Vikram Chib probes preferred behaviors
It’s been the subject of many a barroom debate: Do professional athletes choke under pressure? Rationally, you’d imagine there’s no such thing, right? Wrong. Vikram Chib can not only prove the choking response exists, he can show you where in the brain it takes place.
Chib, newly appointed to the Department of Biomedical Engineering, investigates the multidisciplinary intersections of robotics, neuroscience and economics. He looks at how incentives and neurological responses affect behavior. Beginning with seminal work by Daniel Kahneman, psychologists have recognized that people are motivated more by fear of loss than by hope for gain. When an activity carries a high level of risk — playing a championship game, for example — performance often declines.
Chib recently conducted a study that looked at where this “loss aversion” manifested itself when test subjects performed a task that could earn them large rewards. A deep-brain region called the ventral striatum is the primary area for processing potential rewards. When test subjects were informed what they might win, this area became active. It remained active during the task performance when the reward level was relatively low. But as the possible reward increased — that is, more was on the line — activity in the ventral striatum declined, along with performance.
Beyond settling bar bets, the research suggests new directions for finding effective ways of encouraging preferred behaviors in business and other high-stakes situations. Related work that Chib is pursuing could lead to different treatments for depression, schizophrenia and other mental dysfunctions associated with the brain’s reward-system circuitry.
Chib joined the faculty of Biomedical Engineering and Kennedy Krieger Institute in March. Before that, he was a postdoctoral scholar in biology and biological engineering at the California Institute of Technology. He earned a bachelor’s degree in bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh, and a master’s degree and PhD in biomedical engineering at Northwestern University.
— Michael Blumfield