“You learn from your mistakes!”: a phrase you have probably heard too many times in your life. However, the question is, do we really learn from past mistakes made in decision making? A recent study conducted at New York University says that we might not. Instead, we slow down the next time we have to make a decision but we may not learn from our mistakes and make the accurate choice the second time.
The neurology researchers at NYU address a topic that has been debated in the field for years, on the importance and value of deliberation after making mistakes in decision making. The research also potentially offers further understanding into the disorders that impair judgments such as Alzheimer’s disease, ADHD and schizophrenia.
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The study was set up through a series of tests involving humans and monkeys. Both groups watched a field of noisy moving dots on a computer screen and reported their decision about the net direction of motion with their gaze. The researchers controlled the difficulty of each decision with the proportion of dots that moved together in a single direction. For example, a larger proportion of dots moving together to the right provided evidence for their gaze to go to the right, but a small proportion would represent little evidence.
The experiment revealed that the humans and monkeys showed strikingly similar behavior. Both groups, slowed down their decision making after making an error, but the pattern of slowing depended on the difficulty of the decision. The harder the decision, the more they slowed down, suggesting a longer accumulation of information. However, the accuracy of their choices, even after slowing down, did not change. This indicated that the quality of collected sensory information was likely lower.
Researchers observed brain activity in the group of monkeys and found that a number of neural responses from a region of the cortex was involved in accumulating information during their decision making process. The neurons showed a large increase in how much evidence was accumulated before a decision (after making an error previously), however a reduction in the overall accuracy was seen.
The researchers stated that patients with ADHD or schizophrenia often do not slow down after mistakes and this has been understood as the reason for difficulty in monitoring their own behavior. The results of this study suggest that the non-existence of slowing down may illustrate much more fundamental changes in the underlying decision making brain networks. Further research is needed to better analyze these neural mechanisms and how they react after we make a mistake, but we can begin to understand the process better through this study.