Targeting the basal ganglia

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Is it nit-picking to complain that this Times Magazine article — about the use of “big data” to predict and control consumer behavior — contains a brief introduction to Ann Graybiel’s work on the role of the basal ganglia in habit formation?  I worry that this falls into the trap of “neuro-realism” which has even been the topic of a number of scientific studies. The neuroscience of habit formation is interesting and important in its own right, and Graybiel is certainly one of the leading experts on the topic. But the brain is almost certainly not the most relevant level of description for the marketing department at Target.

On the other hand, it’s at least interesting for readers of the Times article to have a surface description of what’s going on in the rat’s brain during this kind of learning, even if it isn’t particularly useful for the “big data” people who track your every click online and figure out what to market at you next. The people at Target outing pregnant teenagers in their second trimester? They are looking at nothing but behavioral data. And there is a rich literature — much of it forgotten due to not being available in PDF — in which behaviorists shaped animal behavior into truly exotic habits — pigeons walking in figure-eights, rats playing basketball, chickens playing tic-tac-toe – without caring too much about where the learning was taking place in their tiny little heads.

As a consumer with a Facebook account, a gmail account and a tendency to stay logged in to both of these as I go about my daily business — often whipping out the iPhone as a palliative during an unendurable two-to-three minute wait on some kind of line — this article is just the latest in a series of Things to Worry About. Google knows where you are, although they promise not to do anything evil with it. Facebook knows where you are, and what you say to your friends, but wants you to see this as a feature instead of an Orwellian nightmare.

After all, they’re just using this information to customize your user experience of the universe. That is, to narrow down the scope of things that you know to exist (particularly those that lead to monetizable interactions) on the basis of 1) what you’re interested in and 2) who has paid a premium to Google, Facebook, Amazon, Target, etc. If Facebook’s ad service is any indication, they have a way to go before they enter the uncanny valley of user responsiveness — or else being a member of a Crossfit gym is such a powerful predictor of consumer behavior that I am an extreme outlier for being interested in anything other than minimalist training sneakers and “tactical” exercise equipment.

The larger question, to me, is what this new emphasis on behavioral prediction and control in industry means for fields doing the basic research that undergirds this spate of innovation. In the technology community, there is concern that the focus on frictionless sharing and social media constitute a bubble, and, worse, when the bubble bursts, it is unlikely to leave behind anything of lasting value (e.g., the PC, or the Internet, which arguably exist in their current form largely thanks to the last two tech bubbles). As Jeff Hammerbacher, who left Facebook after helping create their analytic software puts it: “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.”

Whatever becomes of social media as an industry, it’s hard to imagine that some corporate incarnation of Total Information Awareness is not a goal that multiple entities are pursuing. In fields like cognitive neuroscience, will this mean that research will increasingly be geared toward marketable skills, such as predicting consumer behavior, testing brain responses to user interfaces, and turning large datasets culled from Facebook profiles? Will we be turning the tools of cognitive neuroscience on the pressing problem of how to sell nutritional supplements to cognitive neuroscientists who may also want to “get disgustingly yoked?”

When behaviorism became unfashionable, it wiped out a generation of academic psychologists. I don’t pretend to know much about what happened to that generation as a whole, but I believe the rumor that the people who trained Calvin Trillin’s favorite tic-tac-toe-playing chicken were students of BF Skinner himself. The academic job market being what it is, there is a real need for alternative career paths in cognitive neuroscience. Jobs in the nascent “neuromarketing” industry (I couldn’t bring myself to include any links there, just Google it and gird yourself) must seem at least as dignified to nth-year postdocs as cobbling together multiple non-tenure track or adjunct positions just to scrape by, as most of our colleagues in the humanities have been doing for years now.

I suppose I would find the prospect of a generation of cognitive neuroscientists focusing their energies on getting people to click on ads more disturbing if I thought cognitive neuroscience had anything to offer marketing departments that they can’t already get from cheaper and more readily available measures of our behavior. Still, it would be huge waste.

 

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