you learn something simple from the most complex stuff.

For many
of us, the main concern over decision-making is practical — how to make better
? New research shows a simple strategy that might improve decision-making:
than picking what you hope is the best, instead you can start by eliminating
the worst element from a choice set, reducing the number of options to
something manageable for the brain, like three options.”

Humans often
make bad decisions. If you like Snickers more than Milky Way, it seems obvious
which candy bar you’d pick, given a choice of the two. Traditional economic
models follow this logical intuition, suggesting that people assign a value to
each choice — say, Snickers: 10, Milky Way: 5 — and select the top scorer. But
our decision-making system is subject to glitches.

In one
recent experiment, Paul Glimcher,
a neuroscientist at New York University, and collaborators asked people to
choose among a variety of candy bars, including their favorite — say, a
Snickers. If offered a Snickers, a Milky Way and an Almond Joy, participants
would always choose the Snickers. But if they were offered 20 candy bars,
including a Snickers, the choice became less clear. They would sometimes pick
something other than the Snickers, even though it was still their favourite.

Glimcher is
using both the brain and behaviour to explain our irrationality. He has
combined results from studies like the candy bar experiment with neuroscience
data — measurements of electrical activity in the brains of animals as they
make decisions — to develop a theory of how we make decisions and why that can
lead to mistakes.

At the core
of the model lies the brain’s insatiable appetite. The brain is the most metabolically expensive tissue in the body. It consumes 20% of our energy despite taking up only 2-3% of our body mass. Because neurons are so energy-hungry, the brain is a battleground
where precision and efficiency are opponents.

The good decision makes you happy

The brain is
a power-hungry organ; neurons are constantly sending each other information in
the form of electrical pulses, known as spikes or action potentials. Just as
with an electrical burst, prepping and firing these signals take a lot of

“Choice sets have a lot of shared information;
they are not random and independent,” Glimcher said. “The brain also works on efficiency by sucking out redundant
information so that the information coming out is as relevant as possible,
wasting as little energy as possible.”

The system
works well most of the time. But just like the temporary blindness we
experience when exiting a dark movie theatre into bright sunlight, our
decision-making machinery can sometimes be overwhelmed. That may be
particularly true with the staggering variety of choices we’re often faced with
in the modern world.

Our decision-making
system operates under complex constraints and has to consider many different
types of information. For example, a person might choose which house to buy
depending on its location, size or style. But the relative importance of each
of these factors, as well as their optimal value — city or suburbs, funkis,
traditional or modern — is fundamentally subjective. It varies from person to
person and may even change for an individual depending on their stage of life.

is still a young field and researchers disagree over which part of the brain
makes the actual decision. What part of the brain calculates that the Snickers
bar rates higher than the Milky Way?

Decision-making is about trying to make a decision
you’ll enjoy. The computational goal is not just information; it’s something
more behaviourally relevant like total enjoyment.


Amela Koluder / OSLO