Technology Has Improved Voting Procedures

New report assesses voting procedures over the last decade

PASADENA, Calif.—Thanks to better voting technology over the last decade, the country's election process has seen much improvement, according to a new report released today by researchers at Caltech and MIT. However, the report notes, despite this progress, some problems remain.

Spurred by the debacle of hanging chads and other voting problems during the 2000 presidential election, the Voting Technology Project (VTP) was started by Caltech and MIT to bring together researchers from across disciplines to figure out how to improve elections. The VTP issued its first report in 2001.

"Since that report came out and since our project was formed, a lot of progress has been made in improving how American elections are run," says Michael Alvarez, professor of political science at Caltech and codirector of the VTP.

For example, the report found that getting rid of outdated voting machines has caused a drop in the number of votes lost to ballot errors. To assess how many votes are lost in each election due to voting mistakes, the researchers calculate the number of residual votes—or the difference between the number of votes that are counted for a particular office and the total number of votes cast. If there are no voting errors, there should be no residual votes.

In their first report in 2001, the researchers found that older voting technology—like punch cards—led to a high residual vote rate. But their new research now shows that the rate has dropped. In particular, Charles Stewart III, a professor of political science at MIT and the other codirector of the VTP, and his colleagues found that the total number of residual votes decreased from 2 percent in 2000 to 1 percent in 2006 and 2008, meaning that fewer votes were lost due to voting errors. The drop was greater in states that instituted more modern voting technology.

"As we moved away from punch cards, lever machines, and paper ballots and towards optical scan systems and electronic systems that have voter verification, we have seen the voter residual rate plummet," Alvarez says. Voter-verification technology gives voters immediate feedback if they make a mistake—by filling in a circle incorrectly, for example—and a chance to correct their error to ensure that their votes are counted.

In addition, the report urges officials to continue and expand election auditing to study the accuracy of registration and voting procedures. For example, after an election, officials can recount ballots to make sure the electronic ballot counters are accurate. "Postelection ballot auditing is a great idea and states need to continue their efforts to use those election ballot-auditing procedures to increase the amount of confidence and integrity of elections," Alvarez says.

The researchers also describe concern with the rise of absentee and early voting, since voter verification is much harder to do via mail. Unlike with in-person voting, these methods offer no immediate feedback about whether a ballot was filled out correctly or if it got counted at all. Once you put your ballot in the mailbox, it's literally out of your hands.

The report also weighs in on voter-identification laws, which have been proposed in many states and subsequently challenged in court. Proponents say they are necessary to prevent voter fraud while opponents argue that there is little evidence that such fraud exists. Moreover, opponents say, voter identification laws make it much more difficult for people without government-issued IDs to vote. But, the report says, technology may resolve the conflict.

"Technology may help ensure voter authentication while alleviating or mitigating the costs that are imposed on voters by laws requiring state-issued identification," says Jonathan Katz, the Kay Sugahara Professor of Social Sciences and Statistics and coauthor of the VTP report.

For example, polling places can have access to a database of registered voters that is also linked to the state's database of DMV photos. A voter's identification can then be confirmed without them having to carry a photo ID. For voters who do not have an ID, the polling place can be equipped with a camera to take an ID picture immediately. The photo can then be entered into the database to verify identification in future elections.

Click here to read the complete report and learn more about the VTP.

In addition to Alvarez, Stewart, and Katz, the other authors of the Caltech/MIT VTP report are Stephen Ansolabehere of Harvard, Thad Hall of the University of Utah, and Ronald Rivest of MIT. The report was supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The project has been supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Marcus Woo

Handicapping the Election: An Interview with Erik Snowberg

Erik Snowberg—a Caltech professor of economics and political science who is an expert on the relationship between economics and politics—has more than an academic interest in politics: he was an intern for the House Committee on Science in 1998, worked for Ted Kennedy from 1998 to 1999 on immigration issues, and then ran for Cambridge City Council in 1999 when he was an undergraduate at MIT. Despite a record student voter turnout, he lost. After getting bachelor's degrees in mathematics and physics, he went off to Stanford to study economic policy, receiving a PhD in business in 2008, the year he joined the Caltech faculty.

With the election just about a month away, Snowberg recently answered a few questions about the presidential election and what we can expect on November 6.

The economy seems to be the major focus of the presidential election this year. How do you see it playing out? 

It is not a stretch to say that economics is the issue in every presidential campaign. Certainly in my lifetime, economics seems to have determined every election, with the exception of Bush versus Gore in 2000. While the economy was turning down then, we were still coming off a very long period of growth, and the economic models said that Gore should have won.

Now, we are in this middle ground where even though the overall level of the economy is awful, the economy has slowly been getting better over the past year. So the economic models we use to try to predict election outcomes based on economic fundamentals say we can't predict who is going to win.

You have studied people's perceptions of the economy and how that is affected by their economic situation. From that perspective, do you have any insights into this election?

I showed that people's perceptions of unemployment were largely grounded in their own experience. So, you can talk all you like about the economy, but that is not really going to change many people's minds; you can say that the economy is really doing great, but people who have many unemployed friends or family members are not going to feel that way. Or, you can say that the economy is doing terribly, but people who just got a big bonus are generally not going to feel that way. So, we are in this place where issues other than the economy might matter, such as the candidates' character.

With the election in the homestretch, there has been a tremendous amount of attention on the candidates' performances in the debates. Can debate performances decide elections?

Very rarely. Generally it has been the case that following a debate, the challenger gains on average two percentage points in the polls, which is not usually enough to be decisive. So it is difficult to tell if debates affect much of anything. The only recent time where a debate might have decisively influenced an election was in 1980 when Carter and Reagan debated about a week before the election. In that debate, Reagan famously asked voters, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" The economy actually had not been doing too badly until Carter brought in Paul Volcker as chairman of the Federal Reserve in 1979. Inflation was fairly out of control at that point, and Volker clamped down on it, which damaged economic growth. So the economy had a downturn in Carter's last six months in office, and Carter paid the price.

In early October, the latest jobs numbers showed that unemployment has dropped below eight percent. While Obama has been claiming that the economy is getting better, Romney has argued that with his business background, he would be doing a much better job steering the economy. How do you see voters responding?

I don't have any particular reason to believe that people would think that a businessman would have any particular expertise in managing the economy. You could equally turn that around and ask, "Why isn't Obama assured of reelection because he is the only one running who has experience managing the entire economy?" It is not clear to me why voters would perceive it one way or another. Romney was in a type of business where the emphasis was not on creating jobs. It was on creating value for shareholders. If people are concerned about job growth, the guy who has a lot of experience making sure that capital gets a better return on investment is not necessarily going to be the guy they are going to choose for president.

Who do you think is going to win?

If I had to put money on it, I'd put money on Obama, based on the improvement in the economy. I have to say, Romney's performance in the first debate was amazing. But in general, surveys find that he has extremely low likeability ratings—lower than any challenger in a long time. 

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Friday, October 19, 2012
Beckman Institute Auditorium

Last Will. & Testament on Tour

Columbus to D'Ailly: Are We There Yet?

Christopher Columbus made a few mistakes in researching the route to Japan, his first intended destination on his famous 1492 voyage to the Indies. Among the worst: he ignored sound contemporary scholarship on the size of Earth, its continents, and its oceans in favor of estimates made by medieval theologian and cosmographer Pierre D'Ailly, who was born 101 years before Columbus. That error, along with others, shortened Columbus's estimate of the number of miles he should sail by so much that he was already antsy by the time the Bahamas saved him from a punishing lesson—learning how far away the Far East really is from Europe.

Why did Columbus put so much faith in D'Ailly? Perhaps because he stood to gain so much by it, claims Columbus expert and Caltech history professor Nicolás Wey-Gómez, who scrutinized Columbus's handwritten notes in D'Ailly's geographical treatise Imago Mundi. What Wey-Gómez saw in the margins, which Columbus annotated like a most assiduous student, calls into doubt any notion that this most-famous of seafarers sailed the ocean blue for purely exploratory reasons—that is, simply to reach the East by way of the West. In The Tropics of Empire: Why Columbus Sailed South to the Indies, Wey-Gómez revisits Columbus's attachment to the Imago Mundi, a treatise that was more than eight decades behind the times when Columbus set sail.

Wey-Gómez believes that Columbus saw a way to wealth and power in the application of medieval cosmography to his own travels, because D'Ailly did more than underestimate the longitudinal distance between the Far East and Europe. He also divided the world into polar, temperate, and torrid zones based on latitude and suggested that the characteristics of the people and land at any particular latitude would be the same at that same latitude anywhere on Earth. This was likely encouraging to Columbus, who had seen that the Portuguese commanded a lucrative trade in spices, dark-skinned slaves, and gold in the "torrid zone" in Africa—all of which Europeans took to be found specifically in tropical latitudes. So he headed south as much as west, in the hope of staking a claim to identical tropical "products" for Spain. According to Wey-Gómez's close reading of Columbus's navigational decisions and many other documents, including the discoverer's diary, Columbus aimed to sail south into the torrid zone after he'd reached Japan (which he believed to be much farther south than it is).

"Columbus was instead sorely disappointed," says Wey-Gómez, who is traveling around Columbus's old stomping grounds in Spain with the Caltech Associates this Columbus Day. The explorer found none of the "Indian" spices long coveted in Europe and very little gold in his Indies. The islanders, too, differed markedly in skin color from anyone he had seen in sub-Saharan Africa. Columbus never admitted that he hadn't reached the Far East, despite mounting evidence and a public belief that he had discovered a new continent, but he didn't quite find what he expected in America's tropics. "There seemed to be little relation between the general latitude, temperature, and 'nature' of the lands and peoples he had found in the Caribbean," says Wey-Gómez, "and this spelled trouble for someone attempting to replicate in the Americas Portugal's exploits in Africa."

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Caltech Again Named World's Top University in <i>Times Higher Education</i> Global Ranking

PASADENA, Calif.—The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) has been rated the world's number one university in the 2012–2013 Times Higher Education global ranking of the top 200 universities.

Oxford University, Stanford University, Harvard University, and MIT round out the top five.

"We are pleased to be among the best, and we celebrate the achievements of all our peer institutions," says Caltech president Jean-Lou Chameau. "Excellence is achieved over many years and is the result of our focus on extraordinary people. I am proud of our talented faculty, who educate outstanding young people while exploring transformative ideas in an environment that encourages collaboration rather than competition."

Times Higher Education compiled the listing using the same methodology as in last year's survey. Thirteen performance indicators representing research (worth 30 percent of a school's overall ranking score), teaching (30 percent), citations (30 percent), international outlook (which includes the total numbers of international students and faculty and the ratio of scholarly papers with international collaborators, 7.5 percent), and industry income (a measure of innovation, 2.5 percent) make up the data. Included among the measures are a reputation survey of 17,500 academics; institutional, industry, and faculty research income; and an analysis of 50 million scholarly papers to determine the average number of citations per scholarly paper, a measure of research impact.

In addition to placing first overall in this year's survey, Caltech came out on top in the teaching indicator as well as in subject-specific rankings for engineering and technology and for the physical sciences.

"Caltech held on to the world's number one spot with a strong performance across all of our key performance indicators," says Phil Baty, editor of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. "In a very competitive year, when Caltech's key rivals for the top position reported increased research income, Caltech actually managed to widen the gap with the two universities in second place this year—Stanford University and the University of Oxford. This is an extraordinary performance."

Data for the Times Higher Education's World University Rankings were provided by Thomson Reuters from its Global Institutional Profiles Project, an ongoing, multistage process to collect and validate factual data about academic institutional performance across a variety of aspects and multiple disciplines.

The Times Higher Education site has the full list of the world's top 400 schools and all of the performance indicators.

Kathy Svitil
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Caltech Again Named World's Top University by <i>Times Higher Ed</i>
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Matthew Elliott: Modeling Networks

Matthew Elliott is Caltech's newest assistant professor of economics. Born in England, he earned his BA and MPhil from Oxford in 2002 and 2004. After receiving his PhD from Stanford in 2011, he spent a year at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, before arriving in Pasadena this fall.

Elliott's research focuses on mathematically modeling different kinds of networks. For example, in networked markets, the interactions among players are constrained in a way that can be represented as a network. In a labor market, for instance, not everyone can be employed in every job, whether it's because they're not qualified, they don't have the requisite connections to get the job, or they simply aren't aware that there's an opening. Elliott distills this kind of complex system into its mathematical essence, developing theories that can eventually inform policy. His research is part of the Social and Information Science Laboratory, which is funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Ronald and Maxine Linde Institute for Economic and Management Sciences. He recently spoke a little more about his work.

What's another example of a network market that you're trying to model?

Within this context of network markets, another thing you might think about is the production and sale of natural gas. The producer of natural gas can only sell its gas to another country if there's a pipeline between it and that other country. You can view the pipelines as a network that describes which countries can trade directly with which other countries. And a question you might be interested in is whether the network is built efficiently. Are there good incentives in place? What kind of inefficiencies would you expect and how bad can they be?

Does this analysis occur after the fact, or do you do this before you actually build the gas pipelines?

Most of the analysis is after the fact, and you're trying to explain what's going on. But by being able to explain things that have happened before, and why, you can hopefully understand a little better the problems that will arise in the future and try to avoid some of those inefficiencies.

What excites you most about your job?

I love doing what I do. It's the problem solving. You go to work and your job consists of playing with problems and trying to find solutions to them. I find it pretty remarkable that people pay me to do this—and it's not something I just do in my spare time.

Your research is very theoretical. But do you also work with real-world, empirical data? Or do you pass along your theories to someone else who can apply them?

Somewhere in between. A good example is a project on financial networks that I'm now working on with [Stanford economist and former Caltech professor] Matt Jackson and [MIT postdoc and Caltech graduate (BS '07)] Ben Golub. The idea is to model the network of financial relationships between either banks or countries and to understand the dependencies between them. What we want to know is, if one of those countries or banks receives some shock that's going to cause it to fail, how does that spread through the system? When does one failure lead to a contagion of other failures?

Sounds like something that's quite relevant today.

It's definitely a topical thing, and we're certainly not the only people working on this. A small part of that project is collecting data on European countries and their cross holdings. Then we try to see what our theory has to say when we apply it to the data.

I'm very aware that the research I do is very theoretical, and most of the time it isn't going to specifically be something that policymakers are going to read and take to heart. But I think my work does provide a framework for them to think about problems. I think it's exciting to be able to do that.

Marcus Woo
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Ready for Your Close-Up?

Caltech study shows that the distance at which facial photos are taken influences perception

PASADENA, Calif.—As the saying goes, "A picture is worth a thousand words." For people in certain professions—acting, modeling, and even politics—this phrase rings particularly true. Previous studies have examined how our social judgments of pictures of people are influenced by factors such as whether the person is smiling or frowning, but until now one factor has never been investigated: the distance between the photographer and the subject. According to a new study by researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), this turns out to make a difference—close-up photo subjects, the study found, are judged to look less trustworthy, less competent, and less attractive.

The new finding is described in this week's issue of the open-access journal PLoS One.

Pietro Perona, the Allen E. Puckett Professor of Electrical Engineering at Caltech, came up with the initial idea for the study. Perona, an art history enthusiast, suspected that Renaissance portrait paintings often featured subtle geometric warping of faces to make the viewer feel closer or more distant to a subject. Perona wondered if the same sort of warping might affect photographic portraits—with a similar effect on their viewers—so he collaborated with Ralph Adolphs, Bren Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience and professor of biology, and CNS graduate student Ronnie Bryan (PhD '12) to gather opinions on 36 photographs representing two different images of 18 individuals. One of each pair of images was taken at close range and the second at a distance of about seven feet.

"It turns out that faces photographed quite close-up are geometrically warped, compared to photos taken at a larger distance," explains Bryan. "Of course, the close picture would also normally be larger, higher resolution and have different lighting—but we controlled for all of that in our study. What you're left with is a warping effect that is so subtle that nobody in our study actually noticed it. Nonetheless, it's a perceptual clue that influenced their judgments."

That subtle distance warping, however, had a big effect: close-up photos made people look less trustworthy, according to study participants. The close-up photo subjects were also judged to look less attractive and competent.

"This was a surprising, and surprisingly reliable, effect," says Adolphs. "We went through a bunch of experiments, some testing people in the lab, and some even over the Internet; we asked participants to rate trustworthiness of faces, and in some experiments we asked them to invest real money in unfamiliar people whose faces they saw as a direct measure of how much they trusted them."

Across all of the studies, the researchers saw the same effect, Adolphs says: in photos taken from a distance of around two feet, a person looked untrustworthy, compared to photos taken seven feet away. These two distances were chosen by the researchers because one is within, and the other outside of, personal space—which on average is about three to four feet from the body.

In some of the studies, the researchers digitally warped images of faces taken at a distance to artificially manipulate how trustworthy they would appear. "Once you know the relation between the distance warp and the trustworthiness judgment, you could manipulate photos of faces and change the perceived trustworthiness,'' notes Perona.

He says that the group is now planning to build on these findings, using machine-vision techniques—technologies that can automatically analyze data in images. For example, one application would be for a computer program to have the ability to evaluate any face image in a magazine or on the Internet and to estimate the distance at which the photo was taken.

"The work might also allow us to estimate the perceived trustworthiness of a particular face image," says Perona. "You could imagine that many people would be interested in such applications—particularly in the political arena."

The study, "Perspective Distortion from Interpersonal Distance Is an Implicit Visual Cue for Social Judgments of Faces," was funded by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health and from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

Katie Neith
Frontpage Title: 
When Judging Portraits, Distance Matters
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Making the Healthy Choice

Caltech-led scientists find that competition between two brain regions influences the ability to make healthy choices

PASADENA, Calif.—Almost everyone knows the feeling: you see a delicious piece of chocolate cake on the table, but as you grab your fork, you think twice. The cake is too fattening and unhealthy, you tell yourself. Maybe you should skip dessert.

But the cake still beckons.

In order to make the healthy choice, we often have to engage in this kind of internal struggle. Now, scientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have identified the neural processes at work during such self-regulation—and what determines whether you eat the cake.

"We seem to have independent systems capable of guiding our decisions, and in situations like this one, these systems may compete for control of what we do," says Cendri Hutcherson, a Caltech postdoctoral scholar who is the lead author on a new paper about these competing brain systems, which will be published in the September 26 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.

"In many cases, these systems guide behavior in the same direction, so there's no conflict between them," she adds. "But in other cases, like the all-too-common inner fight to resist the temptation of eating the chocolate cake, they can guide behavior toward different outcomes. Furthermore, the outcome of the decision seems to depend on which of the two systems takes control of behavior."

A large body of evidence shows that people make decisions by assigning different values to the various options, says Antonio Rangel, a professor of economics and neuroscience and the senior author of the paper. To make their decisions, people select the choice with the highest value. "An important and controversial open question—which this study was designed to address—is whether there is a single value signal in the brain, or if there are instead multiple value signals with different properties that compete for the control of behavior."

According to the single-value hypothesis, Rangel explains, the ability to say no to the chocolate cake depends on just one system that compares values like healthiness and taste. But the multiple-value hypothesis suggests that there are different systems that process different values. The ability to turn down the cake therefore depends on whether the brain can activate the appropriate system—the one that evaluates healthiness. If you do not want the cake, it means you place a higher value on health than on taste and your brain acts accordingly.

In the study, the researchers asked 26 volunteers to refrain from eating for four hours prior to being tested. During the experiment, a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine was used to measure the brain activity of the hungry participants while they decided how much they were willing to pay for different snacks, which were shown on a computer screen. The items, including foods like chips and vegetables, varied in taste and healthiness. The subjects were explicitly asked to make their choices in one of three conditions: while attempting to suppress their desire to eat the food, while attempting to increase their desire to eat the food, or while acting normally. The volunteers could do whatever they wanted to control themselves—for example, focusing on the taste (say, to increase their desire to eat something delicious but unhealthy) or the healthiness of the item (to reduce that urge).

After a four-second period, the participants placed real bids for the right to buy the items that reflected the value they placed on the food.

The researchers found that activity in two different brain areas correlated with how much the participants said they wanted an item, as indicated by their bids. The two regions were the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC), which sits behind the temples, and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), which is in the middle of the forehead just above the eyes.

Significantly, the two areas played very different roles in the self-regulation process. When volunteers told themselves not to want the food, the dlPFC seemed to take control; there was a stronger correlation between the signals in this area and behavior, while the signals in the vmPFC appeared to have no influence on behavior. When the volunteers encouraged themselves to want the food, however, the role of each brain region flipped. The vmPFC took control while the signals in the dlPFC appeared to have no effect.

The researchers also found that the brain's ability to switch control between these two areas was not instantaneous. It took a couple of seconds before the brain was able to fully ignore the conflicting region. For example, when a volunteer tried to suppress a craving, the vmPFC initially appeared to drive behavior. Only after a couple of seconds—while the participant tried to rein in his or her appetite—did the correlation between bids and vmPFC activity disappear and the dlPFC seem to take over.

"This research suggests a reason why it feels so difficult to control your behavior," Hutcherson says. "You've got these really fast signals that say, go for the tempting food. But only after you start to go for it are you able to catch yourself and say, no, I don't want this."

Previous work in Rangel's lab showed that when dieters made similar food choices, their decisions were controlled only by the vmPFC. The researchers speculate that because dieters are more accustomed to self-control, their brains do not show the neural struggle seen in the new study. If that is the case, then it may be possible that people can improve their self-control with more practice. 

In addition to Hutcherson and Rangel, the other authors on the Journal of Neuroscience paper are Hilke Plassmann from the École Normale Supérieure in France and James Gross of Stanford. The title of the paper is "Cognitive regulation during decision making shifts behavioral control between ventromedial and dorsolateral prefrontal value systems." This research was funded by grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


Marcus Woo

Caltech and Princeton University Press Release Thirteenth Volume of Einstein Papers

In the fall of 1922, when Albert Einstein's Nobel Prize in Physics was announced, the already-famous physicist was on a steamer headed for Japan. The detailed and poetic travel diary he kept during his journey to Japan, Palestine, and Spain is among the documents included in the latest volume in the Einstein Papers ProjectThe Collected Papers of Albert Einstein: Volume 13: The Berlin Years: Writings & Correspondence, January 1922–March 1923 (Documentary Edition), which will be released September 25. 

The volume covers a turbulent 15 months in Einstein's life and includes several hundred previously unpublished and unknown articles and letters, some of which express his desire for "a normal life." The scientist's writings convey a feeling of restlessness and a strong desire to escape the demands of his increased fame and heightened visibility. His diary entries paint a vivid picture of an Einstein who, fearful for his safety following the assassination of his friend the German foreign minister Walter Rathenau, decided to leave his home in Berlin and contemplated leaving academic life entirely, but who thoroughly enjoyed the sights and peoples he encountered for the first time on his six-month long voyage.

"This latest volume is extraordinarily rich, and illuminates in great detail Einstein's scientific work and his exchanges and collaboration with many scientists in Europe, Japan, and the U.S.," says Diana Kormos-Buchwald, the general editor of the series, a professor of history at Caltech, and the director of the Einstein Papers Project. "Most striking is seeing Einstein so thoroughly engaged in numerous professional and political activities while in private worrying about his own safety, given the rather violent atmosphere in Berlin at the time."

The volume contains 36 scientific writings by Einstein, including a paper written with Paul Ehrenfest, which anticipates the quantum measurement problem. During this time, Einstein also began investigating the possibilities and restrictions that relativity implied for a unified field theory of the gravitational and electromagnetic fields.

Published beginning in 1987, the first 12 volumes of The Collected Papers cover Einstein's life beginning with his early years up until his 44th birthday. By series' completion, The Collected Papers will comprise nearly 30 volumes and will contain more than 14,000 documents. Sponsored by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Princeton University Press, the project is located at and supported by Caltech.      

Kimm Fesenmaier
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13<sup>th</sup> Volume of Einstein's Papers Published
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NIMH Awards $9 Million Grant to Caltech Researchers

PASADENA, Calif.—The National Institute of Mental Health has awarded a five-year, $9 million grant to a research group at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) to study the neurobiology of social decision making.

The grant establishes a Silvio O. Conte Center for Neuroscience Research at Caltech, where researchers will use electrophysiology and functional magnetic resonance imaging to investigate how humans make social decisions. The grant will support the operation of research equipment, the hiring of students and postdoctoral scholars, and the formation of a new collaborative research group.

Social decision making, in contrast to individual decision making, revolves around situations where subjects are exposed to concepts such as altruism, cooperation, punishment, and retribution. It involves learning how to make decisions by watching other people, making decisions that benefit other people, and cooperating with others to achieve a common goal. Caltech researchers will investigate how social decision making occurs at the most fundamental level in the human brain.

Ralph Adolphs, Bren Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, will direct the center. Principal investigators will be Richard Andersen, the James G. Boswell Professor of Neuroscience; John O'Doherty, professor of psychology; and Antonio Rangel, professor of economics and neuroscience.

"This award acknowledges that basic research is of critical importance to understanding psychiatric illnesses," says Adolphs. "A large number of decisions in everyday life occur in a social context, and this breaks down in diseases ranging from autism to schizophrenia to mood disorders."

Researchers in the new center will rely on two core Caltech resources for their investigations: the Psychological Assessment Lab, led by senior research scientist Lynn Paul, for recruiting and assessing human subjects, and the Caltech Brain Imaging Center, headed by Mike Tyszka, who is a member of the professional staff.

According to Adolphs, the team has already begun planning studies to investigate the neural circuits underlying simple choices, how we learn to make good choices from other people, and how we make decisions that benefit others. 

The principal investigators are collaborating closely with several other faculty at Caltech, including Doris Tsao (assistant professor of biology), Colin Camerer (Robert Kirby Professor of Behavioral Economics), Peter Bossaerts (William D. Hacker Professor of Economics and Management and professor of finance), and Shinsuke Shimojo (Gertrude Baltimore Professor of Experimental Psychology). The Caltech group also will collaborate with investigators nationally and internationally.

Named in memory of Massachusetts Rep. Silvio O. Conte, the NIMH's Conte Centers bring together diverse expertise and cutting-edge technology to gain new knowledge about mental-health disorders with the goal of improving diagnosis and treatment.

More information is available at the Conte Center's website:

Brian Bell
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