TUESDAY, Nov. 2 (HealthDay News) -- Attention swindlers,
grifters and expert poker players: Science may be onto you.
Researchers report that they've used brain scans to figure out
how people's minds work differently when they're trying to
manipulate others into believing something that's not true. Or, as
it's most commonly known, bluffing.
The findings hint at how complicated bluffing is compared to,
say, simply telling a lie.
"Our study indicates that manipulating other people's beliefs about your likely actions over a period of time probably requires a few different cognitive processes, including the ability to understand how your previous actions will affect other people," explained study author Meghana A. Bhatt, a fellow at Baylor College of Medicine's department of neuroscience.
Bluffing is commonly thought of as a part of gambling games like
poker. But it happens in other scenarios, such as during an auction
or while bargaining over a car purchase or a salary.
In the new study, researchers monitored the brains of 76
volunteers while they took part in a "bargaining game" designed to
coax them into bluffing. One person served as the buyer and another
as the seller during 60 rounds.
"One subject, the buyer, knows the true value of an object and suggests to the other subject, the seller, what price they should sell the object for," said study co-author Read Montague, a neuroscientist. "But the seller knows that most buyers will 'shave' the price a little to get a better deal. Also, the buyer knows that the seller will expect this, so the suggested price from the buyer needs to be credible. You can see that both players must use their best guess about the other player's assumptions about them. They must understand their image in their opponent's mind."
The ability to do all this "is a sophisticated cognitive ability
in humans, and it is one part of a collection of cognitive
abilities that allows us to deal with other humans, including
cooperating with them," said Montague, a professor of neuroscience
The researchers report their findings in this week's online
issue of the
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"There was a very significant difference in brain responses in the so-called bluffers" compared to those who were honest, Montague said. "The bluffers are likely [using] neural circuitry devoted to understanding what others believe in the context of the game."
Bhatt put it this way: "We believe the areas indicate that the
strategists -- bluffers -- are essentially thinking ahead.
Specifically, they're keeping track of how their suggestions are
changing their reputation in the seller's mind and are in turn
improving or harming their chances at good payouts in the
Paul J. Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies
at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif., was
skeptical about the study's worth since it doesn't reveal much
that's new about bluffing. It's "fun and amusing, very
well-designed and executed, but of little value I think," he said.
"I'm not seeing clear value to this study for normal humans."
For more about
the brain, try the U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.