Decision Making Accuracy Improved by Slightly Delaying Decision Onset

Dr Tobias Teichert Assistant Professor of Psychiatry University of Pittsburgh Pittsburgh, PA Interview with:
Dr Tobias Teichert
Assistant Professor of Psychiatry
University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, PA 15261  What are the main findings of the study?

Dr. Teichert:

 “Our study provided three main findings:

First, we measured how long it takes subjects to allocate attention to a relevant target and how effectively they can block out the distractors. We found that after 120 msec selective attention is fully engaged and completely blocks out the distractor. Based on this finding, we predicted that subjects should be able to improve decision accuracy by delaying decision onset, and that this should be more effective than simply prolonging the whole decision process.

Most importantly, we found that subjects indeed use this more effective way of improving decision onset: On average, subjects delayed decision onset by about 50 msec when we asked them be as accurate as possible. The good news is that people seem to use this more optimal mechanism automatically, without being told to do so and without being aware of what they do. The bad news is that we don’t seem to be using this skill quite as effectively as we could. In our case, subjects could have improved accuracy even further by delaying decision onset by an additional 50 ms. However, taken together, our findings show that decision onset is to some degree under cognitive control, and that we might be able to devise training strategies to harness its full potential”  Were any of the findings unexpected?

Dr. Teichert:

“Yes. It is typically assumed that subjects improve decision accuracy by prolonging the decision process, ie., by working longer or harder. Here we identified a more effective mechanism that requires decision makers to merely delay the onset of the decision process by a couple of tens of milliseconds to a more beneficial point in time. Waiting enables the brains attentional system to focus on the most relevant information. In realistic situations with salient distractors, delaying decision onset can be a much more effective way for improving response accuracy.”  What are the implications for every-day decision making?

Dr. Teichert:  “We all know that we can’t make accurate decisions if we don’t pay attention to the relevant information. Our study highlights the fact that while selective attention is an extremely powerful mechanism, it is effortful and takes time to engage. Hence, especially in emergent situation when we are pressured to respond as fast as possible, it is very important to first identify and focus on the relevant information before even considering any potential courses of action. Our study was the first to quantify this effect. In the specific situation created for the experiment, subjects could have improved information transfer from 1.5 to 2.5 bits per second, indicating that they could have made one additional correct decision per second, simply by allowing the attentional system a little extra time to focus on the relevant information.”

“In our study, subjects were making rather simple decisions very quickly: average reaction times varied between 500 and 600 milliseconds. However, the main principle that we identified can be translated to more complicated decisions that happen on a slower time-scale–for example, buying a car. On this slower time-scale, our findings translate into the following strategy: rather than immediately writing a list with pros and cons of the cars that you are considering, you should first write a list of features that are important to you. This is indeed common (and very useful) advice that your friends or the internet will give you when you ask them about how to decide on a car. So it is not all that surprising that the same principle should help you make simpler decisions on a faster time-scale. What is pretty amazing though, is that, unconsciously, our brains seem to have figured out this strategy presumably long before we even invented the wheel.”  What are the clinical implications of your research?

Dr. Teichert:  “The research methodology that we developed for our study may help shed light on how the allocation of selective attention is altered in certain neuropsychiatric conditions such as ADHD and schizophrenia. Do people with these conditions take longer to fully engage selective attention? Or is their attentional system less effective even after it is fully engaged? If we assume that the dynamics of selective attention are slowed down, our study provides a novel approach to help them make better decisions in the future, simply by delaying decision onset accordingly.”


Humans optimize decision-making by delaying decision onset

Tobias Teichert, Vincent P. Ferrera, Jack Grinband PLOS ONE

Published: March 05, 2014

DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0089638


Last Updated on January 7, 2015 by Marie Benz MD FAAD