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


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Decision trees like this help test decision making processes: Photo by Gokul Jadhav

Problem Solving in the Real World

How does this translate into the real-world? Dr. Huys goes on to explain:

Imagine you were hungry. There’s a great restaurant, but you have to first climb a hill. When thinking about the various restaurants, will you allow yourself to think about climbing a hill, or, in your thought process, do you give priority (above and beyond how much you dislike climbing a hill) to the restaurants on the flat? This would be a caricature of the influence of losses encountered in consideration of choice sequences. In the real world, such tendencies become important when solving difficult problems, i.e. problems where many future options exist. This is called pruning. It is what allows chess computers to focus on the most likely good game plan. 

Dr. Huys’ statement regarding problem solving in the real world, outside of study controls, shows how we decide what to do, and what our brain processes almost instantly.

When asked what surprised him the most about the findings, Dr. Huys’ replied,

These are complex decisions. Yet our model predicts over 9/10 times what choice subjects will make. Most surprisingly to us was that the size of the hill in the above example doesn’t matter: it just matters that it is a hill (that is, that the loss is the largest, most salient loss in the task). 

Decide What To Do: Changing Our Problem Solving Abilities

Can we change our thought processes, and improve our problem solving abilities? According to Dr. Huys:

We can alter the impact such emotional reflexes have on our thought process. There are many different techniques to achieve this. New and exciting ones are acceptance based therapies, or cognitive bias modification. 

Poor decisions can lead to depression. Photo by Hendrike

Understanding Our Decision Making Process

In order to improve our decision-making process, we must understand how we make choices. The new findings and techniques being developed can have lasting implications for the general public. As researchers continue to uncover a better understanding of how we reach decisions, therapists can improve techniques for dealing with depression and poor-life choices.


Huys, Q.J.M., Eshel, N., O’Nions, E., Sheridan, L., Dayan, P., et al. Bonsai Trees in Your Head: How the Pavlovian System Sculpts Goal-Directed Choices by Pruning Decision Trees. (2012). PLoS. Accessed March 11, 2012.

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