D-CIDES Hosts First Regional Conference: Decision Making Across the Disciplines
May 08, 2012
by Sandra J. Ackerman
With discussions of dopamine signaling, tax compliance and sociable rhesus macaques, and with presentations from fields as disparate as statistics, psychology, and energy conservation, the Duke Center for Interdisciplinary Decision Science’s (D-CIDES) recent conference at Duke University stretched the term “interdisciplinary” to a new range. The gathering proved to be inter-varsity and inter-state as well, drawing participants from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Temple University, Virginia Tech and the National Institutes of Health, together with numerous departments and professional schools from Duke University. The regional conference was the first of its kind to be hosted by D-CIDES.
The conference highlighted three main themes. In the first, Self-Control, Valuation, and Choice, speakers described the complex nature of cognitive or psychological factors that come into play in a wide variety of decisions: calculating the next move in a video gambling game, assessing the stigma associated with an eating disorder, or juggling projected cost against promised efficiency when buying a household appliance. One set of studies, couched in terms of seemingly simple food choices, illustrated the role of self-control not just in the endpoint decision (a snack of carrots, or of candy?) but also in the way we arrive at that endpoint. When participants in this study viewed the two snack choices as complementary, they were more subject to the temptation of the candy; by contrast, when they viewed the two choices as competing, they were more likely to muster the self-control required to choose the healthy carrot snack instead. Additional talks featured the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is strongly implicated in impulsive choice and in addictive behavior. In an ingenious add-on to the deep-brain stimulation (DBS) technique often used to treat Parkinson’s disease, researchers have succeeded in tracking the release of dopamine at a specific brain site as it actually occurred, at resolutions of less than a second. This innovation signals a host of new possibilities for observing dopamine at work in the human brain in real-time decision-making.
Under the theme Risk and Uncertainty, speakers addressed the challenges of estimating probabilities and evaluating likely outcomes—two perennial problems in the study of decision-making. Also important, especially for neurophysiological work in this area, is the specialized understanding of “risk” as any variance in the probabilities of reward outcomes. To the research subject who expects a reward but does not receive one, a non-outcome may be equivalent to a punishment, at least in neurophysiological terms.
In a sense, the very process of conducting research can be viewed as an exercise in decision-making, but it is one in which the p value, the observed significance level of a given outcome, must be very strictly defined. In everyday life, of course, we are often called on to make decisions despite considerable uncertainty as to possible outcomes and their likely consequences, and this uncertainty leaves room for various kinds of bias to enter into our decisions. “Bias,” in this sense, might not be a matter of prejudice but could simply be a common habit of mind; for instance, in attempting to predict a future outcome, many of us tend to rely more heavily on recent outcomes than on those long past. For an individual trying to estimate the potential risk or gain of under-paying his taxes, or a panel of biologists charged with estimating the extinction probability of various species, making an effort to minimize such biases—or at least being aware of them—could produce better-founded decisions.
The final theme, Social Influences on Decisions, addressed some of the most subtle aspects of decision-making as well as some of the most obvious. At an obvious level, social stigma can weigh heavily even on a trivial choice, if the choice arises in a situation where we do not wish to call attention to the stigma. Meanwhile, at the level of brain anatomy, recent studies have identified two sites of particular interest, the striatum and the temporal-parietal junction. It appears that whereas lesions in the striatum interfere with general decision-making in social contexts, the temporal-parietal junction searches out unique social information and may play a role in alerting us to possible deception.
At the molecular level are forces that propel us and our fellow primates toward social interaction—or away from it, depending on the circumstances of the moment. Neurobiological research now suggests that oxytocin, a hormone that strongly promotes trust and bonding, can sometimes fill an almost antisocial role instead, by activating a circuit that reduces our attention to social distractors when we need to accomplish a vital task (such as nursing an infant).
However, on the whole our sensitivity to social cues is deeply rooted in our nature. It is even encoded in our genes, as illustrated in a recent study of an island population of rhesus macaques. In a group of nearly 90 adult females and males, the “grooming network” (roughly, a map of social interactions) showed a significant association with an inheritance map of the animals’ genes for the mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin. To the extent that sociability is inherited, the serotonergic genes are an important part of that legacy.
This multi-faceted study of macaques offers a hint of the new possibilities that await workers in the recently named field of decision sciences. Considered on its own, a spike of serotonin may seem to have little to do with social behavior; minute electrical impulses in the temporo-parietal junction appear worlds away from the flashing lights of the casino hall. Yet, by defining an area in which observations from neurophysiology to primatology to genetics can mingle with insights from psychiatry to sociology to statistics, decision sciences embrace the very interdisciplinary research that this D-CIDES conference was designed to celebrate.
The Duke Center for Interdisciplinary Decision Science brings Duke University’s diverse strengths in the decision sciences – including behavioral economics, judgment and decision making, marketing, neuroeconomics, medical decision making and addiction – into a single community for programs, education and new research collaborations. Core D-CIDES programs include ongoing speaker series, funding for postdoctoral fellows, student travel awards and affiliated coursework. D-CIDES is jointly affiliated with the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences and Duke’s Social Science Research Institute.