Ever-so-slight delay improves decision-making accuracy

March 7, 2014, Columbia University Medical Center

Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) researchers have found that decision-making accuracy can be improved by postponing the onset of a decision by a mere fraction of a second. The results could further our understanding of neuropsychiatric conditions characterized by abnormalities in cognitive function and lead to new training strategies to improve decision-making in high-stake environments. The study was published in the March 5 online issue of the journal PLoS One.

"Decision making isn't always easy, and sometimes we make errors on seemingly trivial tasks, especially if multiple sources of information compete for our attention," said first author Tobias Teichert, PhD, a postdoctoral research scientist in neuroscience at CUMC at the time of the study and now an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh. "We have identified a novel mechanism that is surprisingly effective at improving response accuracy.

The mechanism requires that decision-makers do nothing—just briefly. "Postponing the onset of the by as little as 50 to 100 milliseconds enables the brain to focus attention on the most relevant information and block out irrelevant distractors," said last author Jack Grinband, PhD, associate research scientist in the Taub Institute and assistant professor of clinical radiology (physics). "This way, rather than working longer or harder at making the decision, the brain simply postpones the decision onset to a more beneficial point in time."

In making decisions, the brain integrates many small pieces of potentially contradictory sensory information. "Imagine that you're coming up to a traffic light—the target—and need to decide whether the light is red or green," said Dr. Teichert. "There is typically little ambiguity, and you make the correct decision quickly, in a matter of tens of milliseconds."

The decision process itself, however, does not distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information. Hence, a task is made more difficult if irrelevant information—a distractor—interferes with the processing of the target. Distractors are present all the time; in this case, it might be in the form of traffic lights regulating traffic in other lanes. Though the brain is able to enhance relevant information and filter out distractions, these mechanisms take time. If the decision process starts while the brain is still processing irrelevant information, errors can occur.

Studies have shown that response accuracy can be improved by prolonging the decision process, to allow the brain time to collect more information. Because accuracy is increased at the cost of longer reaction times, this process is referred to as the "speed-accuracy trade-off." The researchers thought that a more effective way to reduce errors might be to delay the decision process so that it starts out with better information.

The research team conducted two experiments to test this hypothesis. In the first, subjects were shown what looked like a swarm of randomly moving dots (the target stimulus) on a computer monitor and were asked to judge whether the overall motion was to the left or right. A second and brighter set of moving dots (the distractor) appeared simultaneously in the same location, obscuring the motion of the target. When the distractor dots moved in the same direction as the target dots, subjects performed with near-perfect accuracy, but when the distractor dots moved in the opposite direction, the error rate increased. The subjects were asked to perform the task either as quickly or as accurately as possible; they were free to respond at any time after the onset of the stimulus.

The second experiment was similar to the first, except that the subjects also heard regular clicks, indicating when they had to respond. The time allowed for viewing the dots varied between 17 and 500 milliseconds. This condition simulates real-life situations, such as driving, where the time to respond is beyond the driver's control. "Manipulating how long the subject viewed the stimulus before responding allowed us to determine how quickly the brain is able to block out the distractors and focus on the target dots," said Dr. Grinband.

"In this situation, it takes about 120 milliseconds to shift attention from one stimulus (the bright distractors) to another (the darker targets)," said Dr. Grinband. "To our knowledge, that's something that no one has ever measured before."

The experiments also revealed that it's more beneficial to delay rather than prolong the decision process. The delay allows attention to be focused on the target stimulus and helps prevent irrelevant information from interfering with the decision process. "Basically, by delaying decision onset—simply by doing nothing—you are more likely to make a correct decision," said Dr. Teichert.

Finally, the results showed that decision onset is, to some extent, under cognitive control. "The subjects automatically used this mechanism to improve response accuracy," said Dr. Teichert. "However, we don't think that they were aware that they were doing so. The process seems to go on behind the scenes. We hope to devise training strategies to bring the mechanism under conscious control."

"This might be the first scientific study to justify procrastination," Dr. Teichert said. "On a more serious note, our study provides important insights into fundamental brain processes and yields clues as to what might be going wrong in diseases such as ADHD and schizophrenia. It also could lead to new training strategies to improve in complex high-stakes environments, such as air traffic control towers and military combat."

Explore further: Fast eye movements: A possible indicator of more impulsive decision-making

Related Stories

Fast eye movements: A possible indicator of more impulsive decision-making

January 21, 2014
Using a simple study of eye movements, Johns Hopkins scientists report evidence that people who are less patient tend to move their eyes with greater speed. The findings, the researchers say, suggest that the weight people ...

Managerial role associated with more automatic decision-making

August 22, 2012
Managers and non-managers show distinctly different brain activation patterns when making decisions, according to research published Aug. 22 in the open access journal PLOS ONE.

Brain imaging research shows how unconscious processing improves decision-making (w/ Video)

February 13, 2013
When faced with a difficult decision, it is often suggested to "sleep on it" or take a break from thinking about the decision in order to gain clarity.

Do we always make better decisions when we take more time to think?

March 28, 2013
A study led by Zachary Mainen, Director of the Champalimaud Neuroscience Programme, and published today (March 28) in the scientific journal, Neuron, reports that when rats were challenged with a series of perceptual decision ...

Recommended for you

A 'touching sight': How babies' brains process touch builds foundations for learning

January 16, 2018
Touch is the first of the five senses to develop, yet scientists know far less about the baby's brain response to touch than to, say, the sight of mom's face, or the sound of her voice.

Researchers identify protein involved in cocaine addiction

January 16, 2018
Mount Sinai researchers have identified a protein produced by the immune system—granulocyte-colony stimulating factor (G-CSF)—that could be responsible for the development of cocaine addiction.

Miles Davis is not Mozart: The brains of jazz and classical pianists work differently

January 16, 2018
Keith Jarret, world-famous jazz pianist, once answered in an interview when asked if he would ever be interested in doing a concert where he would play both jazz and classical music: "No, that's hilarious. [...] It's like ...

New study reveals why some people are more creative than others

January 16, 2018
Creativity is often defined as the ability to come up with new and useful ideas. Like intelligence, it can be considered a trait that everyone – not just creative "geniuses" like Picasso and Steve Jobs – possesses in ...

Neuroscientists suggest a model for how we gain volitional control of what we hold in our minds

January 16, 2018
Working memory is a sort of "mental sketchpad" that allows you to accomplish everyday tasks such as calling in your hungry family's takeout order and finding the bathroom you were just told "will be the third door on the ...

Brain imaging predicts language learning in deaf children

January 15, 2018
In a new international collaborative study between The Chinese University of Hong Kong and Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago, researchers created a machine learning algorithm that uses brain scans to predict ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.