Study measures bias in how we learn and make decisions

April 26, 2016
Credit: Human Brain Project

Thinking about drawing to an inside straight or playing another longshot? Just remember that while human decision-making is biased by potential rewards, what we know about individual cues that help us to make those decisions is biased toward failure, a Dartmouth College study finds.

The study appears in the journal Nature Communications.

"The type of bias we measured is relevant for in situations where rewarding outcomes are rare, for example during gambling," says lead author Alireza Soltani, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences. "It would be interesting to study this behavior in pathological gamblers since certain cues are learned to be way more predictive than they are."

The researchers studied how humans learn evidence from different sources of information using reward feedback—probabilistic learning and inference—when these sources are presented simultaneously and don't fully predict the outcome. The researchers also studied how we combine different sources of information to make a final decision. The results show that our ability for such learning and inference is both limited and biased because we inherently cannot separate information about cues from the overall probability of possible outcomes. More specifically, we show contradictory biases when we perform probabilistic , or the analysis of several possible outcomes using the knowledge of prior events to predict future ones. In other words, although our choice is biased toward the more rewarding or more probable outcome, our inference about the individual cues used to make those decisions are biased toward the less probable or less rewarding outcome.

The researchers related these contradictory biases to learning at the level of the brain's synapses and how learning is modulated by expectation of reward and by attention, or what cues we are attending to at the time of decision-making. The results show that inference does not follow any standard model, where evidence (about each cue) and prior (the probability of either outcome) are combined optimally. Instead, it seems that what we learn about each cue is always contaminated by prior.

"Probabilistic learning and inference is something we do in daily life - for example, you try to guess what caused a stomach ache after eating many food items," Soltani says. "But we are never presented with one cue alone. There are always many cues or we take many actions before we see an outcome. The feedback we get is often binary—success/failure, reward/no-reward—and then we have to connect them and learn about what predicts a rewarding outcome. While it seems that we are good at this task—otherwise we could not function or learn in the complex world we live in—humans show systematic biases in their inference. But in this study, we quantified such biases and showed that they emerge from how we learn and are not reasoning errors as they have been assumed or due to memory shortage."

Explore further: Video games can improve decision-making

More information: Nature Communications, DOI: 10.1038/NCOMMS11393

Related Stories

Video games can improve decision-making

March 11, 2016
Research on decision-making bias found that interactive training exercises using video games actually improved participants' general decision-making abilities and when used alongside other traditional training methods. The ...

When it comes to food, obese women's learning is impaired

July 16, 2014
Obese women were better able to identify cues that predict monetary rewards than those that predict food rewards, according to a study by Yale School of Medicine researchers and their colleagues in the journal Current Biology. ...

Memory replay prioritizes high-reward memories

February 12, 2016
Why do we remember some events, places and things, but not others? Our brains prioritize rewarding memories over others, and reinforce them by replaying them when we are at rest, according to new research from the University ...

Neural networks learn to link temporally dispersed stimuli

March 8, 2016
Rustling leaves, a creaking branch: To a mouse, these sensory impressions may at first seem harmless - but not if a cat suddenly bursts out of the bush. If so, they were clues of impending life-threatening danger. Robert ...

Separate brain systems process the consequences of our decisions

September 8, 2015
To avoid repeating the same mistakes and learn to make good choices, our brain needs to correctly evaluate the consequences of our decisions.

Recommended for you

Study provides hope that schizophrenia isn't as deep-rooted in affected individuals as previously believed

December 8, 2017
A schizophrenia patient's own perceptions of their experiences—and confidence in their judgments—may be factors that can help them overcome challenges to get the life they wish, suggests a new paper published in Clinical ...

The evolutionary advantage of the teenage brain

December 7, 2017
The mood swings, the fiery emotions, the delusions of immortality, all the things that make a teenager a teenager might just seem like a phase we all have to put up with. However, research increasingly shows that the behaviors ...

Study reveals gap in life expectancy for people with mental illness

December 7, 2017
New research from The Australian National University (ANU) has found that men who are diagnosed with a mental health condition in their lifetime can expect to live 10.2 years less than those who aren't, and women 7.3 years.

Reading on electronic devices may interfere with science reading comprehension

December 6, 2017
People who often read on electronic devices may have a difficult time understanding scientific concepts, according to a team of researchers. They suggest that this finding, among others in the study, could also offer insights ...

Study suggests giving kids too many toys stifles their creativity

December 6, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A team of researchers at the University of Toledo in the U.S. has found that children are more creative when they have fewer toys to play with at one time. In their paper published in the journal Infant ...

Psychosis incidence highly variable internationally

December 6, 2017
Rates of psychosis can be close to eight times higher in some regions compared to others, finds a new study led by researchers at UCL, King's College London and the University of Cambridge.

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.