Thursday, May 21, 2015

Decision-making 101

Teenagers are notorious for poor decision-making. Of course that is inevitable, given that their brains are still developing, and they have had relatively little life experience to show them how to predict what works and what doesn’t. Unfortunately, what doesn’t work may have more emotional appeal, and most of us at any age are more susceptible to our emotions than cold, hard logic.
Seniors also are prone to poor decision-making if senility has set it. Unscrupulous people take advantage of such seniors because a brain that is deteriorating has a hard time making wise decisions.
In between teenage and senility is when the brain is at its peak for good decision making. Wisdom comes with age, up to a point. Some Eastern cultures venerate their old people as generally being especially wise. After all, it you live long enough, and are still mentally healthy, you ought to make good decisions because you have a lifetime of experience to teach you what future choices are likely to work and which are not.
Much of that knowledge comes from learning from one’s mistakes. On the other hand, some people, regardless of age, can’t seem to learn from their mistakes. Most of the time the problem is not stupidity but a flawed habitual process by which one is motivated to make wise decisions and evaluate options. Best of all is learning from somebody else’s mistakes, so you don’t have to make them yourself.
Learning from your mistakes can be negative, if you fret about it. Learning what you can do to avoid repeating a mistake is one thing, but dwelling on it erodes one’s confidence and sense of self worth. I can never forget the good advice I read from, of all people, T. Boone Pickens. He was quoted in an interview as saying that he was able to re-make his fortune on multiple occasions because he didn’t dwell on losing the fortunes. He credited that attitude to his college basketball coach who told the team after each defeat, “Learn from your mistakes, but don’t dwell on them. Learn from what you did right and do more of that.”
It would help if we knew how the brain made decisions, so we could train it to operate better. “Decision neuroscience” is an emerging field of study aimed at how learning how brains make decisions and how to optimize the process. Neuroscientists seemed to have honed in on two theories, both of which deal with how the brain handles the processing of alternate options to arrive at a decision.
One theory is that each option is processed in its own competing pool of neurons. As processing evolves, the activity in each pool builds up and down as each pool competes for dominance. At some point, activity builds up in one of the pools to reach a threshold, in winner-take-all fashion, to allow the activity in that pool to dominate and issue the appropriate decision commands to the parts of the brain needed for execution. As one possible example, two or more pools of neurons separately receive input that reflects the representation of different options. Each pool sends an output to another set of neurons that feed back either excitatory or inhibitory influences, thus providing a way for competition among pools to select the pool that eventually dominates because it has built up more impulse activity than the others.

The other theory is based on guided gating wherein input to pools of decision-making neurons is gated to regulate how much excitatory influence can accumulate in each given pool. [i] The specific routing paths involve inhibitory neurons that shut down certain routes, thus preferentially routing input to a preferred accumulating circuit. The route is biased by estimated salience of each option, current emotional state, memories of past learning, and the expected reward value for the outcome of each option.
These decision-making possibilities involve what is called “integrate and fire.” That is, input to all relevant pools of neurons accumulates and leads to various levels of firing in each pool. The pool firing the most is most likely to dominate the output, that is, the decision.
However circuits make decisions, there is considerable evidence that nerve impulse representations for each given choice option simultaneously code for expected outcome and reward value. These value estimates update on the fly.[ii] Networks containing these representations compete to arrive at a decision.
Any choice among alternative options is affected by how much information for each option the brain has to work on. When the brain is consciously trying to make a decision, this often means how much relevant information the brain can hold in working memory. Working memory is notoriously low-capacity, so the key becomes remembering the sub-sets of information that are the most relevant to each option. Humans think with what is in their working memory. Experiments have shown that older people are more likely to hold the most useful information in working memory, and therefore they can think more effectively. The National Institute of Aging began funding decision-making research in 2010 at Stanford University’s Center on Longevity. Results of their research are showing that older people often make better decisions than younger people.
As one example, older people are more likely to make rational cost-benefit analyses. Older people are more likely to recognize when they have made a bad investment and walk away rather than throwing more good money after bad.
A key factor seems to be that older people are more selective about what they remember. For example, one study from the Stanford Center compared the ability of young and old people to remember a list of words. Not surprisingly, younger people remembered more words, but when words were assigned a number value, with some words being more valuable than others, older people were better at remembering high-value words and ignoring low-value words. It seems that older people selectively remember what is important, which should make it easier to make better decisions.
Decision-making skills are important of learning achievement in school. Students need to know how to focus in general, and focus on what is most relevant in particular. They are not learning that skill, and their multi-tasking culture is teaching them many bad habits.
Those of us who care deeply about educational development of youngsters need to push our schools to address the thinking and learning skills of students. "Teaching to the test" detracts from time spent in teaching what matters most. Today's culture of multi-tasking is making matters worse. Children don't learn how to attend selectively and intensely to the most relevant information, because they are distracted by superficial attention to everything. Despite their daily use of Apple computers and smart phones, only one college student out of 85 could draw the Apple logo correctly.[iii]
Memory training is generally absent from teacher training programs. Despite my locally well-publicized experience in memory training, no one in the College of Education at my university has ever asked me to share my knowledge with their faculty or with pre-service teachers. The paradox is that teachers are trained to help students remember curricular answers for high-stakes tests. What could be more important than learning how to decide what to remember and how to remember it? And we wonder why student performance is so poor?


"Memory Medic" is author of Memory Power 101 (Skyhorse) and Better Grades, Less Effort (Benecton).



[i]Purcell, B. A.; Heitz, R. P.; Cohen, J. Y.; Schall, et al. (2010). Neurally constrained modeling of perceptual decision making. Psychological Review, 117(4), 1113-1143.

[ii] McCoy, A. N., and Platt, M. L. (2005). Expectations and outcomes: decision-making in the primate brain. J. Comp. Physiol A 191, 201-211.

[iii] Blake, Adam B., Nazarian, Meenely, and Castel, Alan D. (2015). The Apple of the mind's eye: Everyday attention, metamemory, and reconstructive memory for the Apple logo. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 2015; 1 DOI: 10.1080/17470218.2014.1002798

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