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Less Than a Second Delay Keeps Bad Decisions Away

Mar 07, 2014 05:20 PM EST
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Researchers have identified a unique mechanism that is unexpectedly effective at improving decision response accuracy. Decision making accuracy can be improved by waiting even just a fraction of a second. Waiting as little as 50 to 100 milliseconds allows the brain to focus on more pertinent information rather than extraneous matters.

Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) researchers found that when making decisions the brain deals with various segments of, often contradictory, 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 Tobias Teichert, of CUMC. "There is typically little ambiguity, and you make the correct decision quickly, in a matter of tens of milliseconds."

The decision making process does not immediately differentiate between relevant and irrelevant information. Distractions are constantly present. In this above scenario, a distraction could be a bird flying or a person crossing the street. Although the brain is able to augment relevant information and sieve those that are impertinent, it takes some time. Waiting, briefly, can better enable the brain to make more precise decisions and lower the risk of error.

The researchers conducted two experiments to test the effectiveness of of reducing errors by delaying the decision process.

Subjects were shown a group of moving dots and were asked to note in which direction the dots were moving, right or left. Another set of bright moving dots, the distractor, appeared concurrently in the same location, hiding the movement of the target. Subjects had near perfect accuracy when the distractor dots moved in the same direction as the target dots, however, when the distractor dots moved in the opposite direction, the error rate increased. Subjects were able to take their time in making the judgment.

In the second experiment the subjects heard regular clicks, specifying when they had to respond. The time allowed for viewing the dots varied between 17 and 500 milliseconds. This condition simulated real-life conditions, like driving, where drivers are not able to choose their response time. "Manipulating how long the subject viewed the stimulus before responding allowed us to determine how quickly the brain is able to block out the distractors and focus on the target dots," said Jack Grinband, research scientist at the Taub Institute.

The study, published in PLOS One, found that it took about 120 milliseconds to shift attention from one stimulus to another. Furthermore, the study showed that it is more valuable to delay rather than extend the decision process, allowing the attention to focus on the target and not irrelevant distractors.

"This might be the first scientific study to justify procrastination," Teichert said. "On a more serious note, our study provides important insights into fundamental brain processes and yields clues as to what might be going wrong in diseases such as ADHD and schizophrenia. It also could lead to new training strategies to improve decision making in complex high-stakes environments, such as air traffic control towers and military combat."

The results could also further the medical grasp on neuropsychiatric issues which are characterized by irregularities in cognitive function.

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