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Don't think! Don't think!

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Staff writer ▼ | December 25, 2008
decisionsAt this time of year we must make the hardest decision of the year. To give a wrong present, well... it would be a disaster. So, how to make the decision?

While choosing the wrong present is a bigger disaster than a bad business decision, decision making is a serious process with serious consequences. As you may know, some people are better at it, some worse, but we all must make decisions every day. So, how we make decisions? Let's not focus on consultant's stories and advices, let's see what going on under our hair. Or skin in my case.

Researchers at the University of Rochester have shown that the human brain, once thought to be a seriously flawed decision maker, is hard-wired to allow us to make the best decisions possible with the information we are given.

Neuroscientists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky received a 2002 Nobel Prize for their 1979 research that argued humans rarely make rational decisions. Since then, this has become conventional wisdom among cognition researchers. Contrary to Kahnneman and Tversky's research, Alex Pouget, associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, has shown that people do indeed make optimal decisions but only when their unconscious brain makes the choice.

Pouget has been demonstrating for years that certain aspects of human cognition are carried out with surprising accuracy. He has employed what he describes as a very simple unconscious-decision test. A series of dots appears on a computer screen, most of which are moving in random directions.

A controlled number of these dots are purposely moving uniformly in the same direction, and the test subject simply has to say whether he believes those dots are moving to the left or right. The longer the subject watches the dots, the more evidence he accumulates and the more sure he becomes of the dots' motion.

Subjects in this test performed exactly as if their brains were subconsciously gathering information before reaching a confidence threshold, which was then reported to the conscious mind as a definite, sure answer. The subjects, however, were never aware of the complex computations going on, instead they simply "realized" suddenly that the dots were moving in one direction or another.

Characteristics of the underlying computation fit with Pouget's extensive earlier work that suggested the human brain is wired naturally to perform calculations of this kind.

Pouget says a probabilistic decision-making system like this has several advantages. The most important is that it allows us to reach a reasonable decision in a reasonable amount of time. If we had to wait until we're 99 percent sure before we make a decision, then we would waste time accumulating data unnecessarily. If we only required a 51 percent certainty, then we might reach a decision before enough data has been collected.

Another main advantage is that when we finally reach a decision, we have a sense of how certain we are of it, say, 60 percent or 90 percent, depending on where the triggering threshold has been set. Pouget is now investigating how the brain sets this threshold for each decision, since it does not appear to have the same threshold for each kind of question it encounters.

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