Decision Science

Decision science is a safer way to say “neuroeconomics” without evoking the revulsion associated with Wall Street or the advertising industry.

“Charging Bull” is made ridiculous. Financial District, NYC.

Basically, it’s an attempt to predict what people will do. The most interesting aspect appears to be the individual variability inherent in the human population. We all know those people who make impulsive choices more often (e.g. gambling, risky ventures, extreme sports), versus those who prefer safer lives when the outcome in uncertain. How did these traits arise?

Recently, The NY Times put forth a bold hypothesis:  Addictive Personality? You Might be a Leader.  This opinion article focused on the novelty-seeking personality and its potential merit in the business world. As it turns out, psychologists have already been researching this topic for decades. For instance, Columbia Business Professor Tory Higgins parsed individuals into “promoters” and “preventers” based on their innate responses to change. Moreover, biologists and physicians have determined that real genetic differences exist between these personalities. Brown University’s Michael Frank discovered that human gene variants in dopamine receptors can predict behavior, as published in “Prefrontal and striatal dopaminergic genes predict individual differences in exploration and exploitation.” This clinical study of human subjects mirrors the same findings also found in animal research. That is, even a group of lowly lab rats can exhibit individual differences in their novelty-seeking behavior when faced with uncertainty. The rodents behave as either “high responders” or “low responders” when placed in a novel environment, according to a genetic study by Huda Akil. High-responder rats show greater motivation for rewards, and are more willing to work to get them (published by Paul Phillips). Interestingly, the individual differences between animals can also predict their propensity to drug abuse (e.g. their willingness to work for a cocaine reward, despite negative outcomes). The rich variety in decision-making strategies, preserved over evolution from rodents to people, suggests that maybe there is a survival benefit to both impulsive and cautious traits. It’s not the case that only “risk-takers” reign supreme, as hinted in David Linden’s NYT article (above). In fact, the cognitive flexibility to switch between exploratory and exploitative behaviors is key in maximizing rewards, according to several animal behavior studies.

There is a growing literature of neuroscience encompassing traits such as motivation,  impulsivity, and reward learning. Scientists have a better idea of which brain regions and neurotransmitters or individual genes are involved in decision-making. They even know how such factors as stress or anxiety impact decisions. Yet there is much work left to do. Despite the obvious societal benefit of this research, funding depends on federal government support for biomedical investigation, including  the National Institute of Mental Health, National Institute of Drug Abuse, and National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. To see which projects are already underway, check out the National Institutes of Health search engine, RePORT, or the international treasure trove of scientific publications on PubMed.

More detailed discussion of these topics by the researchers themselves (VIDEOS!) below:

– T.V. series “Charlie Rose” features The Deciding Brain (full episode here)

– T.V.’s Charlie Rose Brain Series interviews addiction scientists (here)

TED Talks with: primate psychologist  Laurie Santos, motivation analyst Dan Pink, behavioral economists Daniel Kahneman and Daniel Ariely, Artificial Intelligence founder Marvin Minsky, and social psychologist Dan Gilbert

– How video games hijack the brain reward system of some individuals: see VIDEO with Tom Chatfield

– Guilt aversion and social cooperativity in behavior- Cell Press interviews Alan Sanfey