21 May Decision Science: The Intersection of Biological Factors and Decision Making
A single decision can change the course of your life, which is probably why there’s so much advice out there on how to make a good one: “Make an informed decision,” “Follow your heart,” “Go with your gut,” “Think it through,” “Get all the facts first,” “Sleep on it,” and so on. The process of decision-making is so complex and profound that it’s become the infatuation of multiple researchers and the subject of a growing number of studies.
Why are some choices so difficult to make? How do we know if we’ve made the right one?
While it may seem that decisions are of a purely psychological nature, scientists have been able to link the processes underlying decision making to a number of biological factors, including the brain and the heart. Essentially, these studies support the usefulness in drawing on the mind-body connection in decision making.
Angelika Dimoka, director of the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University, studied the brain activity of a number of volunteers during their decision-making processes. The subjects were told they’d have to make informed decisions and were given an increasing breadth of information upon which they’d need to base their decisions. From this experiment, Dimoka observed that the brain’s activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex increased as the information load gradually increased. At a certain point, though, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex became so overloaded with information that it ceased to function. The result? Subjects began making poor decisions.
The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex contributes to both decision-making and controlling emotions, so one function has a bearing on the other. Thus, when the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex ceases to work because of overload, the emotions may no longer be kept in check, which could lead to frustration and anxiety.
For most of us, there’s a constant stream of information pouring in from every direction — from notifications popping up on our smartphones to newsfeeds to commercials and advertisements to ever-mounting email in our inboxes. At all moments, the brain is confronted with a torrent of information.
The more information we’re given, the more decisions we inevitably have to make.
For instance, say you’re interested in buying a book for leisure. You’re presented with 12 options, and told each one’s synopsis, provided with the historical contexts of each, and given the biography of each author, as well as the relevance of each work to society. In light of all the information, your choice is no longer as easy or fun because there’s too much to consider. As a result, you might just throw up your hands and pick the one with the most attractive cover. While this may possibly be a silly criterion for your decision, we all do this kind of thing at times. So many decisions need to be made and so much information is provided that we’re being trained to make choices quickly, at the expense of accuracy, thoughtfulness, appropriateness and our best interests.
It seems that the conscious mind, when subjected to an unceasing influx of new information, cannot discern between information that’s important and information that’s new. This results in the inability to maintain a careful consideration of older information that might lead to the best decision when being bombarded by new, potentially less-useful information.
On the other hand, studies have shown that when problem solving is left to the unconscious mind, the unconscious is able to produce the most creative solutions, and even the most accurate and helpful solutions. In this process, unconscious thought integrates new information with existing knowledge, which enables it to recognize patterns and make the connections that lead to the best decisions.
In a study conducted at the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands, subjects were presented with four apartments and given an abundance of information to take into consideration before choosing one to “rent.” A portion of the subjects made their decision using conscious strategies, meaning they were given time to analyze the information before making the decision; the remainder of the subjects had to base their decisions on unconscious processes, as they were given little time for consideration and instead were preoccupied with memory and attention tests. Those subjects whose choices were informed by unconscious processes selected the apartment with objectively better features.
The takeaway from this is that when we are confronted with a decision to make, we often already have all the information we need.
Our dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is already working to process the information; when we give it more information, we risk overloading it and distracting it from the core factors it needs to make the best decision. It’s recently been discovered that these unconscious decisions are reflected in heart beat patterns. When confronted with a scenario that causes emotional strain, heart rate variability is reduced; in more joyful circumstances, heart rate variability increases.
The upshot is that when confronted with a major complex decision, your best bet is to stop gathering information and let your unconscious sort it out. Choice Compass is a tool that helps facilitate the process, as it presents your mind with both opposing options but doesn’t allow you to gather more information on either of them. Instead, you’re instructed to contemplate both, while the application’s mechanism monitors your heart rate’s response to each, determining which option your unconscious believes will result in more joy.
As part of its function, the prefrontal cortex takes feelings it has regarding various options and connects them to the rational brain. Those who attempt to inundate themselves with information in pursuit of becoming more rational may actually preclude themselves from making the best decision possible. While most people tend to want the all information at their disposal as possible before making a decision, it looks like it would behoove us to heed the age-old advice, “follow your heart.”