What is known about “how the mind conjures value,” as you write?
Partly this has been a staple of economics for centuries – the value we see in something shifts according to our situation and proclivities. Just browse Ebay sometime. You may have no use for an obsolete Polaroid camera that shoots out tiny self-adhesive photographs. So, it has no value for you. But somebody out there really wants one for a party, and they are going to outbid all comers (yes, this is autobiographical). However, I write about research that takes this idea a step further, showing how our brains adjust the value we see in something based on how much we expect others value it. So, it’s not just our personal situation and proclivities that weigh into this equation, but everybody else’s too.
In brain scan studies, for example, the reward centers in the brains of young men looking at photos of young women go up and down based on learning that their peers supposedly thought that this particular woman was more or less attractive than they did originally. This isn’t just peer pressure. Their brains have adjusted the “value” of that face.
Think of the recent housing bubble and how much value we saw in a three bedroom house in our neighborhood during the boom and how much now, after the bust. There’s a rational market explanation for the change – too many sellers and not enough buyers, and not enough cash – but the research suggests brain changes, too. We really saw more value in that house during the boom, based on the expectations of what others valued.
Have you experienced any of these effects first hand?
I'm certain that I have, although most of the examples I could bring up are naturally speculative, rather than controlled experiments. For instance, I was a fairly successful student growing up, and much of the credit goes to my teachers and parents for preparing me and instilling discipline and study habits. But I'm pretty sure that some of it was due to the self-fulfilling potential of expectations. I became a good student partly because my teachers expected me to do well, my parents expected me to do well, and so I expected to do well.
Plus, I know that I almost always enjoy a wine that I know is expensive. But, last summer, I hosted a blind-wine tasting of with friends and family where we tried to guess the prices of the wines we tasted — which ranged from $15 a bottle to about $60 a bottle. The tasters, myself included, generally preferred wines that we thought were the most expensive. But, in reality, those preferred wines were often among the cheapest.
Finally, when I was in my 20s, I had my first bout with insomnia. Two nights with zero sleep, and I was freaking out. Over the course of those two nights, I'd tried over the counter sleep medication. I'd tried alcohol. I slept not a wink. I finally went to a walk-in clinic and talked with a psychologist who later handed me a couple of small pills in a vial and told me they would help me sleep. There was no label on the vial, no marking on the pills. He just said to take one and then avoid driving and operating power tools, etc, because these were powerful. I took one that night and slept soundly. I think about that every now and then. I know that I would have eventually slept no matter what. But I also suspect I was given a placebo.
Why did you want to write this book?
I think we're too insistent on separating what's imagined from what's real. A lot of scientific endeavor involves making such distinctions, and that's worthwhile and necessary. But it's worth taking stock of how often our imagination, our expectations and assumptions, bleed into reality and actually change experience or change our bodies. This isn't about denying, disguising, or not seeing what's true, it's about the cases when truth may be malleable.