Sunday, May 14, 2006

Decisions Are Amazing Things

At least the small ones are.

As a cognitive scientist, I am fascinated by the human mind. We accomplish the coolest things. For lunch today, I was about to eat a hot dog. There it sat on my plate with mustard and pickle relish. The hot dog was perfectly parallel to my body. Although this is admittedly trivial, I had to decide which end to pick up. Each end looked equally messy (I find it a good strategy to eat the messy end first). Nonetheless, one of the ends just felt right, and I picked it up and ate it.

How did I do that? At the neuronal level, some sort of computation was going on. That is, some set of equations could have described that decision. We know that humans are abysmal at random behavior -- even when they want to be random -- so it was anything but random. But it was simple, and it was fast.

I argue that we do the same thing with unfamiliar brands. If I send you into a supermarket for black olives, you will emerge with a can -- even if you have never purchased them before. You will stare at the 2-5 choices, and one will become the obvious choice. For small decisions such as these, decisions are quick and easy.

A physicist will tell you that nature abhors a vacuum. A cognitive scientist will tell you that consciousness abhors a vacuum. If you ask a person some sort of factual question (e.g., who was the 23rd president), they may tell you that they do not know. It is a clear cut issue.

However, for almost any other kind of question, people are extremely reticent to say, "I don't know." Pick some arbitrary person and ask them some arbitrary question. Ask someone why you "should" not end an English sentence with a preposition. Most people will try to offer an answer. I argue that their brain naively "decides" on some answer and then articulates it. And usually it is pretty easy ... no matter how wrong they are.

If you read case studies of patients with severe brain injuries (e.g., The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat), you will see that they will make up profound stories to cover the "holes" in their consciousness, and they will never miss a beat.

In 1957, Scoville and Milner reported about the patient HM, who had a large section of his medial temporal lobes cut out to ameliorate severe epilepsy. This surgery confirmed the role of the hippocampus (a brain structure -- there's an entire journal dedicated to it) in memory formation. After the surgery, HM showed some mild disruption of previous memories. That is, there were some things before the surgery (3-4 years) that he could not recall, and some memories up to 11 years old were affected.

However, the profound damage to HM is now known as anterograde amnesia, or the inability to make new memories. HM -- born in 1926 but allegedly still alive -- does OK with short-term memory. But he cannot convert that to long-term memory. Leave the room, and you were never there. To illustrate, I will quote from the original journal article from Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry:

"Psychological Examination. -- This was performed on April 26, 1955. The memory defect was immediately apparent. The patient gave the date as March, 1953, and his age as 27. Just before coming into the examining room he had been talking to Dr. Karl Pribaum, yet he had no recollection of this at all and denied that anyone had spoken to him. In conversation, he reverted constantly to boyhood events and seemed scarcely to realize that he had had an operation" (p. 16).

What is most fascinating -- and I would argue relevant -- is that HM did not walk around in some kind of haze. He was not hysterical, as one might expect in a movie portrayal. Instead, his injured brain continued to make some coherent whole out of a set of incomplete facts. His mind still constructed a reality.

Sadly, it seems, HM's brain has been constructing a new reality every few minutes he has been awake since 1955. Every morning he wakes up in some sort of care facility, and he does not know why he is there. He must learn anew. Yet still some sort of coherent reality constructs itself.

We do the same thing with consumer decisions, I would argue. I remember several times in Europe wanting to buy a drink from a store and not recognizing any of the brands (although Coke is often stocked). Yet somehow a decision was made in a few seconds with none of the normally predictive pieces of information available. I did not die of thirst or indecision.

Without these often salient cues, perhaps I was reduced to color of the bottle, shape, or some aesthetic principle of the label. The point is that somehow my cognitive hardware shifted levels of analysis and automatically kicked out a decision without hesitation.

These processes fill my mind of late. How do we make these decisions? What do we do with the information that is laid down subconsciously?

Allow me one final example. The other day my master's program colleague Manish Gupta asked me whether I had seen the new Ford campaign (he works on the account). I told him that I had not. Later that evening, I was watching television, and I saw one of the ads. Sure enough, I had seen the ads. I recognized them. But obviously I could not freely recall them (I have a lot to say about the difference between recall and recognition in a forthcoming article in the journal Media Psychology titled, "Dynamic, embodied limited-capacity attention and memory: Modeling cognitive processing of mediated stimuli").

Where were those Ford commercials stored? And more importantly, what influence -- if any -- would they have had if I had purchased a vehicle that day before I called Manish?

The answer is surely complex and nonlinear. But I will be chasing it for a while. Stay tuned. I'll let you know if I get any closer to an answer.

P.S. It was Benjamin Harrison.

P.P.S. The "no preposition" thing dates to 18th Century England. They were trying to make English more "civilized" by making it more like Latin (which has the property of being unable to end a sentence with a preposition). There is no real reason. (Source: The Language Instinct).

P.P.P.S. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am especially bad at big decisions.


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