Field Notes from Beijing

The Good:
Vertical integration of scientific research. Although disciplinary boundaries are still much more pronounced in China than the US, there is something really exciting about the vertical integration in the various disciplines. I saw a talk where a single group went through genetic screening in thousands of patients, followed up with a set of studies involving interrogation of gene candidates using animal models and in vitro approaches.

This has a definite beauty and logic to it, since many of our most pressing research questions are problem-based as opposed to disciplinary based. One can get out much of the value of interdisciplinary research by simply stacking the different disciplines together. Conversly, I can’t imagine what grant reviewer would say if I proposed to do something like this in the US.

Unlikely to catch on, ever: smog-chic.
The Bad
Undoubtedly the air pollution. After a couple of days with a gloriously blue sky, courtesy of a Siberian weather system, I got the full Beijing treatment of code red air quality. That meant wearing masks even when inside. Hopefully this is the darkest hour before it gets better. I even overheard migrant workers talking about going back to their villages because of the pollution. Surely the developmental curve has caught up to the point that economic development – life quality tradeoff is moving towards the latter.

So where's the part where I eat worms?
The Totally Awesome
Crampons! Ice axes! Jokes about drinking your own urine! It’s ice climbing at the foot of the Great Wall!

There is something hugely satisfying and soothing about the dull thud of the ice axe into the ice. It was much more accessible than I had thought, but of course I was with serious professionals. I think I just found my new hobby.

What is (should be) the definition of gambling? 

Long flights are an ideal way to get rid of those podcasts that you never quite get around the listening to. So on my 13 hour flight to Beijing, I listened to a commissioner of fantasy sports (what a job!) talking to KQED trying to defend daily fantasy betting sites like FanDuel and DraftKings against charges of being gambling houses.

His argument is the old one that says anything requiring skill isn’t gambling. I don’t think anyone really buys that argument, since by that definition there’s nothing in vegas aside from maybe slot machines is gambling. But what I found curious was the comment from Michael Krasny, the host, that regulators didn’t have a problem with betting in the old season-long format, but only now when it became daily.

This issue of timescale rings true to me, and strikes me as being quite similar to other “vices” that we have always had trouble defining. For example, we’re perfectly fine with coffee (and for a long time cigarettes) but not many other psychoactive substances. Of course, the most famous example has to be that for obscenity, and Potter Stewart’s famous line that “I know it when I see it”.

I think the difficulty in each of those cases is finding an “objective” characteristic of the good (or I guess bad) itself (maybe I’ll just use "it"). Maybe we should instead define it from the perspective of the individual consuming “it". In all these cases, the reward itself is so incredibly impoverished, such that the pleasures of consumption is tied to some very specific aspect of the whole experience. Taking “it” away and the whole experience loses all motivational value.

In the case of coffee, people seem to consume at least two qualities. The caffeine and the taste itself (the fact that there is such a product as decaf is a pretty good indication). For cocaine, I’m guessing not. In the case of fantasy sports, there is the smack talking and the bonding experience. Take away the money, and plenty of people would still play (at least I did as a poor grad student). There's much less opportunity for that when we strip it down to a day.

I think it can also explains what Potter Stewart had in mind in his famous statement. In a particular time and place, it’s quite obvious what’s obscene. But consumption experiences have a way of changing. Move it into the art gallery, wrap it in a social experience, and the meaning to the consumer changes.

This all seems so sensible that I’m sure someone has already written about this (or maybe this is what happens 12 hours into the flight). But if they have, it’s too bad that we’re still hearing the same flawed argument about requiring skill = not gambling. So here’s my proposed definition of gambling and other "vices":

An activity where immediate gratification is the sole motivation for its consumption.

Upcoming Talk Schedules at Peking University

Two upcoming talks in Beijing. I had a good chuckle when I saw how utterly different these talks are. There are no shortage of labs that are bigger and more productive than us, but I think we are building something quite special and not easily replicated elsewhere. :-)

IDG/McGovern Institute for Brain Research
: 15Dec. 13:00 - 15:00pm
Location: Room 1113, Wangkezhen Building

Title: Oscillatory mechanisms underlying decision-making under uncertainty

Abstract: Despite tremendous recent progress in elucidating core neurocomputational components that underlie economic decision-making, we still know little about the mechanisms that coordinate the various signals within and across various brain regions. Here I will discuss results from recent electrocorticography (ECoG) studies suggesting a fundamental role of neural oscillations in governing intra- and inter-regional communication during decision-making. Specifically, we recorded local field potentials in the prefrontal cortex of in neurosurgical patients who were engaged in a gambling task. ECoG signals reflect the coordinated activity of ensembles of hundreds of thousands of neurons, and are uniquely poised to reveal fast, circuit-level computations in the human brain. We found that different aspects of the gambling game generated event-related changes in oscillatory activity across multiple areas and frequency bands. Furthermore, oscillatory interactions between lateral and orbital prefrontal regions support cognitive processes underlying decision-making under uncertainty. Together, these data highlight the importance of network dynamics in characterizing neural basis of economic decision-making.

Guanghua School of Business
Time: 16.Dec. 13:30-15:00pm
Location: Room217, Guanghua Building 2

Title: Inside The Mind of the Consumer: Thoughts, Feelings, and Experiences

Abstract: Researchers and practitioners have long relied on self-report methods to understand how consumers evaluate, choose, and experience different product offerings. These methods, however, have remained largely unchanged since their introduction decades ago and have a number of well-known limitations. As a result, there is growing interest in brain-based approaches that may enable consumer researchers and managers to directly probe customers’ underlying thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Here I will describe recent progress and open questions in using such methods in understanding customer mindsets.