Cognitive Illusions
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Health and Wellness

Are You REALLY Making Your Own Decisions?

Our brains can be deceived, and it's a lot easier than you think.

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Are You REALLY Making Your Own Decisions?
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The human brain is an incredible organ; it alerts us to danger, aids us in understanding and perceiving the world, and works to protect our bodies. Without our brain, we would not exist. We would not be able to think, move, perceive, or be. Our brain aids us in so many different ways; however, just like anything, it is not perfect. Our brains can be deceived. One of the ways in which this is possible is through the framing effect; this is an example of a cognitive illusion, which asserts that people react to a certain choice or option in different ways depending on how it is presented or "framed" (e.g. as a loss or as a gain). How questions, options, and choices are presented to people matter; it could dictate whether or not you make a rational or an irrational decision. Through analysis of the amygdala and an example of cognitive bias from behavioral economist Dan Ariely, we can better understand how and why we make particular decisions.

Our brain has numerous structures with diverse functions; however, one, particularly crucial to our decision-making abilities, is the amygdala. Now consider these next two, separate scenarios.

1) You start with $0. Now you get to choose whether to have a 50/50 gamble of gaining $50 or a 100% chance of gaining $20.

2) You start with $50. Now you get to choose whether to have a 50/50 gamble of losing $50 or a 100% chance of losing $30.

Through fMRI analysis (a technique which measures brain activity), one is able to observe that some brain areas show opposite patterns of activity for the same options. This means that our brain thinks and responds differently when considering the same options presented or framed, in different ways. For each scenario (1 and 2), what did you choose? In scenario 1, most people chose the 100% chance of gaining $20, avoiding the gamble. In scenario 2, the majority of individuals chose the 50/50 gamble of losing $50, avoiding the sure loss of $30. In the above scenarios, the overall options are the same: $20 for certain or a 50/50 gamble of $50. However, depending on how the scene is framed, our brain responds differently. The amygdala is the brain structure responsible for driving our inconsistent or irrational decision-making. The amygdala, generally, aims to avoid certain losses and uncertain gains; however, there are cases where the amygdala can be "overridden."

The framing effect is one example of a cognitive bias; however, Dan Ariely provides another example to consider. Taken from an ad in The Economist, Dan Ariely tested the following three choices on 100 MIT students, simply asking "What would you choose?"

  1. Obtain an online subscription for $59
  2. Obtain a print subscription for $125
  3. Obtain both (an online & print subscription) for $125

The results from this test showed that the majority of students (84%) wanted the combo deal of both, or choice 3. Nobody wanted the dominant choice 2, and the rest (16%) chose the online subscription. Now, this may not seem very interesting yet, but Ariely took this even farther. When you have an option nobody wants; you remove it. Ariely tested these choices again on 100 different MIT students; however, he removed the second choice. These results were far more interesting: the most popular option (choice 3 -- both subscriptions) became the least popular (with 32% of students choosing it) resulting in the rest choosing the online subscription (68%). Ariely asserts that option 2 (the print subscription for $125) may have been useless in the sense that nobody wanted it; however, it was not useless in the sense that it aided people in figuring out what they wanted. Ariely clarifies by saying that we do not actually know our preferences that well, and due to this, we are susceptible to influences from external forces (aka. the defaults or particular options presented to us).

Cognitive illusions, or decision-making illusions, influence not only our way of thought but also our behavior. Through analysis of the amygdala, we know that simply how a question is presented, results in different brain activity. Therefore, the framing effect is capable of influencing the decisions we make, simply by presenting is as a gain or loss. Furthermore, through Dan Ariely's experiment, we understand that additional options also influence the way we approach a decision. Several options result in them being weighted differently in our brain; therefore, influencing our decision-making. Depending on how information or decisions are shown, presented, or shaped can affect what we do. The brain can be fooled. It can be misleading and it can be lead to an irrational decision. It is important to keep this in mind, in order to try and understand how to "override" the amygdala and come to a rational, and truly desirable solution. So next time you are presented with options, are you really making your own decision? Or has it already been decided for you?


Included is a link to the TEDTalk starring Dan Ariely, where he discusses cognitive illusions and decision-making.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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