Ever-so-slight delay improves decision-making accuracy

Posted on March 11, 2014

Decision-making accuracy can be improved by delaying decision onset by a mere fraction of a second could help improve training strategies in high-stake environments.

Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) researchers have found that decision-making accuracy can be improved by postponing the onset of a decision by a mere fraction of a second. The results could further our understanding of neuropsychiatric conditions characterized by abnormalities in cognitive function and lead to new training strategies to improve decision-making in high-stake environments.

“Decision making isn’t always easy, and sometimes we make errors on seemingly trivial tasks, especially if multiple sources of information compete for our attention,” said first author Tobias Teichert, PhD, a postdoctoral research scientist in neuroscience at CUMC at the time of the study and now an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh. “We have identified a novel mechanism that is surprisingly effective at improving response accuracy.

The mechanism requires that decision-makers do nothing—just briefly. “Postponing the onset of the decision process by as little as 50 to 100 milliseconds enables the brain to focus attention on the most relevant information and block out irrelevant distractors,” said last author Jack Grinband, PhD, associate research scientist in the Taub Institute and assistant professor of clinical radiology (physics). “This way, rather than working longer or harder at making the decision, the brain simply postpones the decision onset to a more beneficial point in time.”

In making decisions, the brain integrates many small pieces of potentially contradictory sensory information. “Imagine that you’re coming up to a traffic light—the target—and need to decide whether the light is red or green,” said Dr. Teichert. “There is typically little ambiguity, and you make the correct decision quickly, in a matter of tens of milliseconds.”

The decision process itself, however, does not distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information. Hence, a task is made more difficult if irrelevant information—a distractor—interferes with the processing of the target. Distractors are present all the time; in this case, it might be in the form of traffic lights regulating traffic in other lanes. Though the brain is able to enhance relevant information and filter out distractions, these mechanisms take time. If the decision process starts while the brain is still processing irrelevant information, errors can occur.

Studies have shown that response accuracy can be improved by prolonging the decision process, to allow the brain time to collect more information. Because accuracy is increased at the cost of longer reaction times, this process is referred to as the “speed-accuracy trade-off.” The researchers thought that a more effective way to reduce errors might be to delay the decision process so that it starts out with better information.


Source material from Columbia University


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