Deciding Based on Short-Term Results? You May Not Like the Long-Term Consequences


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Our decision-making process is similar to a bonsai tree's branches: Photo by

Every day, humans make thousands of decisions in their daily lives. From where to eat to what to wear, we make split-second choices every moment of the day. For decisions which are complex, we cannot mentally process every outcome and how it will impact the next decision point, so how do we choose the best course of action? In a recent study, researchers discovered that people will prune off decision tree paths from the start, simplifying the process of choosing the best ‘branch.’ Additionally, the study shows that people “will avoid an immediate loss even if it means missing out on an even larger reward later on,” according to lead author Dr. Huys.

Decision-Making Models: Pruning a Decision Tree’s Branches

A complex decision has many components and potential outcomes; each future choice builds on the previous decision, similar to the branches of a tree. Our brains subconsciously work to simplify the decision-making process, allowing us fewer potential paths.

The research of Dr. Quentin Huys, lead author of this study, provided participating individuals with a series of complex decisions. The participants were to follow a path to the end, making decisions along the way. Every choice path meant encountering a series of gains and losses, and participants were not allowed to go back and change their decisions. As they progressed through each path, subjects often missed out on rewards hidden behind losses.

Decision-Making Process and Depression

One of the results from the decision-making process was increased depression over poor choices. Missing out on an opportunity, or making a bad choice in the past, can have lingering implications into the future. Dr. Huys explained depression in the study to Decoded Science.

Depression is complex, and no one single account will cover it all. However, people with depression make choices that get them into more stressful situations, which then further support the kinds of negative thinking that characterises depression (approx. 1/3 of the stress associated with depression epidemiologically appears to be self-generated). Thus, a key component of the stress that generates depression is because people make poor decisions. Arguably, this is a key aspect by which psychotherapy works.

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