Decisions, decisions

Several weeks ago I had the chance to participate in a webinar with Jonah Lehrer, who wrote the books How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist. The session was made available through my membership with the Creative Good UX Councils.  The introduction to Jonah and his work from Creative Good said that “Design is partially about guiding people, offering choices, sometimes persuading them to make specific choices, or at least understand all options.”

Jonah said that he started studying how people decide because he is himself pathologically indecisive – he would go to the pharmacy and spend an hour looking for floss and leave with nothing.  It was paralysis by analysis.  That everyday failure was what got him interested in the topic.  In the past, there has been a widespread assumption that we are rational beings, but of late we are dismantling that rationality.  For example, we used to believe that emotions lead us astray, but now modern neuroscience has shown us otherwise.  For example, Jonah talked about Elliott, a brain surgery patient who was fully functional except that he lost his ability to be emotional … and he became pathologically indecisive.  Because he lost his ability to assign emotion, he might spend hours deliberating if he should use a blue pen or a black pen to sign his patient consent form.  So this idea that we should be chasing pure reason, it’s actually a disease.  Since Elliott’s case report was published, many things have been published that have begun to corroborate this.

Emotions reveal more than you know, they reflect the feelings in our unconscious, which may be trying tell it’s secret.  And so the key is to practice metacognition – thinking about thinking – so that we can do a better job of understanding the types of decisions we’re making and why.  In fact, some types of decisions benefit from a more emotional decision-making process.  Metacognition helps you avoid avoidable errors.  People do all kinds of crazy things to avoid losses. The only way to avoid the trap of loss aversion, a seemingly trifling aversion is to be aware of it.  This is hard to do, but it’s a crucial part of making better decisions

Jonah wrote about Walter’s marshmallow study in the New Yorker last year.  The study involves asking four year olds if they want to resist eating one marshmallow so they can get a second one later.  The average waiting time is two minutes, but a few can wait the full 15 minutes and get the second marshmallow.  Those kids didn’t have more character, they practiced metacognition.  They distracted themselves, sang songs from Sesame Street, went to stand in the corner (where they couldn’t see the marshmallow).  In other words, self control is really about distraction.  Twelve years later the man who did the study was talking with his kids about it and he decided to do a follow up.  That test has turned out to be more predictive of people’s success than any other – it’s a significant skill!  The difference between 30 seconds versus 15 minutes is that a kid who can wait will test 210 points higher on his SAT.  What we have learned is that age four is when you start to see the metacognitive differences, and they start to compound.  It could be very depressing, but Walter has shown that you can give kids a 5 minute lesson in how to better control themselves, and teach them to delay gratification (at least in that setting).

Jonah was asked if there are places where this research has been meaningfully applied to design problems.  One quick example is the magazine racks at the newsstand.  If like magazines are grouped together in a display, it keeps them from being overwhelmed by the choices.  We have learned that once people enter into a spiral of deliberative thought, we end up unwilling to make a decision at all.  So we are doing a better job to drill down and understand where the effects of decision-making come from and how to guide them.

Jonah described another great study that informs how we make decisions.  One of the discouraging realities is that our brains can only retain seven bits of information (plus or minus two) at any given moment.  There was a study by Shipp at Stanford, he gave them either two or seven numbers to remember, and told them it was a test of long term memory.  And then he invited them to have a snack – either fruit salad or chocolate cake.  Those with seven digits to recall overwhelmingly chose the chocolate cake.  In other words, the struggle to remember left them with less energy to exert self-control – the brain was literally incapable of doing both.  One of the important things we’ve learned from studies like this is that we don’t spend enough time thinking about the informational processing power of the human brain.

Another reality of the human brain is that we’re naturally inclined to look for (and try to create) patterns.  Apparently, monkeys are obsessed with apple juice.  In a study about dopamine, monkeys were trained that when a bell rang, they would get apple juice.  That act would cause a spike in their dopamine.  Then they were taught that it was a ringing bell and a flashing light.  In short, the monkeys would look for the first event that would predict a pattern of reward.  Humans are pattern-making machines, and we are good at it!  The reason you get the burst of dopamine is the surprise, and then you try to figure out how to get there first, to get more apple juice.

The expectation of something good is even more powerful than the event itself. We quickly habituate to rewards, so it is more about the expectation.  Surprising things are by far the most exciting, but once a reward becomes predictable, it becomes boring.  So, if you give monkey apple juice with no warning, their brain releases three to four times more dopamine.  This is the same reason people play slot machines!  However, if people are expecting a reward and don’t get it, they get angry.  So, we need to understand how the brain processes rewards in more detail.

One of the webinar participants asked Jonah if he has read How God Changes Your Brain, which is a book about how space and spirituality affect the neural pathways in our brain.  Jonah has a graduate degree in Theology, and what he said is that faith is not unique in this regard – every belief we hold changes our brain.  There have been some very interesting studies about the placebo affect.  For example, if you tell study participants that a certain cream reduces pain, it actually affects the behavior of their brain.  So, one way to think about the importance of religion is that it has to do with that same framing of experience.  “A man sees what he wants to see and disregards the rest.”  God, faith, religion are a critical way that we make sense of things.

Another participant asked how other people impact decision-making.  Jonah said that the real limitation of neuroscience at the moment is that it treats every man as an island.  A brain scanner feels like a noisy coffin – that’s how we study the brain.  So there is not a lot of data on the social brain.  This is where research by sociologists and political scientists (e.g. Connected authors) becomes so important, because they look at how much of our behavior is a by-product of our networks.  At an intuitive level, we know that we naturally imitate others – that is how we make all sorts of consumer decisions.  However, we are starting to get a sense from the social network data exactly how important that is.

I asked a question about neuromarketing and the growing momentum around it.  Jonah did say that it’s a hot new field at the moment.  It tries to apply some of these learnings, but he is fairly skeptical of it because he doesn’t think the science is there yet to support what the researchers are trying to do.  The current state of neuromarketing is that if you put a 20 year old male in a brain scanner and show them beer with girl in bikini, the visual cortex lights up.  This can be very misleading, because a good ad is more than stimulation of the visual cortex. But we already know that! The real question is whether it is memorable.

Jonah also reminded us to keep the impact of the physical body in mind.  For example, some study participants took a cognitive challenge.  One group was given lemonade with real sugar and the other group was given lemonade with Splenda. The people with Splenda were more likely to make the default decision – even if it was a really important one.  So for the other lemonade drinkers, that little bit of sugar rejuvenated them just enough to make a better decision.

The reality is that even walking on a city street surrounded by hustle and bustle causes cognitive fatigue.  In navigating those circumstances we are working hard and those exertions add up.  So at the end of the day we are performing much below what we could be doing, which is why we are more likely to eat the whole pizza and the whole pint of ice cream.  We don’t think enough about how our mind gets tired.  We need to be aware of this to know how to compensate, whether it’s by not having ice cream in the freezer, or having a double macciato at 3:30 in the afternoon.  Also use this understanding to be cognizant of when you’re asking your customers to make major decisons!

I am not sure if it’s what I’m attuned to these days, but I feel like there is a growing interest in how decisions get made, and what motivates people.  Along those lines, here are some other presentations that may be of interest:

  • Sheena Iyengar has spoken at TED and elsewhere on how we choose, and how those choices are embedded in cultural and social factors that are not ubiquitous.  In particular, she cautions us as AmericanS to be aware of our presumptions about choice based on our personal experiences in the US.
  • If Jonah Lehrer or Dan Pink’s books have piqued your curiosity about The Marshmallow Study, you might also enjoy this TED piece called Don’t Eat the Marshallow Yet by Joachim de Posada, with some wonderful video of the kids during the course of the study.  As the mom of two little ones (the oldest is three), I am very curious about these studies and how my children would fare if they were confronted with marshmallows under these conditions in a few years’ time!

I would welcome your recommendations for or thoughts about recent literature on this topic!

9 Comments on “Decisions, decisions”

    • Hi Mark – I wasn’t familiar with, thanks for the pointer. I look forward to browsing that service for the speakers in my post, and others! Natalie

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  2. Hi Natalie,

    These are interesting observations. Here is a somewhat different take on the topic drawn from the design literature. I wonder what results we would get if we took a brain scan of people playing Brainball, an inactive sport, and compared it to someone playing an active sport, and then asked a neuroscientist which brain scans indicate competition is occurring?

    For Brainball see,

    Competition is distinguished by specific types of brain activity in the neuroscience literature, so the thought experiment is not totally off base I think.

    Click to access 04Decety_Meltzoff_Cooperate.pdf

    What happens when the goal of winning something, like a game, means not trying to win through exertion? As the Brain Ball creators indicated,

    Just a couple of thoughts to consider.

    • Thanks for the twist, Larry. I look forward to checking out these studies! I am particularly interested in how social scientists can begin to work alongside neuroscientists to continue to refine our understanding in this arena. Natalie

  3. Nice work.

    You asked for other sources, and Jonah’s blog really is one of the best. He recently moved to Wired so check him out over there.

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