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Made a "Dumb" Move? New Studies Say a Neuronal Mechanism Is to Blame
Monday, December 16, 2019 1:38:00 PM

TAU, Hebrew University research finds a neuronal mechanism explains much of our irrational behavior

If you've ever entered a liquor store, you've probably noticed one exorbitantly priced wine bottle situated beside cheaper bottles and asked yourself: Who is the sucker who would fall for this? Scientists say the answer is: You. The expensive wine serves as "bait" intended to sway the buyer to purchase the second-most expensive bottle of wine in the store — as opposed to an average-priced or cheaper bottle.

But why does this trick work? Why do we make decisions that are inconsistent with logic? Two recent studies published in Nature Communications by researchers at Tel Aviv University and Hebrew University that were conducted with simple worms find a neuronal mechanism explains many of our irrational decisions.

Irrational behavior has been studied extensively in humans and animals alike and has been found to affect everything from the purchase of products to the critical choices we make in life, such as choosing a university, a career, a political candidate — even choosing our spouses. In fact, in 2002, the Nobel Prize was awarded to Professor Daniel Kahneman for his research with Professor Amos Tversky, which showed that humans behave irrationally when it comes to economics.

In the new studies, the researchers harnessed the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, a simple organism with only 302 neurons and which relies on the olfactory sense to find food, selecting according to odor. In most cases, C. elegans make rational decisions. However, by probing multiple neuronal architectures using various choice sets, the researchers showed that breaches of rationality arose when the activated circuit of olfactory sensory neurons was asymmetrical.

The two studies were conducted by two different groups at Tel Aviv University and at Hebrew University. Research at TAU was conducted at the laboratories of Prof. Oded Rechavi of TAU's Faculty of Life Sciences and Dr. Dino Levy of TAU's Coller School of Management, and was led by PhD students Dror Cohen and Guy Teichman of TAU's Sagol School of Neuroscience in collaboration with Dr. Kenway Louie of New York University. The study at the Hebrew University was led by Dr. Alon Zesselber and conducted by research fellow Dr. Shachar Ionir and Rotem Ruach PhD of the Department of Genetics at Hebrew University's Institute of Life Sciences.

The researchers controlled the worms' choices by offering options that were used as "bait," and thus managed to make them behave irrationally.

"We showed that genetic manipulations of the asymmetry between neurons made the worm irrational," explains Prof. Rechavi.

"A context-dependent normalization-based computational model of value coding and gain control, similar to what is used to explain visual illusions, showed how particular neuronal constraints on information coding gave rise to irrationality," adds Dr. Levy.

Hence, the researchers showed that irrational behavior is not necessarily the result of some malfunctioned "high cognitive" activity or due to a competition between the "emotional" and "cognitive" brains. Instead, irrationality is a result of the activity of a finite nervous system operating under constraints. Under specific circumstances, these neural constraints may give rise to irrationality. The studies empirically demonstrated the basic notion of Nobel laurate Herbert Simon that bounded rationality could arise due to basic neuronal constraints.

To come full circle, the researchers have shown that even in worms, the presence of one unselected option (such as very expensive wine) affects a preference for one of the other options.

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