Tag Archives: William James

The Core Requirement And Skill Of Decision-Making In Life – Removal Of Uncertainty Is Usually Positive And Cathartic But Is Also An Ephemeral Thing

This week, for the first time since moving to New Zealand and starting a new job here, I cycled in to work, and in the early afternoon faced a tough decision regarding whether I had the level of fitness capacity to cycle back home at the end of the day. Three-quarters of the way through the ride home, I felt very tired and stopped by the side of the road, and considered phoning home and asking them to pick me up. This morning I opened the fridge and had to decide whether to have the routine fruit and yogurt breakfast or the leftover piece of sausage roll. We have been six months in our new life and job here, and we have come to that period of time of deciding whether we have made a good decision and to continue, or whether we have made a disastrous error and need to make a rapid change. As I write this my wife asks me if I planned to go to the shop later, and if so whether I could get some milk for the family, and I had to stop writing and decide on whether I was indeed going to do so as part of the weekend post-writing chores, or not. All of these activities and issues required me to make decisions, and while some of them appeared to be of little consequence, some of them were potentially life and career changing, and, even if it seems a bit dramatic, potentially life-ending (whether to continue cycling when exhausted as a fifty-something). Decisions like these have to be made by everyone on a minute by minute basis as part of their routine daily life. The importance of decision-making in our daily lives, and how we make decisions, is still controversial and not well understood, which is surprising, given how much our optimal living condition and indeed survival depends on making correct decisions, and how often we have to make decisions, some of which are simple, some of which appear simple but are complex, and some of which are overtly complex.

Decision-making is defined as the cognitive process (which is the act or process of knowing or perceiving) resulting in the selection of a particular belief or course of action from several alternative possibilities, or as a problem-solving activity terminated by the genesis or arrival of a solution deemed to be satisfactory. At the heart of any decision-making is the requirement to choose between an array of different options, all of which usually have both positive and negative potential attributes and consequences, where one uses prior experience or a system of logical ‘steps’ to make the decision based on forecasting and scenario-setting for each possible alternative choice and consequence of choosing them. One of the best theoretical research articles on decision-making I have read / been involved with is one written by Dr Andy Renfree, an old colleague from the University of Worcester, and one of the Sport Science academic world’s most creative thinkers. As a systems level, he suggested that decisions are made based on either rational or heuristic principles, the former working best in ‘small world’ environments (in which the individual making the decision has absolute knowledge of all decision-related alternatives, consequences and probabilities), and the latter best in ‘large world’ environments (in which some relevant information is unknown or estimated). As described by Andy, rational decision-making is based on the principle that decisions can only be made if certain criteria are met, namely that the individuals making the decision must be faced with a set of behavioral alternatives and, importantly, information must be available for all possible alternatives of decisions that can be made, as well as of the statistical probability of all of the outcomes of the choices that can be made. This is obviously a large amount of requisite information, and a substantial period of time would be required to make a decision based on such ‘rational’ requirements. While using this method would likely be the most beneficial from a correct outcome perspective, it would also potentially place a high demand on the cognitive processes of the individual making the decision. Bayesian decision-making is a branch of rational decision-making theory, and suggests that decision-making is the result of unconscious probabilistic inferences. In Bayesian theory, a statistical approach to decision-making is made based on prior experience, with decision making valenced (and therefore speeded up) by applying a ‘bias’ towards information that is used to make the decision which is believed to be more ‘reliable’ than other information, and ‘probability’ of outcomes being better or worse based on prior experience. Therefore, in the Bayesian model, prior experience ‘speeds up’ decision making, though all information is still processed in this model.

In contrast, heuristic decision-making is a strategic method of making decisions, which ignores information that is available but is perceived to be less relevant to the specific decision being made, and which suggests that decisions are made based on key information and variables that are assessed and acted upon rapidly, in a manner that, as Andy suggests, incorporates ‘rule of thumb’ or ‘gut feel’ thinking, which places less demands on the cognitive thinking processes of the individual. As described above, rational decision-making may be more relevant in ‘small world’ environments, in which there are usually not a lot of variables or complexity which are required to be assessed prior to making a decision, and heuristic thinking in ‘large world’ environments, which are complex environments where all information, whether relevant or not, cannot be known, due to the presence not only of ‘known unknowns’ but also ‘unknown unknowns’, and where an individual would be potentially immobilized into a state of ‘cognitive paralysis’ if attempting to assess every option available. The problem or course is that even decisions that appear simple often have multiple layers of complexity that are not overt and of which the individual thinking about them is not aware, and it can be suggested that the concept of both rational and ‘small world’ environments are potentially abstract principles rather than reality, that all life occurs as part of ‘large world’ environments, and that heuristic processes are what are used by individuals as the main decision-making principles during all activities of daily living.

Of course, most folk would perceive that these rational and heuristic models are very computational and mathematical based, and that perhaps ‘feelings’ and ‘desires’ are also a component of decision-making, or at least these are how decision-making is perceived to ‘feel’ to them. As part of the Somatic Marker hypothesis, Antonio Damasio suggested that ‘body-loop’ associated emotional processes ‘guide’ (and have the potential to bias) decision-making behavior. In his theory, somatic markers are a specific ‘group of feelings’ in the body and are associated with specific emotions one perceives when confronted with, and are related to, the facts or choices one is faced with and need to make a decision about. There is suggested to be a different somatic marker for anxiety, enjoyment, or disgust, among other emotions, based on an aggregation of body-related symptoms for each, such as heart rate changes and the associated feeling of a pounding chest, the sensation of breathing changes, changes in body temperature, increased sweat rate, or the symptom of nausea, some or all of which together are part of a certain somatic marker group which creates the ‘feeling’ of a particular emotion. Each of these physiologically based body-loop ‘states’ are capable of being components of different somatic marker ‘groups’, which create the distinct ‘feelings’ which are associated with different emotions, and which would valence decisions differently depending on which somatic marker state / emotion is created by thinking of a specific option or choice. This hypothesis is based on earlier work by William James and colleagues more than a hundred years ago, which became the James-Lange theory of emotion, which suggests there is a ‘body-loop’ required for the ‘feeling’ of emotions in response to some external challenge, which is in turn required for decision-making processes related to the external challenge. The example used to explain this theory was that when one sees a snake, it creates a ‘body loop’ of raised heart rate, increased sweating, increased breath rate and the symptom of nausea, all of which in turn create the ‘feeling’ of fear once these ‘body-loop’ symptoms are perceived by the brain, and it was hypothesized that it is these body-generated feelings, rather than the sight of the snake itself, which induces both the feeling of fear and the decision to either rapidly run away or freeze and hope the snake moves away. While this model is contentious as it would make reactions occur slower than if a direct cognitive decision-making loop occurred, it does explain the concept of a ‘gut feel’ when decision-making. Related to this ‘body-loop’ theory, are other behavioral theories about decision-making, and it has been suggested that decisions are based on what the needs, preferences and values of an individual are, such as hunger, lust, thirst, fear, or moral viewpoint, but of course all of these could equally be described as components of either a rational or heuristic model, and psychological / emotional and cognitive / mathematical models of decision-making are surely not mutually exclusive conditions or theories.

These theories described above attempt to explain how and why we make decisions, but not what causes decisions to be right or wrong. Indeed, perhaps the most relevant issue to most folk is why they so often get decisions wrong. A simple reason may be that of ‘decision fatigue’, whereby the quality of decision-making deteriorates after a prolonged period of decision-making. In other words, one may simply ‘run out’ of the mental energy which is required to make sound decisions, perhaps due to ongoing changes in ‘somatic markers’ / body symptoms each time a decision is required to be made, which creates an energy cost that eventually ‘uses up’ mental energy (whatever mental energy is) over the period of time sequential decisions are required to be made. Astonishingly, judges working in court have been shown to make less favorable decisions as a court session progresses, and the number of favorable decisions improves after the judges have had a break. Apart from these data suggesting that one should ask for a court appearance early on in the morning or after a break, it also suggests that either physical or mental energy in these judges is finite, and ‘runs out’ with prolonged effort and the use of energy focusing on decision-making related to each case over the time period of a court session. There are other more subtle potential causes of poor-decision making. For example, confirmation bias occurs when folk selectively search for evidence that supports a certain decision that they ‘want’ to make, based on an inherent cognitive bias set in their mind by past events or upbringing, even if their ‘gut’ is telling them that it is the wrong decision. Cognitive inertia occurs when folk are unwilling to change their existing environment or thought patterns even when new evidence or circumstances suggest they should. People tend to remember more recent information and use it preferentially, or forget older information, even if the older information is potentially more valid. Repetition bias is caused by folk making decisions based on what they have been told, if it has been told to them by the greatest number of different people, and ‘groupthink’ is when peer pressure to conform to an opinion or group action causes the individual to make decisions they would not do if they were alone and not in the group. An ‘illusion of control’ in decision-making occurs where people have a tendency to under-estimate uncertainty because of a belief that they have more control over events that they actually have. While folk with anxiety tend to make either very conservative or paradoxically very rash decisions, sociopaths, who are thought to have little or no emotional ‘body-loop’, are very poor at making moral based decisions or judgments. Therefore, there are a whole lot of different factors which can impact negatively on decision-making, either due to one’s upbringing or prior history impacting on the historical memory which is used to valence decisions, or due to one’s current emotional or psychological state having a negative impact on decision-making capacity, and even simple fatigue can be the root cause of poor decision-making.

At the heart of decision-making (excusing the pun, from the perspective of the somatic marker hypothesis), is a desire of most folk to remove uncertainty from their lives, or change their life or situation to a better state or place as a result of their decision, or to remove a stressor from their life that will continue unless they make a decision on how to resolve it, remove it, or remove themselves from whatever causes the stressor. However, during my days as a researcher at the University of Cape Town, we suggested that conditions of uncertainty and certainty associated with information processing and decision-making are cyclical (we called it the ‘quantal packet’ information processing theory, for those interested). A chosen decision will change a position or state of uncertainty to one of certainty as one enacts changes based on the decision (or if one chooses to ‘wait and see’ and not alter anything) from the context that one is certain a change will occur based on what one has decided to do, even if one cannot be sure if this difference will be positive or negative while the changes are being enacted. However, with the passing of time, the effects of the decision made will attenuate, and uncertainty will eventually re-occur which require a further decision to be made, often with similar choices to which occurred when the initial decision was made. Underpinning this attenuation of the period of ‘certainty’ is the concept that although one will have factored in ‘known unknowns’ into any decision one makes using either rational or heuristic principles, ‘unknown unknowns’ will surely always occur that will cause even the best strategic decisions to require tactical adjustments, and those that are proven to be an error will need to be reviewed and changed. One can also ‘over-think’ decision-making as much as one can ‘under-think’ it, as well as being kept ‘hostage’ to cognitive biases from one’s past which continuously ‘trip one up’ when making decisions, despite one’s best intentions. Having said all of this, it often astonishes me not that folk get decisions wrong, but rather that they get so many decisions right. For example, when driving along a highway, one is reliant on the correct decisions of every driver that passes for one’s survival, from how much they choose to turn their steering wheel, to how much they use their brake for a corner, to an awareness in each of them that they are not too tired to be driving in the first place. It’s amazing when one thinks of how many decisions we make, either consciously or unconsciously, which so often turn out right, but equally it is the responsibility of each of us to work on the errors created by our past, or by our emotional state, or by ‘groupthink’, which we need to be vigilant about and remove as best possible from the psyche.

Making a decision is usually cathartic due to the removal of uncertainty and the associated anxiety which uncertainty often causes, even if the certainty and feeling of goodwill generated by making a decision is usually ephemeral and lasts only for a short period of time before other matters occupy one’s attention which require further decision-making. Pondering on my decision-making of the last week retrospectively, I think I made the right decision when choosing to cycle home after work, and to do so all the way home, even if I was exhausted when I got there, given that I did not collapse or have a heart attack when doing so, and there will surely be long term health benefits from two long cycles (though of course long is relative at my age!) in one day. I did choose the healthy food alternative for breakfast this morning, even though often I don’t, particularly during meals when I am tired after a long day’s work. I will get the milk my wife asked me to get this afternoon, in order to both get some fresh air after a creative morning of thinking and writing, and to maintain the harmony in our house and life, even though it is raining hard and I would prefer to be writing more or reading a good book this afternoon. The ‘jury is still out’ about whether this move to New Zealand and a new work role has been a good career and country move, and my current decision on this is to let more time pass before making an action-generating reasoned decision on it, though of course we have already moved several times to new places round the world in the last two decades, and the family is looking forward to some lifestyle stability in the next few years, and these factors need to be part of any reflection on a current-environment rating decision. Each of these decisions seemed ostensibly relatively simple to make when I made them, yet each surely had an associated entire host of different reasons, experiences, memories and requirements which were worked through in and by my mind before making them, as will be so for all folk making decisions on all aspects of their life during a routine day. What will I have for lunch now I am finished writing this and am now tired and in need of a break and sustenance? Perhaps I will leave off that decision and relax for a period of time before making lunch-related choices, so as not to make a fatigue-induced bad decision, and reach for that sausage roll, which still is in the fridge. And I need to get going and enact that decision I made to get the milk, and head off to the shops in order to do so as soon as possible, before lethargy set in and I change my mind, otherwise I will surely be in the ‘dog box’ at home later this afternoon, and my sense of cathartic peace resulting from having made these decisions will be even more ephemeral than usual!

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Psychology – A Discipline Struggling To Find Its Identity, Direction and Technical Development Focus

I finished an excellent biography of the Harvard Psychology Professor, William James, this week, and also had a great email interaction with my old Dean at Northumbria University, Professor Pam Briggs, who is a quintessential Psychology researcher and was a charismatic and creative Dean, and both these got me thinking of Psychology, a discipline I have increasingly become immersed in both from my own research and from a human interest perspective. Psychology is broadly defined as the study of mind and behaviour, and psychology practitioners and researchers examine a broad array of concepts associated with the function of the mind and the behaviour which results from the minds activity, including perception, cognition, attention, emotion, intelligence, motivation, personality, interpersonal and social relations, resilience, brain functioning, and states of consciousness, including the activity and nature of the unconscious. The word psychology derives from Greek origins, where it meant the study of the psyche or soul, though of course attempts to understand these ‘big’ concepts stretches back to scholars in ancient cultures in Egypt, Greece, China, India and Persia, amongst other places. I am sure most folk in their daily lives at some point in time have wondered why they do certain things, why they thought about something in a certain way, or why they responded to different external stimuli in the way that they do, and these thoughts probably occurred in most folk all the way back to antiquity and the beginning of the capacity for self-reflective thought, whenever that was and however it happened.

Psychology as a discipline has been pretty good at answering the questions relating to ‘why’ we do specific things or react in a certain way, and has flourished in many unexpected ways because of this. For example, its principles are used by advertising and marketing companies, with products being created and marketed based on the industries understanding and uptake of psychology based research of human behaviour and function such as the need for comfort, pleasure, and / or excitement. Many of us will have had an experience previously related to the visceral feeling one gets when watching an advert that appeals to one (and which makes us go out and buy the advertised product), but equally of course will associate with feelings one gets when watching or listening to adverts that are annoying and ‘hit the wrong spot’, and which make us not want to associate with or buy a particular product. Psychology has also helped us understand things like why we identify with different social groups, and why we need affiliation and belonging to both create and enhance our sense of self and social identity. For example, some excellent work from old colleagues of mine, Dr Matt Lewis, Dr Melissa Anderson and Professor Sandy Wolfson has shed light on ‘fandom’, and why so many folk become so fervently attached to their sport team of choice, and subject themselves to the highs and lows associated when their chosen teams win or lose. These type of emotions, related to the outcome of events which essentially have no direct bearing on one’s personal life, have always puzzled me (and I feel them often myself), but the work of these quality researchers have shown it comes down to psychological requirements and needs of the folk that feel them, and is an example of how psychology has helped academia, society, and folk like myself understand emotions and reactions which are puzzling and appear to be ‘wasteful’ of one’s emotional energy (at least to me).

Where Psychology as a discipline has perhaps not done as well is in explaining ‘how’ things happen in the brain which produces ‘behaviour’, and where and how the mind works. After several years reading basic psychology texts, in my opinion the ‘golden years’ for Psychology were in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, where astonishing hypotheses on mental and human functioning were developed by groups of clinicians and researchers around the world, which changed both Psychology and indeed how we view the world and understand ourselves. Think names like Freud, Jung, Adler, Hall, James, Janet, amongst a host of others, who brought into popular culture concepts like the unconscious, the ego (and id, though it has not been as well assimilated as has the ego concept), and the inferiority complex – all concepts we now use in our routine language as ‘fact’, yet were pretty much unknown before that golden epoch. Incredibly, most of these concepts have still not been completely ‘proven’ or been clearly associated with any particular brain function or activity, and unfortunately, in many ways it appears that Psychology has ‘regressed’ as a discipline, moving from these very ‘deep’ / ‘basic’ theories to current day theories. For example, the fairly recently developed self-determination theory explains human behaviour as either caused by ‘intrinsic’ or ‘extrinsic’ motives, which to me appear as a theory to be somewhat ‘trite’ in contrast to what came 100 years before (though all credit to the researchers who developed them). While most Biology based disciplines each decade seem to go to ‘deeper’ levels of understanding, Psychology appears to have regressed, and often astonishingly seems these days to ignore the rich work produced in that ‘golden era’ of psychology research alluded to above.

The reasons for what has happened to Psychology is perhaps principally related to the way Psychology developed after this ‘golden era’, and to the unfortunate dearth of investigative laboratory techniques available to Psychology researchers attempting to understand ‘how’ the brain ‘creates’ psychology, and how and where the ‘mind’ exists in the brain. In the 1900’s, after the ‘golden era’, Psychology research subsequently focussed on behaviourism (think stimulus-response work and Pavlov’s dog experiments), then developed areas of research such as ‘cognitive’ psychology, and produced theories of brain function with wonderful, but absolutely speculative and currently unproveable, models such as Baddeley’s ‘visuo-spatial sketchpad’ model of working memory. Most theories that were developed generally always were, and are, accompanied by line diagrams of how different parts of the brain would work and be involved with the particular theory which was being developed, which look good as figures, but tell us very little of ‘how’ things really would work in the brain as related to the theory. A further problem for Psychology also is that it has increasingly relied on its ‘twin-sister’ discipline, Neuroscience, to provide the equipment and techniques which Psychologists believe would be able to answer the ‘how’ questions Psychology as a discipline has generated. Unfortunately, from an understanding of how the brain works perspective, Neuroscience has itself proved to be an almost complete failure in its attempts to understand basic brain function. I can say this with some certainty myself after being a Professor of Integrative Neuroscience for many years – before each lecture I give on brain function, I start by saying us neuroscientists are dismal failures, given that we have so little understanding of basic brain function, mostly because of the lack of sensitivity of our currently available laboratory research techniques and equipment, and the difficulty of performing invasive investigations, both ethically and technically, on the brains of alive humans. These thoughts have been echoed / predated by such luminary scientists as Francis Crick, who was awarded a Nobel Prize in the 1950’s for his work on how genes replicate, then moved into Neuroscience as a researcher. After a few years Crick came to the same conclusion that the lack of any brain laboratory techniques available to Neuroscience researchers then, which were suitable to understand basic brain function, was blocking his and any others attempts to understand how most of basic brain function occurs that are still a mystery to us, such as consciousness, perception, and memory formation, amongst other processes and functions. Unfortunately, in the last few decades any Psychology paper to be perceived to be ‘worth’ anything needs to be associated with MRI scanning or other similar current brain techniques available in Neuroscience related brain research, which generate images that are really no more than ‘pretty pictures’ showing huge brain areas that ‘light up’ when a task is performed, and tell us almost nothing about how the brain operates dynamically, let alone how the ‘big’ concepts such as consciousness and memory ‘work’. So Psychology as a discipline has perhaps ‘gone wrong’ by ‘hitching itself’ to the wrong partner, by allying itself to Neuroscience, which has so little to offer currently to assist it with understanding and explaining the basic concepts and theories generated more than a century ago. It does not help either that some of the ‘big questions’ Psychology examines, described above, perhaps belong to a large degree in the realm of Philosophy, and would be difficult to answer even perhaps with any technological development whatsoever, such as what and where is the ‘soul’ and ‘mind’, which are difficult to define conceptually, let alone explain with any reductive laboratory technique that has been, or will be developed in the future.

So for me, after finishing the biography of William James this week, and having read over the last few years (occasionally labouring through) just about all of Freud’s and Jung’s basic writing from all those years ago, I do perceive (and perhaps being an ‘outsider’ to the discipline, or at best a ‘late disciple’ allows me to do so), that Psychology needs to perhaps have a bit of ‘navel gazing’ itself as a discipline about where it is, why it may be going in the ‘wrong’ direction from the ‘how’ perspective, and that perhaps it has currently ‘allied’ itself with a discipline (Neurosciences) that is currently in absolute disarray / still very much in the ‘dark ages’ laboratory wise, and is struggling itself with its own identity, and I can say this with some knowledge perhaps (though always with caution) after working for more than 20 years as an Integrative Neuroscientist. How to do this as a generic discipline is obviously difficult, and I am fairly sure that the problems both Psychology and Neuroscience currently face will be solved by an engineer / physicist, rather than by a Psychologist or Neuroscientist, who does not work in either field, and who develops technology that will allow a ‘thoughtometer’ to be developed, or something similar, which will be able to ‘tap into’ the unconscious / psyche and will thus help clarify whether Freud, Jung et al from the ‘golden era’ were wrong or right in an absolute way, and will thus help Psychology as a discipline find its ‘way forward’ again from a ‘how’ perspective.

I do know though, if I could go back in time and attend one conference as my absolute first choice from an academic interest perspective, it would have been the Psychology conference organised by Stanley Hall at Clarke University in Worcester, Massachusetts in the USA in 1909, which was attended by and at which talks were given by all of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, William James, Ernest Jones and a host of others who changed our way of thinking about life and our behaviour, whether their ideas were right or wrong. I also know that in 2006, after 15 years of doing lab based physiology and neuroscience related research, and after I had got into reading all the basic texts of these golden era Psychology folk, that before a talk I was due to give back then, I wrote in my ‘ideas’ diary which I always carry around with me: “Strange paradoxical thought when preparing for this talk on the role of biological sciences in the control of exercise and activity, that so much of the neuroscience that I have worked on, read and discussed seems to be completely nonsensical, although it is based on experimental facts, whereas the psychology theories of Freud and Jung appear to make almost complete sense, and ‘feels’ right, even though it is at this stage almost completely unverifiable.” I hope that before I retire, or indeed ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’ I will see the development of that ‘thoughtometer’, that I will see Psychology rediscover it’s ‘mojo’, and that I will observe some of my wonderful Psychology colleagues and friends go on and get Nobel prizes for discovering where memories are and how they are stored, where consciousness resides and how it works, and perhaps more importantly, why I wake up in the wee hours of the morning worrying about things that I don’t even realize before I go to sleep are an issue to me. And hopefully also, as in the football fandom example above, why I get grumpy when my beloved football / rugby team loses on a Saturday afternoon, why this has the potential to ruin the rest of the weekend, and where in the brain these ‘crazy’ attachments and emotions are stored!


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