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Mind Over Money filming at Harvard

Why is NOVA wiring David Gergen--presidential advisor, Harvard professor, CNN analyst--with electrodes? That's easy: For science!

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Roll up those sleeves for science! David Gergen preps for his electrodes.

Yesterday morning at the Harvard Decision Science Lab, Gergen was among those who volunteered to be a subject in a study of how we make decisions about money. NOVA producer Malcolm Clark was there filming it all for NOVA's Mind Over Money (premiering Tuesday, April 27), which looks at how our brains may be wired to make just the kind of poor economic decisions that got us into our current money mess.

With electrodes on one arm and one leg tracking his heart rate and a respiration band (kind of like a seat belt you wear across your chest) measuring his breathing, Gergen played a gambling game to test what economists call the "sunk cost bias." The sunk cost bias is our impulse to throw good money after bad--to pour more and more money into that old jalopy when it would be cheaper to buy a new car, or to put quarter after quarter into the slot machine when it's time to cut our losses.

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Someone's watching you! Cameras monitor subjects at Harvard's Decision Science Lab. 

Leaders like Gergen are particularly interesting to the scientists at the Decision Science Lab. Scientists at the lab, which is headed up by Jennifer Lerner, want to find out whether public and corporate leaders are vulnerable to the same decision-making pitfalls as the rest of us. Executives from across the country--students in the executive education program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government--have volunteered to be wired up for the experiment. In exchange for their participation, they will receive personalized feedback about their decision-making strengths and weaknesses.

As postdoc Yoel Inbar, doctoral student Katrina Koslov, and lab manager Sarah Hirschfeld-Sussman explained to me, the study--which is led by Lerner, James Gross of Stanford, and Inbar--is not just looking to find out whether the leaders rise to the top. They want to measure how much physiological stress the subjects experience while they're taking the test. And, they want to match that up with data on each subject's ability to control his or her emotions. Will those who are good at keeping their feelings in check be the best decision makers?

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Palm-reading electrodes tell all!

The Harvard Decision Science Lab has already released made some intriguing conclusions in its first year of operation. In one study, Lerner and her colleagues found that sadness makes us more likely to spend money, and less likely to hold out for a discount. (Could this be the cause of post-layoff shopping sprees?)

Another study found that risk-taking and anger are wired up differently in women and in men. When men are angry, they take more risks; for women, it's the opposite.

This is all fascinating, but can we actually use it to make better decisions? Yes, say the researchers at the Decision Science Lab. By understanding our innate human biases, we have the power to recognize when they're trying to lead us astray--and make better choices.

Note: Interested in participating in one of the Decision Science Lab's experiments? Sign up here. Just click "request an account" and enter your contact information. How easy is that?

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