Mental shortcuts, not emotion, may guide irrational decisions

March 31, 2017 by Rosa Li
Mental shortcuts, not emotion, may guide irrational decisions
Brain activity when people make choices consistent with (hot colors) or against (cool colors) the framing effect.

If you participate in a study in my lab, the Huettel Lab at Duke, you may be asked to play an economic game.

For example, we may give you $20 in house money and offer you the following :

  1. Keep half of the $20 for sure
  2. Flip a coin: heads you keep all $20; tails you lose all $20

In such a scenario, most choose 1, preferring a sure win over the gamble.

Now imagine this choice, again starting with $20 in house money:

  1. Lose half of the $20 for sure
  2. Flip a coin: heads you keep all $20; tails you lose all $20

In this scenario, most participants prefer the gamble over a sure loss.

If you were paying close attention, you'll note that both examples are actually numerically identical – keeping half of $20 is the same as losing half of $20 – but changing whether the sure option is framed as a gain or a loss results in different decisions to play it safe or take a risk. This phenomenon is known as the framing effect. The behavior that it elicits is weird, or as psychologists and economists would say, "irrational", so we think it's worth investigating!

In a study published March 29 in the Journal of Neuroscience, my lab used to test two competing theories for what causes the framing effect.

One theory is that framing is caused by emotion, perhaps because the prospect of accepting a guaranteed win feels good while accepting a guaranteed loss feels scary or bad. Another theory is that the framing effect results from a decision-making shortcut. It may be that a strategy of accepting sure gains and avoiding sure losses tends to work well, and adopting this blanket strategy saves us from having to spend time and mental effort fully reasoning through every single decision and all of its possibilities.

Using imaging (fMRI), we measured in 143 participants as they each made over a hundred choices between various gambles and sure gains or sure losses. Then we compared our participants' choice-related brain activity to brain activity maps drawn from Neurosynth, an analysis tool that combines data from over 8,000 published fMRI studies to generate neural maps representing brain activity associated with different terms, just as "emotions," "resting," or "working."

As a group, when our participants made choices consistent with the framing effect, their average brain activity was most similar to the representing mental disengagement (i.e. "resting" or "default"). When they made choices inconsistent with the framing effect, their average brain activity was most similar to the brain maps representing mental engagement (i.e. "working" or task"). These results supported the theory that the framing effect results from a lack of mental effort, or using a decision-making shortcut, and that spending more mental effort can counteract the framing effect.

Then we tested whether we could use individual participants' brain activity to predict participants' choices on each trial. We found that the degree to which each trial's brain activity resembled the brain maps associated with mental disengagement predicted whether that trial's choice would be consistent with the framing effect. The degree to which each trial's brain activity resembled maps associated with emotion, however, was not predictive of choices.

Our findings support the theory that the biased decision-making seen in the is due to a lack of rather than due to emotions.

This suggests potential strategies for prompting people to make better decisions. Instead of trying to appeal to people's emotions – likely a difficult task requiring tailoring to different individuals – we would be better off taking the easier and more generalizable approach of making good decisions quick and easy for everyone to make.

Explore further: People with autism more likely to 'follow their heads and not their hearts'

More information: Rosa Li et al. Reason's Enemy Is Not Emotion: Engagement of Cognitive Control Networks Explains Biases in Gain/Loss Framing, The Journal of Neuroscience (2017). DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3486-16.2017

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BobSage
not rated yet Mar 31, 2017
This jibes with my observations of people driving in wolf packs. Doing so is dangerous because you are very close to other vehicles. Yet people consistently do it. My theory is that they are not thinking. If they gave it some thought, they'd stay away from other cars. But the herd instinct prevails: do what other people are doing.

In general, people are capable of intelligent decision making when they are dealing with novel situations. Those same drivers would find the best route between two cities they've never visited before.

It appears to me that the mass of humanity goes through their lives make thoughtless decisions, just as described in the article.
Eikka
not rated yet Apr 01, 2017
If they gave it some thought, they'd stay away from other cars. But the herd instinct prevails: do what other people are doing.


I don't think it has anything to do with herd instinct.

What happens on the road is, you get too close to the car in front of you and you have to slow down to leave a gap, because the other guy won't speed up. So you ease on the acclerator and start to fall back - and some other guy comes up from behind, finds you moving slower than the speed limit, and overtakes and fills the gap you just created.

So first of all you're travelling slower than you want to, and other cars are overtaking and filling the safety gap you're trying to create, so it's a loss-loss situation.

It's just the dynamics of traffic.
Jim4321
5 / 5 (1) Apr 01, 2017
Suppose you are a college student with little money and that "house money" is actually cash. Then your goal is to leave there with something in exchange for your time. Both choices are consistent with this expectation. This is sort of like insurance: people with a little money cannot afford large gambles even if favorable because they might be wiped out; people with a great deal of money can afford the same gambles because the gambles are relatively small compared to their wealth and there is little risk of getting wiped out by fluctuations. Take home: Life is more than the average, include fluctuations in your analysis.

.
TheGhostofOtto1923
5 / 5 (1) Apr 01, 2017
"we would be better off taking the easier and more generalizable approach of making good decisions quick and easy for everyone to make"

-We make decisions easier to make by using technology to assist in the process.

The human brain by itself is fundamentally flawed. Thats why we're busy inventing things to augment and eventually replace it.

One of the first things we invented was writing, to augment our memories and communicating skills, and also to counter deception.

Technology is the continuing effort to compensate for our flaws.
Pooua
5 / 5 (1) Apr 01, 2017
How does this latest research explain why autistic people are less susceptible to the Framing Effect?
xponen
not rated yet Apr 01, 2017
@Pooua
maybe autistic people didn't get that the "loss/gain" emotional cue in their everyday lives, so they don't form that "decision-making shortcut" for "loss/gain" that others do.
Eikka
not rated yet Apr 02, 2017
@Pooua
maybe autistic people didn't get that the "loss/gain" emotional cue in their everyday lives, so they don't form that "decision-making shortcut" for "loss/gain" that others do.


It's probably more that autistic people have trouble assimilating other points of view than their own, so they're immune to framing because they can't change their perspective as easily.

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