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Deception in the brain: New clues
November 2nd, 2010
11:10 AM ET

Deception in the brain: New clues

Anyone who's ever bought anything at a flea market or dealt with a real estate agent knows that the buyer and seller have different incentives. The buyer wants a great deal; the seller wants to make a profit.

How the brain works in the negotiating process is poorly understood. Now, a new study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provides new insight into how the brain responds to the challenge of getting a desired price and, specifically, in deceiving the other party.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, and California Institute of Technology set up the following scenario: The participant, the buyer, is told the value of a hypothetical object. Then, the buyer must suggest a price to the seller, who returns with a counter offer. This game is played 60 times between each buyer and seller.

If the seller's price is less than the value, the trade occurs and the buyer receives the difference between the value and the selling price. But if the seller's price is greater than the value, then the trade does not go through, and no one gets anything. Neither player knows whether the trade actually happened, however.

Researchers found that people assigned to be "buyers" respond to the situation in one of three ways: there's the incrementalist, who consistently applies the same percentage to the known value - such as 1/2 or 1/3 - and is honest with price suggestions. There are the conservatives, whose suggestions don't say much about the real value, and sometimes just suggest the lowest price every time. Finally, the strategic deceivers, representing only 11 percent of the sample, always suggest a price that is negatively associated with the value: in other words, high prices for low values and low prices for high values.

The strategic deceiver method is the optimal one, because it fools the seller, who is led to trust the buyer with the highball offers, into later believing that high-value objects should have low prices. "I tried to throw off [the] seller by saying the low things were high," one subject wrote.

Looking at the brains of the "buyers" through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), it appears that those who play as strategic deceivers have more activity in the regions of their brains involved with thinking about other people's thoughts, said Read Montague, professor of neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine and co-author of the study.

Specifically, the part of the brain involved is called the right temporal parietal junction. It gets activated when you hear stories about other people, Montague said.

Interestingly, the higher the response in this brain region, the higher the expected payoff in the trade, he said. That means brain activity in this area actually corresponded with the buyer's expected profit in the negotiation.

The next step in this research is to take games such as this to people with diagnoses of psychiatric illnesses, Montague said. For example, people with conditions such as schizophrenia who believe that others are thinking about them, or who have difficulty interpreting signals that other people send to them, would be candidates for further research on how this brain region behaves.


soundoff (41 Responses)
  1. Lynn Nagrani

    OK, I was a magna cum laude psychology major and I do not understand a word of this. Am I just having a dead-brain day or does this make any sense to anyone else? I just don't understand how this experiment worked.

    November 2, 2010 at 12:07 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Kevin Tyree

      It seems anyone with an Internet Connection can write articles for CNN, even a public library full of monkeys 😀

      November 2, 2010 at 12:25 | Report abuse |
    • Bubba Schmo

      I assume they administered the MRI during the transactions. I didn't even graduate from College and I was able to figure that one out......

      November 2, 2010 at 12:55 | Report abuse |
    • Wzrd1

      Just a dead brain day, we all get them at times.
      Apparently, they did FMRI while the experimental subjects made simulated transactions.

      November 2, 2010 at 13:28 | Report abuse |
    • followup

      Was it "social" pschology? That paradigm can tend sometimes to shy away somewhat from things like neurology and other sciences when they don't conform to the popular dogma.

      November 2, 2010 at 14:17 | Report abuse |
    • Sandy

      This was poorly written to say the least; not only that, but I can't think of a situation where the buyer can trick the seller into believing that something with high value gets the low price. As a professional salesperson, I can say that the people behind this study (or at least the writer) need to do a little more homework.

      November 2, 2010 at 14:59 | Report abuse |
    • dj

      i think the critical piece that is missing is that only the buyer knows the actual value of the item. It strikes me as being a lot like poker, though less sophisticated. The best poker players don't play the cards – they play the other players.

      November 2, 2010 at 17:03 | Report abuse |
    • dj

      btw Sandy it happens all the time in the antiques trade, for example, when an expert buyer knows something about an item that the seller doesn't. Or when a poker player bluffs. In this experiment the seller doesn't actually know the true value of what they are selling.

      November 2, 2010 at 17:14 | Report abuse |
    • JLS639

      I had no trouble understanding the article. However, in my experience popular articles tend to word conclusions more strongly than the paper's authors and tend to present results as being more clear-cut than they actually are. However, I read the article and they actually did a pretty good job here.

      November 2, 2010 at 21:11 | Report abuse |
    • Improve Concentration

      Agree –Completely, this was totally incomprehensible

      November 2, 2010 at 23:31 | Report abuse |
    • Dave

      I, too, did Master's work in psychology at Harvard for five years. I have also been in the antiques' business for forty years. The assumptions built into this study have nothing to do with what happens at "flea markets" or in the antiques' trade. It seems the researchers assume that transactions only occur through some psychological game of cat and mouse. By giving the buyer the "value" to begin with, the utility of the purchase becomes entirely artificial, and the study only shows how the brain may strategize under game theory conditions. In reality, market values are fickle, and every buyer AND seller has their own utility for any given object. The real motivation for buying and selling in the study is absent.

      November 3, 2010 at 09:47 | Report abuse |
    • Sam Skwirl

      So after reading the article I'm off to sell the Brooklyn Bridge and Some Swamp Land to anyone I can fine with a psychiatric illnesses,such as schizophrenia.

      November 3, 2010 at 09:54 | Report abuse |
    • Jim

      The article is very poorly written, it is not you. All too often CNN articles leave me feeling brain dead.

      November 3, 2010 at 17:10 | Report abuse |
  2. Jeff

    This is great for a game that is played 60 times but how often does a person negotiate the price of a business, home, or automobile with the same party 60 times. Am I missing something here or is this information interesting from a 'how-the-brain-works' standpoint but lacks much applicability in the real world.

    November 2, 2010 at 12:22 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Wzrd1

      It's a bit of both. It's a study in how the brain processes information in a trade environment (aka sales/purchase). It also mentions potential use of FMRI for the study of mental illness, where it WILL be of great practical value.

      November 2, 2010 at 13:30 | Report abuse |
    • JLS639

      If you were a purchasing agent, 60 serial negotiations would not be excessive. I have had to purchase for an operation before, and while I'm pretty sure I never got as high as 60 successive price negotiations, that was only because the operation is small. However, there are vendors that I purchased well over 60 times over many months. Furthermore, if people only did a few negotiations, you would not have seen the "strategic" group because they could only build trust over a large number of exchanges.

      November 2, 2010 at 21:19 | Report abuse |
    • Improve Concentration

      After the 60 attempt, the users went home – and never thought of it again

      November 2, 2010 at 23:31 | Report abuse |
  3. Becky

    Glad I read your comment before going back over the article. I was thinking I would figure it out if I read it a several times but that's just not true!

    November 2, 2010 at 12:25 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Improve Concentration

      Yup – it felt like trying to solve the missing plot of mission impossible

      November 2, 2010 at 23:32 | Report abuse |
    • Also lost

      Yeah, I was completely lost. I read it several times and now I just have a headache.

      November 3, 2010 at 10:29 | Report abuse |
  4. Bill

    dude – chill. typos kill

    November 2, 2010 at 13:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Bill

    I can see applicability if you can simplify the the evaluation process to find the optimum buyer traits in applicants for jobs to be buyers.

    November 2, 2010 at 13:27 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Improve Concentration

      Good grief –I hope it doesnt make them feel like how i felt after the article

      November 2, 2010 at 23:33 | Report abuse |
  6. Wzrd1

    Typical Gupta column writing, goobered down to a level that someone with an IQ of 50 can understand, but lacking in detail or any real substance.
    Usually, I end up looking up the study in question to figure out what the research REALLY means.

    November 2, 2010 at 13:31 | Report abuse | Reply
    • .

      Post by: Elizabeth Landau – CNN.com Health Writer/Producer

      November 3, 2010 at 11:06 | Report abuse |
  7. Elias

    This is trully poor writing and I sympathise with Lynn. What they forgot to say is that this is a game of trust that is played with 60 different trades amongst the *same* buyer and seller. In the beggining the deceiver fools the seller into thinking that the buer is generous and then the deception comes.

    CNN needs better science editors...

    November 2, 2010 at 14:17 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Improve Concentration

      Still – still dont follow

      November 2, 2010 at 23:34 | Report abuse |
    • .

      That was my understanding as well. The strategic/deceptive buyer offers seemingly a lot of money in the beginning to show that they are willing to pay high if the value is [supposedly] there (and they do this on the low-dollar items from which they would not generate much profit even if they did offer the actual or greater than the actual value), but when items of real value actually come to the table, the buyer lowballs their offer to get the highest dollar value goods for the lowest possible price. From past experience the seller believes the buyer is not stingy and is willing to spend fairly, so they accept the low offer under the assumption the value of the item must be low - a result of trusting the buyer. Results of the study won't help an individual make similar deceptions when they attempt a one-time large purchase, such as buying a home, but will speak to the nature of the brain and what parts of the brain are activated under these conditions. They apparently compared the brain scans of these individual buyers with the scans of individual buyers who used other methods of reaching their goals during the transaction process. I understood the article as written here, but I agree with Chris that the link he submitted was much better.

      November 3, 2010 at 11:03 | Report abuse |
    • Veggiehead

      Elias, this is from the article: "This game is played 60 times between each buyer and seller."

      What is unclear about that?

      November 3, 2010 at 13:16 | Report abuse |
  8. LD

    Lynn–I, too, was confused by this article! I'm glad I was not alone.

    November 2, 2010 at 16:40 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Improve Concentration

      Felt the same way – but am not cum anything

      November 2, 2010 at 23:34 | Report abuse |
  9. Cecil

    This is a bunch of crap. Stop trying to make excuses for people and their lack of morals. Everyone knows full well when they are lying. A real man or woman of integrity will not resort to deception.

    November 2, 2010 at 18:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Jamie

    So what is the point of this? Are liars now going to say 'I can't help lying. I am hard-wired to!' BULLCRAPPPPPP. Own up to your faults. Enough of this garbage.

    November 2, 2010 at 18:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Paul Ronco

    CNN is attempting to selectively deceive us into believing this article has value

    November 2, 2010 at 19:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Improve Concentration

    Wow a brain teaser in itself that will help to Improve Concentration

    November 2, 2010 at 23:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Chris

    I agree that this article was poorly written (or at least incomplete). I found a more complete explanation of the study & rationale (which clarified things) @ Discovery Magazine's site: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2010/11/01/the-signature-of-the-bluffing-brain/

    November 3, 2010 at 09:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. .

    ...not Gupta

    November 3, 2010 at 11:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Mike Distance

    I vow to be more like a corporation.

    November 3, 2010 at 12:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Veggiehead

    Leading what is otherwise an interesting story with real estate agents and flea market vendors...two of the lowest forms of life on the planet! It almost kept me from reading the rest of the article. If anyone figures out what really goes on in the fetid swamp that lurks inside the heads of real estate people, they will probably turn to stone.

    I had a version of the "high for low/low for high" valuation game played against me (as a buyer) in a fabric store in NYC years ago. I was so confused by the end of the manipulation that I walked out of the store with fabric that I didn't want! I felt used. People who have that knack for dealing may consider themselves to be successful, but they are not good people. You have to have a sick soul to make your living and find your joy in taking advantage of others.

    November 3, 2010 at 13:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. sinsrus

    Agreed, poorly written.

    So what's the new clue?

    November 3, 2010 at 13:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. MannyHM

    I've always recommended people convicted of heinous crimes in the likes of Jeffrey Dahmer, Phillip Markoff, Amy Bishop, Van der Sloot, Unabomber Kosinsky, Tim McVay, Hayes and Komisarjevsky, etc. to be studied with functional MRI before they die or put away. We can really learn about deception, criminal intent, and criminal minds from them. Make them useful at least in their remaining days or years.

    November 3, 2010 at 14:54 | Report abuse | Reply

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