Day in and day out, we make decisions--some tough, some trivial, some good, some bad. And as Yale University neurobiologist Dr. Daeyeol Lee told The Huffington Post in an email, "poor decision-making in many domains, including finance, family, and health can all dramatically affect our well-being."
What's really going on in our brains as we make decisions? Are there steps we can take to become better decision-makers? For answers to these and other questions, HuffPost Science turned to Dr. Lee, a professor of neurobiology and psychology at Yale and director of the university's laboratory of cognition and decision-making. Here are our questions and his answers:
Some people don't think much about how well they make decisions. Do you think that's a mistake? It is well documented that we have systematic biases in making decisions. So, it's a mistake to think that we are bias-free. Some well-known biases include "sunk cost" effect--we worry too much about losses that cannot be remedied. We tend to be over-confident about our abilities, etc.
Why are some people better at making wise decisions than others? Personally, I don't think there are "better" decision-makers that can always make good decisions. Even people who seem to make bad decisions for some decision making problems might be able to make good decisions for other problems. Humans are all excellent decision makers. Our abilities to recall past relevant experience and to combine with new sensory information rapidly is truly remarkable. Nevertheless, some people seem to struggle with decision making. In some cases, this is because they are too impulsive, namely, do not take enough time to analyze all relevant pieces of information before they commit themselves with particular options. In other cases, poor decisions result because they focus on short-term rather than long-term consequences of their choices. Also, poor decisions can occur when stress reduces our cognitive abilities.
What part of the brain is involved in decision-making? We think that the almost entire brain is involved in decision making. One of our recent studies have found that the signals related to reward (e.g., money) are distributed throughout the entire human brain. This was very surprising, because traditionally, we used to think that there are specialized modules in the brain that process reward information and uses it to make decisions. This may not be the case. We still don't know exactly how all these different areas of the brain use reward information, but it is likely that even the areas traditionally considered primarily important for perception and motor functions might be involved in decision making.
Can science help us become better at decision-making? Yes, especially the research on the brain might eventually provide a neurobiological explanation for the biases and errors we commonly make in our everyday decisions, and this might allow us to make systematic changes in the way alternative decision options are presented to us. This is already being done in the market based on the results from behavioral economics research (e.g., in the case of creating default options for retirement plans), but it is hoped that the neuroscience research on decision-making can improve such interventions.
What are some specific practical applications of decision-making research? One practical application of our research is to understand better how various psychiatric disorders might be diagnosed and treated. Key symptoms of many psychiatric disorders include problems in decision making. Decisions can become too impulsive as in substance abuse and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or patients might (irrationally) give too much weight to negative consequences, as in depression and anxiety disorders. Therefore, understanding the brain circuits involved in decision making can help us in dealing with these disorders that are hugely costly to our society.
What can some people do to make wiser decisions? We all tend to be influenced disproportionally by our short-term needs and immediate consequences of our actions, rather than their long-term goals. It is not always easy to maintain our long-term goals (e.g., our career, health, etc) and choose "consistently" the actions that are best for such long-term goals. Therefore, I think for many of us, whatever we can do to remind ourselves of our long-term goals would be helpful. So, clearly defining what you really want is important. Making promises with your friends/colleagues about your goals might help in accomplishing them. E-mailing myself or maintaining the list about the commitment I made might be useful, too. There are even websites that can help people this way.
Can you recommend any simple tricks? In some cases, it might be helpful to distance yourself somewhat from the problem you face. For example, you can try to imagine what your parents or someone you respect in your life would do if they were to face the same problem. The brain is more likely to use irrational strategies when the outcomes are perceived as immediate and potentially threatening, and we tend to make better decisions when the problems are perceived as belonging to someone else.