29 Jun

I had to comment on the monkey-targeted-advertisement thing.

1)  What bothers me about all the reporting I’ve seen of it is that it’s currently still a planned study, based on earlier results dealing with monkeys learning to use currency.  There are currently no published results from the study regarding advertising to nonhuman primates.  This sort of reporting is moderately irksome, as it presents the working hypothesis (Monkeys will respond as their human primate counterparts do to advertisements), without actually having tested it–testing the hypothesis being the point of the planned  experiment.

2)  Testing two different colors of jello (as the article rather vaguely suggests the researchers are maybe thinking of doing eventually?) could theoretically be problematic, depending on the species’ natural environment and what they’re accustomed to in captivity.  For instance, does red food = ripe, or does red food = poison?  Presumably any researcher would take this into account, but it isn’t mentioned at all.

3)  There is a psychological phenomenon that I believe we learned about on Day One of Psych 101:  the mere exposure effect.  If (as the study apparently assumes) the species’ psychological responses parallel those of humans (which I’m not saying is unlikely), such an effect would be an entirely plausible confounding variable.  Think about it:  Do I eat this food that I’ve been seeing a picture of for t amount of time, with no apparent adverse effects associated with it, or do I eat this food that I’ve never seen before?

4)  In principle, I would agree with their hypothesis, which is that linking the picture of Food A to images of the alpha male and females will create a tendency to prefer Food A over unadvertised Food B.  That seems like common sense. (Which is, of course, something to watch out for in the cognitive sciences.  Folk wisdom is not always wisdom.  That’s why it bothers me that they’re reporting on the study without providing any published results.)

5)  If the subjects do prefer the advertised food, it will (presumably) be because they associate it with sex and social status (anyone who wants to feel particularly superior to other primates might want to avert their eyes from that fact).  The reason these things sell, among humans and potentially other primates, is their utilization of reward pathways.

The other day at my internship, I was reading about the treatment gap for substance abuse in prison (it’s a horrifying problem, and worthy of its own post). My mind was wandering to the shuttle launch (in 9 days!!!), and NASA funding, and I thought, If only the brain weren’t wired in such a way as to become addicted to harmful substances, think of all the extra funding the government could have spent on NASA over the past few decades.

But then it hit me:  if the brain weren’t wired in such a way as to become addicted to harmful substances, there wouldn’t be any NASA.  There might not even be any people.  The same pathways that motivate us to eat, drink, fight, procreate–basically, survive as a species–can be hijacked by substances that do more physical and financial (and societal and psychological and many adjectives I’ve forgotten) damage than good.  But they can also be used to justify exploration, the search for new knowledge–in short, NASA.  From the best things humans have ever done, to the worst addictions that befall us, it’s all dopamine.

There are always consequences, sometimes unpredictable, or temporarily unexplained.  And that is why we do experiments, instead of simply theorizing.


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