall.

Broadcasting from the silent land

If you’ve got half an hour, you could do a lot worse than spending it listening to ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind interview with neuropsychologist Dr Paul Broks, author of Into the Silent Land (ISBN 1843540347).

Broks writes in a part philosophical, part hallucinatory style, focusing on patients whose understanding and experience of the self has been disturbed by brain injury.

It’s one of my favourite books on neuropsychology, and Broks touches on many of its themes in the interview.

Broks has also written the play On Ego (ISBN 184002609X), which was based on part of the book, but which I found a little luke warm when I saw it and seemed to lack the originality of his writing.

However, he notes in the interview that he’s currently writing another play with the Royal Shakespeare Company about a woman who has intense religious experiences and temporal lobe epilepsy (the two often co-occur), which sounds immensely promising.

Broks will also be appearing at three events at the Sydney Writer’s Festival (two of which are free) so wander along if you happen to be in Sydney on May 31st or June 2nd.

Link to AITM interview with Paul Broks.