How people use, and lose, pre-existing biases to make decisions

on 23 August 2018
Right Way, Wrong Way

An interesting piece of research but I can’t help feeling there is an angle or perhaps an alternative perspective or viewpoint missing . . . . . . . . . . . .

A persons ability to allow or consider a specific learning of new information, when presented, even at the subconscious level, seems to have some need to be somewhat relevant to the context, which doesn’t appear to have been considered in this research. Nowhere is context more important, when it comes to updating memory based biases than when it relates to survival. And the subconscious has some pretty weird ways of assimilating what presents itself as a matter of survival.

Perhaps nothing rationally demonstrates the irrational way in which the subconscious works than smoking! At a certain level, the subconscious mind sees the holding onto the smoking habit as a matter of survival. I can almost hear you say; that’s ridiculous! Let me explain why it is not. The one thing that any smoker needs, to quit, is a good enough reason, a heart attack is one, although I wouldn’t recommend it. There is overwhelming evidence that supports the statement, that the vast majority of smokers who had a heart attack, quit, right there! No gum, no patches, not even willpower is needed; that’s it, I’m done. Another is pregnancy, where the maternal welfare of the unborn child takes precedence over one's own survival (survival of the species supercedes survival of the self).

Without a doubt, one of the things that smokers always cite as a good reason to quit is health! Yet, I’ve never had a single smoker, who wanted hypnosis to help them quit, who didn’t know that smoking was unhealthy! So, if we consciously know that smoking is unhealthy and, yet, say health is important; then obviously we’d stop smoking, wouldn’t we? No, apparently not, the reason, there is a totally illogical, irrational need to smoke! Some say I would quit but I’m addicted! Well let me tell you this, thousands of people quit smoking every day, right there on the spot and never smoke again. And the one thing that allows them to do that is a shift in the way their mind works, that’s why hypnosis is such a powerful way to quit. Hypnosis gives you, your subconscious you, access to levels of mind that change the way things work.

So, how powerful an addiction is smoking; really? Well. compare it to a heroin addict, where the absence of the drug creates some very severe bodily and mental challenges! Taking this into account it becomes easier to see the survival aspect of smoking. True, it is illogical but that’s the way the subconscious works! You can read more about it on my smoking cessation page: here.

So, back to this research. If one wanted to demonstrate something truly amazing about the brain/mind, it would make more sense, to me, if they did it in a way that demonstrates how we can learn, or maybe, unlearn, something that is more challenging. If every journey we took all the lights were on green, how easy life would be; but, we wouldn’t be learning how to adapt to challenges. We wouldn’t learn the advantage of quick decisive and critical thinking. We wouldn’t even know there’s a box, let alone that we could think outside of it! The beauty of life comes from its adversity, of course, it may not feel like an empowering experience on what seems like the worst day of your life; but, if we learn the lessons of that day, days ahead can have more meaning. This is not to say that we should hope for tragedy or trauma, nor is it saying we should enjoy it, it's merely saying, that out of every tragedy comes triumph; if we get the lesson? C'est la Vie!

Fortunately. there will always be hypnosis at the Trans4mational Therapy Centre, Singapore, to help put you on the right pathway in life, for it is not the paths that you tread that make life; merely the way you choose to tread them!

My objective here is to help people understand how and why we become illogically trapped into emotional experiences that may actually be happening but for reasons different to that which we would imagine! If you want to know more about how Hypnotherapy can help you; why not make an appointment for a Free Consultation?

For more information on the Free Consultation - Go Here Or, to book your Free Consultation today, you can do so here


The Research: 

From love and politics to health and finances, humans can sometimes make decisions that appear irrational, or dictated by an existing bias or belief. But a new study from Columbia University neuroscientists uncovers a surprisingly rational feature of the human brain: A previously held bias can be set aside so that the brain can apply logical, mathematical reasoning to the decision at hand. These findings highlight the importance that the brain places on the accumulation of evidence during decision-making, as well as how prior knowledge is assessed and updated as the brain incorporates new evidence over time.

This research was reported today in Neuron.

"As we interact with the world every day, our brains constantly form opinions and beliefs about our surroundings," said Michael Shadlen, MD, PhD, the study's senior author and a principal investigator at Columbia's Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behaviour Institute. "Sometimes knowledge is gained through education, or through feedback we receive. But in many cases, we learn, not from a teacher, but from the accumulation of our own experiences. This study showed us how our brains help us to do that."

As an example, consider an oncologist who must determine the best course of treatment for a patient diagnosed with cancer. Based on the doctor's prior knowledge and her previous experiences with cancer patients, she may already have an opinion about what treatment combination (i.e. surgery, radiation and/or chemotherapy) to recommend -- even before she examines this new patient's complete medical history.

But each new patient brings new information, or evidence, that must be weighed against the doctor's prior knowledge and experiences. The central question, the researchers of today's study asked, was whether, or to what extent, that prior knowledge would be modified if someone is presented with new or conflicting evidence.

To find out, the team asked human participants to watch a group of dots as they moved across a computer screen, like grains of sand blowing in the wind. Over a series of trials, participants judged whether each new group of dots tended to move to the left or right -- a tough decision as the movement patterns were not always immediately clear.

As new groups of dots were shown again and again across several trials, the participants were also given a second task: to judge whether the computer program generating the dots appeared to have an underlying bias.

Without telling the participants, the researchers had indeed programmed a bias into the computer; the movement of the dots was not evenly distributed between rightward and leftward motion, but instead was skewed toward one direction over another.

"The bias varied randomly from one short block of trials to the next," said Ariel Zylberberg, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Shadlen lab at Columbia's Zuckerman Institute and the paper's first author. "By altering the strength and direction of the bias across different blocks of trials, we could study how people gradually learned the direction of the bias and then incorporated that knowledge into the decision-making process."

The study, which was co-led by Zuckerman Institute Principal Investigator Daniel Wolpert, PhD, took two approaches to evaluate the learning of the bias. First, implicitly, by monitoring the influence of bias in the participant's decisions and their confidence in those decisions. Second, explicitly, by asking people to report the most likely direction of movement in the block of trials. Both approaches demonstrated that the participants used sensory evidence to update their beliefs about the directional bias of the dots, and they did so without being told whether their decisions were correct.

"Originally, we thought that people were going to show a confirmation bias, and interpret ambiguous evidence as favouring their preexisting beliefs," said Dr Zylberberg. "But instead we found the opposite: People were able to update their beliefs about the bias in a statistically optimal manner."

The researchers argue that this occurred because the participants' brains were considering two situations simultaneously: one in which the bias exists, and a second in which it does not.

"Even though their brains were gradually learning the existence of a legitimate bias, that bias would be set aside so as not to influence the person's assessment of what was in front of their eyes when updating their belief about the bias," said Dr. Wolpert, who is also professor of neuroscience at Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC). "In other words, the brain performed counterfactual reasoning by asking 'What would my choice and confidence have been if there were no bias in the motion direction?' Only after doing this did the brain update its estimate of the bias.

The researchers were amazed at the brain's ability to interchange these multiple, realistic representations with an almost Bayesian-like, mathematical quality.

"When we look hard under the hood, so to speak, we see that our brains are built pretty rationally," said Dr Shadlen, who is also a professor of neuroscience at CUIMC and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. "Even though that is at odds with all the ways that we know ourselves to be irrational."

Although not addressed in this study, irrationality, Dr Shadlen hypothesises, may arise when the stories we tell ourselves influence the decision-making process.

"We tend to navigate through particularly complex scenarios by telling stories, and perhaps this storytelling -- when layered on top of the brain's underlying rationality -- plays a role in some of our more irrational decisions; whether that be what to eat for dinner, where to invest (or not invest) your money or which candidate to choose."

This research was supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the National Eye Institute (R01 EY11378), the Human Frontier Science Program, the Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society.


Story Source:

Materials provided by The Zuckerman Institute at Columbia UniversityNote: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Ariel Zylberberg, Daniel M. Wolpert, Michael N. Shadlen. Counterfactual Reasoning Underlies the Learning of Priors in Decision MakingNeuron, 2018; DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2018.07.035