Intelligence and Learning

Some Topics


Decisions and Choices

All animals decide among alternatives many times every day. Often survival is determined by the accuracy of decisions. We will consider the root dialectics of decision making: familiar and strange, approach and avoidance, reward and punishment. Researchers have looked closely, discovering that humans decide in the same way that other animals decide and make the same kind of mistakes.

Decisions are mostly made unconsciously and quickly. While most behavior is organized in the old brain, the neocortex stores memories, not like photographs, video recordings or digital files, but as abstract features of experiences that can be compared quickly with features extracted from ongoing experience. The decision processes require rapid processing available in the neocortex. Decisions are made in milliseconds by procedures that are not represented in consciousness.

Once a choice is made, humans often add an explanation of how and why decisions were made in the form of a story. Storytelling begins with the objective of supporting the decision, right or wrong. The story advances the false premise that a decision was made after careful consideration and after fairly evaluating all the evidence at hand. The story is “rationalization.”

Weller et al examined decisions about potential gains and losses in humans with lesions to the amygdala, a key brain nucleus for creating emotional responses They observed impaired decision making when subjects considered potential gains, but not when considering potential losses. Subjects with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area responsible for integrating cognitive and emotional information, showed deficits in both domains. They argued that adaptive decision making for risks involving potential losses may be more difficult to disrupt than adaptive decision making for risks involving potential gains.

Cognitive dissonance appears in both animals and humans when two pieces of information are not congruent. You like Mary and dislike Jane, but you see them together chatting like old friends. Inside your brain you have an old program that reduces dissonance by averaging your evaluations of the two; you become aware that you like Mary less and like Jane a little more. Dissonance may precede and follow a decision. You are ready to invent a story to justify the new evaluation.

Tierny described cognitive dissonance research suggesting that social psychologists have been trying to understand rationalizing irrational behavior. This self-delusion, the result of cognitive dissonance, has been demonstrated repeatedly. He stated: “Psychologists suggested we rationalize in order to impress others, reaffirm our moral integrity and protect our feeling of self-worth. People deal with cognitive dissonance, the clash of conflicting information, by eliminating some of the information. When you see others engaging in rationalization, it can look silly or pathological, as if they have a desperate need to justify themselves or are cynically telling lies they couldn’t possibly believe themselves. The compulsion to justify decisions may seem irrational. Once a decision has been made, second-guessing may just interfere with more important business.”