Neuroeconomics: The Cost of Love

Emotional and economic calculations closely related
July 25, 2013

On the HGTV show House Hunters, prospective buyers choose from several home options. The final decision comes down not just to cost, but also to the emotional investment potential homeowners have in a particular property. That link between emotions and perceived value is powerful—and Duke researchers have discovered why.

Scott Huettel Ph.D. ’99, director of Duke’s Center for Interdisciplinary Decision Science, says scientists studying emotion and neuroeconomics (the study of how the brain values things) recognize that a small region of the brain governs feelings and perceived value. The region is a small area right between the eyes at the front of the brain. It’s called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, or vmPFC for short.

Earlier research by other groups had shown that the vmPFC participates in calculating the value of rewards, and is engaged by positive stimuli that aren’t really rewards, like a happy memory or a picture of a happy face. A separate line of studies had shown that this brain region also set values on little things, such as snacks. The vmPFC handles value tradeoffs—whether a product is worth a certain amount of money, for example.

In the Duke study, experimental subjects were first trained to do “reappraisal,” in which they could change their emotional response to a situation. “In reappraisal you reassess the meaning of an emotional stimulus, rather than trying to avoid the emotional stimulus or suppress your reaction to it,” says Amy Winecoff A.M. ’12, a graduate student in psychology and neuroscience who led the research. “Emotions appear to be relying on the same value system.”

While the subjects’ brains were being scanned using functional MRI, they were shown images of evocative scenes and faces. After each image, the subjects were told to either let their feelings flow or to practice reappraisal to change their thoughts. Then they were asked to rate how positive or negative they felt.

"In reappraisal you reassess the meaning of an emotional stimulus, rather than trying to avoid the emotional stimluus or suppress your reaction to it."

In the case of “an unregulated positive affect”—letting the good feelings flow—the vmPFC was shown to be working harder, which the researchers say could be used to predict how much value a person is putting on something. But when the subjects dampened their emotional responses to positive images, the vmPFC activation diminished, as if the images were less valuable to the subjects.

“This changes our frame of reference for thinking about these things,” Huettel says. He notes that advertisers have long been using emotional appeals to get people to value their products, “but they didn’t know why it worked.”
Previous studies had focused only on reappraisal of negative emotions, but this time around the Duke scientists wanted to watch people reappraise both negative and positive responses. 

“It’s not the case that you never want to reappraise a positive emotion,” says Huettel. But when buying a house or a car, it’s a good idea to dampen your infatuation a bit.