Think about driving a car. You come near to a light, switching from green to red. Here, you decide in splits of seconds whether to stop or to go through. These kinds of thought processes are made by us 100 to 1000 times or even more a day, conscious or subconscious, for example in daily living, working life or social context. Making a decision is defined as choosing a preferred option or way of behaviour out of at least two alternatives, based on given criteria or strategies. In general, most people associate decision-making with deciding between, buying the one or the other product, or changing a job or not. In contrast, the ones which are in our focus of interest are the so-called “ad hoc” decisions. Remember the example at the beginning, here the process of consideration is reduced to a minimum and a decision had to be made in real time (ad hoc). Next to its ubiquitous character, these kinds of decisions are influenced by numerous variables such as additional cognitive or motor tasks, task complexity, as well as environmental and individual factors.
In the project at hand, we investigate both, the process of decision-making as well as the influencing factors. Furthermore, we focus on a fundamental and an applied level, using neurophysiological methods, behavioural approaches as well as existing psychological tests. Decision tasks are applied with additional motor (e.g. one-leg stand, walking on a treadmill) and cognitive (e.g. mnemonic tasks) tasks, as well as in combination with psychological factors (e.g. time pressure / stress), and emotional components (e.g. emotional picture). We include people from 18 to 80 years out of different working areas and positions, with different family background, and varying leisure time activity. The difficulty of decision tasks systematically increases in terms of processing from simple reaction tasks to dichotomous choice and double inhibition tasks with additional mnemonic components, while task complexity resulted from the different requirements used in task execution.
While the project at hand comprises many aspects not exclusively related to decision-making, numerous fields of research e.g. executive function, dual-task, and gerontology are additionally considered. Furthermore, the benefit of this project is not exclusively limited to the field of decision-making. Next to the related areas of research, technical innovations, therapeutic approaches and many more could profit from these findings. Take the example of driving a car from the beginning of this article. Remember the time 25 years ago, technical constructions of cars were limited to basic mechanisms, necessary for driving. Today, our cars are technological innovations, offering countless features, not directly related to driving. While these innovations on the one hand are generally perceived as supportive, on the other hand they influence our decision-making to a large amount. Think about the switching light, the same situation now and 25 years ago. While people 25 years ago estimated the distance between them and the light and made a decision, today we might simultaneously check the best way on the navigation system, we change the movie for the kids in the back, we call the secretary and many things more. Although our brain is adaptable, we should keep in mind that our brain today is principally the same brain as the brain of people who lived 25 years ago. Therefore, innovations should be planed under the focus of humans’ capability of information processing, which is necessary to handle these situations. In this context, our work offers an insight in the underlying mechanisms as well as resulting interferences of performing decision tasks under the influence of numerous variables, which are systematically applied by us. This systematisation provides the possibility of transferring the findings to different fields of interest. Another example for the necessity of the present work could be found in the working context. Pilots for example, had to execute highly standardised processes on the one hand. On the other hand, they had to make decisions in situations under the conditions of risk and uncertainty as well as influenced by emotional circumstances. Here, our findings about the effects of risk, uncertainty and emotional components may help to train people handling these situations. Summarising, the present project investigates humans’ capability of decision-making and the effects of influencing factors in order to provide an insight transferable to numerous fields of interest.
The project is supported by the University of Duisburg-Essen (Prof. M. Brand), the University of Cologne (Prof. P. Schumacher) and the Hochschule Fresenius (Prof. C. T. Haas).
Magnus Liebherr works as a research associate at the Hochschule Fresenius, University of Applied Sciences (Insitute for complex health research). He is actually doing his PhD at the University of Duisburg-Essen in the field of cognitive neuroscience.
Watch Magnus’ presentation at the Falling Walls Lab Finale 2015 in Berlin here.