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Peter B. Reiner
National Core for Neuroethics, University of British Columbia
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Neil - Even we neurobiologists can recognize that you are utterly correct, at least as far as the promo piece in SciAm is concerned. Of course, I would need to read the book to know for certain...
I appreciate Steve Genco's thoughtful comments, and want to laud Lucid Systems for their clear statement of ethical principles. Moreover, I think that Steve has done a wonderful job of summarizing some of the neuroscience issues that surround neuromarketing, although I would add one caveat - our understanding of the brain mechanisms involved in decision making are clearly much better than they were only a few years ago, but they remain incomplete in many important details. I think it is important that scientists, and even more so commercial entities, retain a sense of humility about our understanding of neural function as we sell our wares to a less sophisticated public. I'd like to clarify one point that arises from Steve's commentary, which we did not make explicit in our paper. My perspective on stealth marketing does not assume a 'robot brain' model. Indeed, it does not assume that Steve's 'rational brain' model is at work either. Rather, it is agnostic about how the brain works but recognizes that autonomy requires, at a minimum, the opportunity to make an informed decision. Autonomy does not imply that the decision made by my brain will always be in my best interest - Steve is correct in pointing out that there is a wealth of research which demonstrates otherwise. But if an external agent, friend, foe or otherwise, provides me (or more formally, my brain) with information that influences that decision, I should have an opportunity to weigh it with all of the other factors that my brain uses to arrive at a decision, and then arrive at my own decision, imperfect as it may be. Whatever technique the brain uses to make decisions (different models may be at play in different circumstances), the important element to the neurobiology of autonomy is the ability of the brain to be informed that it is in the process of making a decision. Stealth neuromarketing, where a brain is influenced to make a decision but is both unaware of the influence and unable to be aware of the influence, is abhorrent precisely because it precludes autonomy. Using sophisticated advances in our understanding of the brain to hone marketing strategies is one real-world outcome of neuroscience research. One may like it or hate it. What is important is having clarity on where the bounds of responsible behavior lie.