Writing in Newsweek, Sharon Begley reports on a number of new studies that are informing our understanding of decision making. One particularly salient example gives us a new perspective on the notion of a ‘well-informed decision:’
[Angelika Dimoka, director of the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University] recruited volunteers to try their hand at combinatorial auctions, and as they did she measured their brain activity with fMRI.
As the information load increased, she found, so did activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a region behind the forehead that is responsible for decision making and control of emotions. But as the researchers gave the bidders more and more information, activity in the dorsolateral PFC suddenly fell off, as if a circuit breaker had popped.
“The bidders reach cognitive and information overload,” says Dimoka. They start making stupid mistakes and bad choices because the brain region responsible for smart decision making has essentially left the premises. For the same reason, their frustration and anxiety soar: the brain’s emotion regions—previously held in check by the dorsolateral PFC—run as wild as toddlers on a sugar high. The two effects build on one another. “With too much information, ” says Dimoka, “people’s decisions make less and less sense.”