Making Bad Choices May Be A Good Idea, Helps Improve Decision-Making Process

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Our proneness to irrational preferences may help us improve our decision-making abilities. Pixabay, Public Domain

In the U.S., the political climate is scorching with four of 17 Republican party candidates still in the race, while only four have dropped out. Republicans have gotten a lot of flack for appearing disorganized — chaotic, even — during the process. New research, however, shows that decisions become harder with the more options we have, and may help explain why the slate of Republican candidates competing in the primaries appears somewhat unwieldy.

“Contrary to common belief, choice irrationality is a by-product of purposeful neural computations,” write the group of international researchers in the study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In other words, the more options we have to choose from — even if some are irrational — the better. The researchers say that when we are faced with a number of choices we are more likely to weigh the benefits of each possible alternative.

So, how exactly does the brain process irrational preferences to get the best possible outcome?

For the study, experimental psychologist Dr. Konstantinos Tsetsos and his colleagues observed a cohort of people presented with a choice. When it’s between A and B — the decision is simple. But, when a third option "C" is introduced, and it's less appealing than either A or B, people change their first choice, even if that choice seems irrational. This occurs because of the "noise" generated by the decision-making process.

In the same way it can be hard to concentrate while someone plays loud music, it can be harder to choose from many options, even ones that are quickly dismissed. If A is preferred to B, and B is preferred to C, it’s logical that A should be preferred to C. However, the researchers say that being given a lot of options actually works in our favor. The brain, according to the study, picks up on the fact that the decision is influenced by irrelevant factors and decoy choices making “noise” in the system.

In addition, researchers believe that when the brain is presented with many choices it begins ignoring less appealing options. Although this process of selective integration can lead us to favor irrational preferences, this actually helps us make better decisions on average.

Konstantinos and his research team theorized these irrational preferences can be justifiable, because they allow us to weigh the gains of each and every choice. Selective integration drowns out “late noise,” or when the brain starts to ignore some information once overloaded to prevent us from making bad choices. Irrational preferences can work in conjunction with making better decisions overall.  

People inevitably make irrational, poor decisions — something the researchers say is because of how our brains work and not how smart or knowledgeable we are. The mental processes that allow us to make decisions in complex situations also lead us to make mistakes in judgment or to choose poorly as a result of seeking immediate gratification.

Our minds become too focused on the present, which can lead us to act in haste. The brain is able to rationalize the most beneficial choice, but at the same time it can be hindered by anxiousness and instant gratification. We would prefer to experience pleasure now, and leave the pain for later.

A similar study on decision making found when making food choices for the coming week, 74 percent of participants chose fruit. However, when the food choice was for the current day, 70 percent chose chocolate. The participants were influenced by their state of hunger, and the concept of immediate gratification, even though chocolate was the unhealthy snack.

We’re irrational in our decision-making because we’re influenced by external factors. Our preferences are not stable or coherent, and we’re bad at  assessing risks and reward. But, it is through the exposure of irrational choices, that we begin to formulate the best one for us.

Remember, while the brain is capable of 1,016 processes per second, it doesn’t mean it’s immune to “bad decisions.”

Source: Tsetsos K, Moran R, Moreland J et al. Economic irrationality is optimal during noisy decision making. PNAS. 2016.

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