Decisions, decisions

Life is one long series of decisions. Today, for instance, I had to decide on a topic for this column—and decided to write about the science of making decisions.

Despite what we’d like to think, research continues to show that rational thinking often has little to do with our decision-making process.

As Jerry Adler pointed out in a recent article in Newsweek, a lot of the equations and computer models used by economists assume that people act rationally—but in real-life tests, people simply don’t.

A classic economic example is the “ultimatum game,” in which one participant gets 10 one-dollar bills (or loonies, in Canada). He chooses how many to offer to a second participant. If she accepts the offer, the money is split the way the first participant suggested; if she rejects the offer, nobody gets anything.

Logically, the first participant can maximize his money by offering a single dollar, because logically the second participant should accept that as being better than nothing. In real life, however, the second participant, if offered only a dollar or two, almost always rejects the offer. Functional MRI scans of brain activity show that a low offer stimulates an area associated with negative emotions, including anger and disgust. It seems the second participant would rather punish the first participant for making such an insulting offer than make an easy buck. And usually, the person making the offer understands this and offers something close to an even split, averaging about $4.

Emotions cloud decision making in politics, too. A 2006 study in the U.S. showed that strong supporters of both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party simply ignored facts that didn’t mesh with their political inclination during the last presidential election. Partisans from both sides were shown pairs of statements by President George W. Bush and Democratic candidate Senator John Kerry that clearly contradicted each other. The subjects were asked to consider and rate the discrepancy, then were shown another statement that might explain away the contradiction. The scenario was repeated several times.

The researchers didn’t see any increased activation of the reasoning centers of the brain. Instead, they saw emotion-related areas light up. Both Republicans and Democrats consistently denied obvious contradictions from their own candidate, but noted the contradictions from the opposing candidate. Not only that, they got pleasure out of ignoring contradictions from their own candidate: brain activity spiked in areas involved in reward, a response similar to that of drug addicts getting a fix.

“The result is that partisan beliefs are calcified, and the person can learn very little from new data,” said study leader Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory University, and added that “everyone from executives and judges to scientists and politicians may reason to emotionally biased judgments when they have a vested interest in how to interpret ‘the facts.’”

Fear also affects our decision-making. Take football coaches. David Romer of the University of California in Berkeley found that, statistically, when a National Football League coach is faced with fourth-and-goal on the two-yard line early in the game, going for a touchdown is the wiser choice. The field goal is a near-certainty, but there’s a 43-percent chance of a touchdown, and failure still leaves the opponent deep in his own territory. Romer analyzed more than 700 real-game situations and concluded that whenever the chance of a touchdown is statistically 18 percent, going for it on fourth down, at least in the first quarter, is the best choice.

Coaches have a strong incentive to make conservative choices, however: in the NFL, there’s a 20-percent turnover in coaches every year.

People around us can influence our decision-making, too. A new study has found that people discussing possible courses of action within a group are less able to come up with alternatives than individuals are.

Scientists exposed study participants to one brand of soft drink, then asked them to think of alternative brands. They came up with significantly more products when alone than when grouped with two other people. The researchers speculated that the more times one possible option is said aloud, the harder it is for individuals to recall other options—they quickly fixate on that one option, even if rationally it isn’t the best.

So to improve your decision-making, suppress your emotions and think logically.

Hey, it worked for Mr. Spock.

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