Is Bluffing the Key to Understanding Mental Illness?

MIT’s Technology Review recently wrote an article about a recent study published in the PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.)

In this study, researchers found that it is possible to detect unique brain signatures amongst people who are successful bluffers.

Dr. Read Montague, professor and computational neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine, aimed to investigate “strategic deception…our ability and willingness to manipulate other people’s beliefs about ourselves for gain.” Being able to infer another person’s perception of oneself is an important part of human interaction; however, this skill is severely lacking in those with psychiatric disorders, such as autism and borderline personality disorder.

Dr. Montague states that “the capacity that breaks down the most in mental illness is ‘social software,’ such as the ability to pick up signals from people in groups and collaborate.”

Dr. Montague and his colleagues took MRI scans of the brains of 76 volunteers as they took part in a strategic one-to-one bargaining game. One person would play the buyer, and their goal was to trick the other player into selling their items for less than their true value. By the end of the study, three types of buyers were revealed: incrementalists (those who would give the seller a value that was proportional to the item’s private value,) conservatives (those who attempted to maximize their gains by suggesting mid-range prices regardless of the actual value,) and strategists (those who attempted to deceive the other player by suggesting a value that was inversely related to the given value.)

The researchers were able to find differences in the brain scans of the players in each behavioral type. Dr. Peter Fonagy, a psychiatrist who has collaborated with Dr. Montague in the past, states that “this is an extremely promising approach to identifying the mechanisms that underpin [mental] disorders.” By understanding the neural processes that occur in a mentally healthy person’s brain as they try to bluff, neuroscientists will gain a better understanding of how the decision making skills involved with reading others fall apart in mental illness.

While this type of research seems promising in teaching neuroscientists more about both deception and mental illness, there seems to be a piece missing: just because a person chooses not to bluff does not mean that they are incapable of doing so. The research does not seem to acknowledge or account for this. What do you think?

3 responses to “Is Bluffing the Key to Understanding Mental Illness?”

  1. Lynda Morris says:

    Wholeheartedly disagree! I personally know an autistic/ Asperger’s Syndrome child who can finesse/bluff his way through just about anything – and I also know several people simple due to their upbringing who would (by choice) not do these things simple out of the moral fiber of who they are. Maybe the study needs to look more closely at “when” and where these bluff situations take place. In a controlled environment such as what was presented here – I don’t believe is a good test bed for a study such as this

  2. CannedAm says:

    I have to agree with Lynda. While I don’t think autism falls under mental illness so much as a neurological development disorder, I have extended family members with long-time mental illness diagnoses. One who is bipolar with psychotic features, when the psychotic features activate is when the lying starts — and it’s good. Often good enough to fool the medical professionals who should be able to detect when someone with paranoid delusions is lying to them about her mental status. They might be missing other social cues, but when in survival mode, they’ll do whatever they need to do to feel safe. I don’t think anyone could study a person under the power of paranoid delusions for this.

  3. Russ Conte says:

    I also agree with Lydia. In response to the comment, “the capacity that breaks down the most in mental illness is ‘social software,’ such as the ability to pick up signals from people in groups and collaborate.” I thoroughly disagree. I worked for over eight years with people with various disabilities helping them to gain employment, and my experience would lead me to say that that statement is almost naive in its understanding of people with mental illness. For example, sociopaths have incredible social skills – perhaps some of the best – but are extremely dangerous. It’s easy to list counterexample after counterexample after counterexample of the author’s premise.

    Bluffing is not the key to understanding people with mental illness. The reality is much more subtle and nuanced and sophisticated. It is much better in my experience to understand the total system (family, work, stress level, medical care, incentives, secondary gains, history, etc), than to look at bluffing as a way to work with people with any type of disabilities, including people with mental illnesses.

    Russ Conte

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