Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Decision Making Under Uncertainty

Decision making is essential for successful problem solving and all creative work, yet surprisingly few receive specific training in effective decision making, and many just learn to 'wing it' under complex, uncertain, or shifting situations. This recent fMRI study from Duke provides interesting insights into the process. The experimental paradigm in this study is a little different from others because it examined patterns of brain activation that occur as test subjects had to make decisions about visual patterns under uncertain situations.

The researchers found that an area in the parietal lobe seemed to be a fairly good reflection of the presence of uncertainty in specific experimental trials. As uncertainty went up, activation (as measured by blood flow) increased; as uncertainty went down, activation decreased.

It looks as if the parietal lobe is keeping track of uncertainty and this helps adjust decision making as time goes on. This sort of study is a better reflection of real-life problem solving where answers and variables are not certain and situations continue to evolve. In the parietal lobe, sensory information, imagery, and representation are intermingled, and the processes may be less definitely conscious. But even if the processes of decision making and learning through successive trials is not fully conscious, it does not mean that patterns are not being formed and recognized - it may just mean that with experience, the process may become more automatic.

Decision Making Under Uncertain fMRI pdf


  1. This finding makes evolutionary sense.

    Humans would tend to get progressively better at adapting to changing circumstances while collectively benefitting as a species from the accumulating effects of prior good decisions

    ( the bad decision-makers of course having a lesser chance of surviving and passing on their genes)

  2. I believe decision making is a skill. Often times children have trouble making decision because they haven't exercised that skill very much yet. I just had a huge decision to make; whether I wanted to work out of the house or work part-time at home making party favors and also stay home with our daughter. Although this decision was hard and took a couple days, I was able to make a confident choice to stay home. Sometimes it helps to just take a few days to ponder a decision.