Sometimes you learn something simple from the most complex stuff.
For many of us, the main concern over decision-making is practical — how to make better decisions? New research shows a simple strategy that might improve decision-making: “Rather than picking what you hope is the best, instead you can start by eliminating the worst element from a choice set, reducing the number of options to something manageable for the brain, like three options.”
Humans often make bad decisions. If you like Snickers more than Milky Way, it seems obvious which candy bar you’d pick, given a choice of the two. Traditional economic models follow this logical intuition, suggesting that people assign a value to each choice — say, Snickers: 10, Milky Way: 5 — and select the top scorer. But our decision-making system is subject to glitches.
In one recent experiment, Paul Glimcher, a neuroscientist at New York University, and collaborators asked people to choose among a variety of candy bars, including their favorite — say, a Snickers. If offered a Snickers, a Milky Way and an Almond Joy, participants would always choose the Snickers. But if they were offered 20 candy bars, including a Snickers, the choice became less clear. They would sometimes pick something other than the Snickers, even though it was still their favourite.
Glimcher is using both the brain and behaviour to explain our irrationality. He has combined results from studies like the candy bar experiment with neuroscience data — measurements of electrical activity in the brains of animals as they make decisions — to develop a theory of how we make decisions and why that can lead to mistakes.
At the core
of the model lies the brain’s insatiable appetite. The brain is the most metabolically expensive tissue in the body. It consumes 20% of our energy despite taking up only 2-3% of our body mass. Because neurons are so energy-hungry, the brain is a battleground
where precision and efficiency are opponents.
The good decision makes you happy
The brain is a power-hungry organ; neurons are constantly sending each other information in the form of electrical pulses, known as spikes or action potentials. Just as with an electrical burst, prepping and firing these signals take a lot of energy.
“Choice sets have a lot of shared information; they are not random and independent,” Glimcher said. “The brain also works on efficiency by sucking out redundant information so that the information coming out is as relevant as possible, wasting as little energy as possible.”
The system works well most of the time. But just like the temporary blindness we experience when exiting a dark movie theatre into bright sunlight, our decision-making machinery can sometimes be overwhelmed. That may be particularly true with the staggering variety of choices we’re often faced with in the modern world.
system operates under complex constraints and has to consider many different
types of information. For example, a person might choose which house to buy
depending on its location, size or style. But the relative importance of each
of these factors, as well as their optimal value — city or suburbs, funkis,
traditional or modern — is fundamentally subjective. It varies from person to
person and may even change for an individual depending on their stage of life.
Neuroeconomics is still a young field and researchers disagree over which part of the brain makes the actual decision. What part of the brain calculates that the Snickers bar rates higher than the Milky Way?
Decision-making is about trying to make a decision you’ll enjoy. The computational goal is not just information; it’s something more behaviourally relevant like total enjoyment.