Decision Making and the Complexities of the Brain

With the Presidential election less than a week away, neuroscientists are contemplating why there still exists such a plentitude of undecided voters. Sam Wang, an associate professor of neuroscience at Princeton, and co-author of Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life explains, “decision-making is thought to involve two parts, gathering evidence and committing to a choice. In tasks as simple as deciding whether a shifting pattern of dots is moving to the left or to the right, brain activity in the parietal cortex rises as evidence is gathered, eventually reaching a tipping point of choice – though it is not yet known what brain regions drive the final choice.”

There’s an obvious trade-off to this kind of process between speed and accuracy. While a quick decision will let you move on to the next task at hand, a decision made after extensive “evidence gathering” could lead to a wiser and more accurate choice. Wang explains that those who are undecided are not indifferent but rather may simply take more time in their “evidence gathering,” demonstrating a willingness to trade off speed for accuracy.

In Your Brain’s Secret Ballot, an Op-Ed article in the New York Times, Wang writes,

In measurements of decision-related neural activity, after there is enough evidence to reach a person’s decision threshold, his brain can ignore further input even when it might improve accuracy. The brain goes ahead and decides, freeing up mental resources to deal with other problems.

This logic suggests that undecided voters might simply require a higher degree of confidence before they commit. Still, the person may not be aware of that internal commitment. In one study, people were asked to play a gambling game in which they could choose cards from several decks, some of which were secretly stacked against them. After losing repeatedly, most subjects began to nervously avoid the less favorable decks but were unable to say why until after much further play. People with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex lack this intuition, and so they take inordinate time to make decisions in general.

Of course, undecided voters aren’t suffering from brain damage, it’s just that their brains may require an especially long amount of time to develop confidence in or awareness of a choice.

Undecided voters have another five days to finalize their evidence gathering before the clock runs out for them to commit to a candidate. Negotiators however, can continue to utilize the data from Wang’s studies long after the election is over to assess the decision making preferences of their counterpart.

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