Last weekend, a group of the world’s preeminent neuroeconomists met in Evanston and the research findings reported on were strikingly different from even two years ago. Virtually nothing about system 1 (logic) and system 2 (emotion) and a new found appreciation for the integrated role of feelings and emotions in every risk decision. Antonio Damasio, one of the world’s most famous neuroscientists gave the keynote lecture Friday night with a title “The Primacy of Feelings”.

Here are a few more highlights – both from presentations and from up-and-coming research by doctoral and post-doc students.

1. Something called the “orbitofrontal cortex” (which has been implicated in good decision making) was recast as a kind of keeper of the facts that predict “value” – a sort of what-if modeler but not the decision point. (This theory works well, in our opinion, with the new information from R. Douglas Fields in The Other Brain that says neuronal networks aren’t where the real action is anyway).

2. A very helpful lecture by Reid Hastie of The Booth School of Business at The University of Chicago which categorized the working theories in Prospect theory, Behavioral Finance and decision-making as:

a) Query theory or something called cognitive microgenesis. He attributed this to Elke Weber and Eric Johnson at Columbia.

b) Emotional modulators which is a bit like our working theory of emotional context.

c) Peter Wakker – updated Prospect Theory

d) System 1 vs. System 2 – “not satisfying”, “little direct evidence which system controlling”. As I said above, this was literally the only mention I heard – a vast difference from 2008 and even 2009. In other words, emotion seems to be truly out of the dumpster even with this group which tends to be very cognitive oriented.

e) System 0 – Unconscious thought theory (one of our favorites) and the comment was [studies] “very repeatable”.

f) Ego Depletion – Willpower, like muscles, tires out. This relates to the reports of decision fatigue and the higher chances of being granted parole if an inmate has a morning appointment.

g) Reward meters – Paul Glimcher of NYU and subjective probabilities (another of our favorites). This is about information integration and is where the whole field is going. Soon I predict we won’t be talking about a neural circuit for this or that but a neural circuit as a part of a larger system that gives rise to perception and the judgment of value in any given decision.

…and that is just from the two introductory talks on the first morning of three days!

Other interesting studies -

1) “Rats increasingly relied on prior knowledge with increasing decision uncertainty” (Hirokawa, Cold Spring Harbor) – i.e. context is everything in uncertainty.

2) Need to factor in regret theory as “counter-factual” evaluations are part and parcel of thinking about prior decisions.

3) Large bonuses make monkeys crazy with anxiety and reduce performance!

The conference lasted three days so a full summary would be a very long post. Suffice it to say that the focus has turned to what we here at ReThink call social and emotional context. The brain and the mind are still a long way from being fully understood and anyone who tells you differently is over-reaching. Having said that, it is becoming clear that whichever structures are doing whatever task, they are working together to integrate a conscious and unconscious assessment of the facts, the contexts and the feelings associated with any perception and decision.

No matter where I go, no matter who calls, no matter when I check twitter… there it is – “behavioral finance”. In an effort to understand the great financial crisis of 2008 everyone it seems has turned to what the academics call the “biases and heuristics lit”. I mean it seems so ubiquitous to me (granted I am biased ;) that I swear I even hear about it in Starbucks and on the 6 train in Manhattan.

Yet beyond the platitudes, how many people can really do anything but list and define the ostensible biases? Again, I am definitely and completely without a doubt biased but I do listen very carefully for someone to make these experimental observations both explicable and practical … and so far…

I even attended Harvard’s annual conference on the said topic and while it was great and I feel lucky to have had the opportunity, the “why” of the matter (at least in my not so humble opinion) still needs attention.

So hence, this ReThink Group now exists and hopefully soon we will fully articulate what we have spoken about at US Trust, Morgan Stanley, BNY Mellon and Battle of the Quants in a book called RISKY BUSINESS: IT ISN’T WHAT YOUR BRAIN THINKS!