About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Thursday, November 30, 2006
Regret is in your brain
The researchers had hypothesized that the orbitofrontal cortex of the brain should be involved in experiencing the emotion of regret, since it is known to be connected to both planning and emotional responses. They therefore proceeded to compare the response of normal individuals to those of people with damaged orbitofrontal cortex when exposed to gambling situations. The results were clear: normal subjects experience both disappointment and regret when they are told that they did not do well, even if they actually won something, but could have won more. This is the human curse of counterfactual thinking, the cognitive ability to imagine – and emotionally feel – alternative outcomes. The orbitofrontal patients, however, were incapable of experiencing regret, though they were still disappointed by negative outcomes: their disconnect between rational and emotional circuits hampered their counterfactual thinking.
Well, what's wrong with being unable to feel negative emotions generated by imagining outcomes that didn't occur? Isn't this a source of much human unhappiness after all? Perhaps, but the researchers also showed that the ability for feeling the counterfactual scenarios actually helps normal individuals to play their odds carefully: their control subjects regularly outperformed the orbitofrontal patients at gambling. It is the (projected) fear of losing big that keeps most of us from betting our shirts when we should wear them instead.