Duke researchers delve into decision making

Making a decision is easy for most people. You might purchase bonds rather than stocks because they’re less volatile, a Prius over a Subaru because it’s more eco-friendly or a Mac instead of a PC because it’s more “hip.” But how does your brain calculate the risk of that investment? The Duke University Center for Interdisciplinary Decision Sciences studies the choices that people make every day.

Founded in 2010, D-CIDES includes researchers from many fields, including business, environmental science, neuroscience, philosophy and psychology.

“We can help find people who might be working on similar issues and help them connect,” Director of D-CIDES Scott Huettel said. “When we identify some aspect of decision science that is of interest to a number of people throughout the University, we find ways for them to get together.”

Huettel, who studies the neuroscience of economic and social decision-making, said many people misconstrue what it means to be interdisciplinary. It is more than just collaboration between scientists with different areas of expertise.

“If you ask Duke faculty if they collaborate broadly, every single one of them will say they do,” Huettel said. “It’s like asking somebody if they’re busy or not. Everybody is busy.”

Rather, a project is interdisciplinary if it addresses questions posed by multiple disciplines. Huettel’s research, for instance, often requires collaboration with economists and answers questions related to both neuroscience and economics that neither discipline could answer alone.

“My colleagues in economics don’t collect data—they don’t run experiments—so the idea of working with experimental data is really novel to them,” he said. “But they bring methods of analysis and ways of thinking about the data from other aspects of economics, which have led to some really interesting results.”

D-CIDES includes a number of faculty members from the Fuqua School of Business, such as Gavan Fitzsimons, R. David Thomas professor of marketing and psychology. Fitzsimons’ research focuses on factors that influence consumer decisions subconsciously. Many of his experiments utilize psychological priming, a technique in which a stimulus is presented so quickly or subtly that it is not perceived by a person’s conscious mind.

“Traditionally people have focused on understanding consumer choice by thinking about it as a highly deliberative process,” Fitzsimons said. “But the work in our lab is really focused on choices people make when they’re not consciously thinking of [them].”

Fitzimons has found that non-conscious influences in a person’s surroundings often play a larger role in decision-making than conscious factors. For example, fast-forwarding through an advertisement can more strongly impact consumer behavior than actually watching the ad at normal speed or viewing a billboard advertisement for the product. Fitzsimons said this occurs because people let their guard down when they are not paying attention, allowing them to be more easily swayed.

“When we’re thinking about things deliberatively, we often will adjust for the fact that we know people are trying to persuade and influence us,” he said. “You know a TV ad is meant to get you to buy the product, but when you fast-forward through an ad your defensive mechanisms aren’t up.”

Fitzsimons also studies what he calls “vicarious goal fulfillment.” In his experiments, he asks participants to choose a food item from a menu that includes some combination of unhealthy items like a cheeseburger, health-neutral items like a fish sandwich and healthy items like a side-salad. Instead of eating more healthily when presented with a healthy food option, people are more likely to select an unhealthy option, and this effect is even stronger for more health-conscious participants.

“What we find is that almost nobody picks the side-salad, but the presence of the salad on the menu, outside of people’s conscious awareness, fulfills peoples’ ‘eat healthy’ goal,” Fitzsimons explained. “The presence of the healthy option ironically gets people to choose the option that is worst for them.”

One of the reasons Fitzsimons came to Duke was because of the University’s interdisciplinary focus, he said. Currently, Fitzsimons is working with a former post-doc from the Huettel lab to study the influence of hormones on consumption decisions.

“That’s the kind of work that doesn’t happen at most universities because there are these disciplinary boundaries that are up,” he said. “D-CIDES is a nice mechanism Duke has in place for breaking those boundaries down.”

Not all researchers in D-CIDES are neuroscientists or psychologists. Dalia Patino-Echeverri, Gendell assistant professor of energy systems and public policy, investigates an entirely different sort of decision-making—energy decision-making. Specifically, she studies how American energy policies can better work around the uncertainties that companies face when making decisions about upgrading, closing and constructing power plants.

“Coal provides more than 40 percent of the electricity we consume and causes very significant negative environmental externalities,” Patino-Echeverri said. “New environmental policies have forced the owners of coal power plants to make very difficult... multimillion-dollar decisions.... There is a lot of uncertainty about how they will affect the economics of a plant—whether there will be new technologies that, if they had waited a little bit, [the plants] could have installed.”

Patino-Echeverri develops models of how these uncertainties affect the decision-making process and uses the models to test the outcomes of different policies.

Patino-Echeverri currently researches the advantages of more flexible energy policies. In the past, power plants have been regulated by inflexible standards that require them to utilize specific technologies and keep their emissions below a certain level. Such policies, however, can actually have the opposite effect of what they were designed to achieve. For example, some policies make it very expensive to construct new and cleaner power plants.

“Plants that would have been replaced will not be replaced because it’s so expensive,” Patino-Echeverri said. “So sometimes, instead of reducing emissions, [inflexible policies] prolong old sources [of emissions] that would have been retired otherwise.”

Patino-Echeverri said more flexible energy policies can achieve equal or better results than inflexible standards while avoiding the perpetuation of old, environmentally damaging technologies.

She added that an important advantage of such policies is that they allow power plants to delay the installation of new technologies if it is currently an undesirable option. Moreover, increased flexibility in the regulation of coal power plants will slow the transition to natural gas plants, which may not be advantageous due to the release of methane—a potent greenhouse gas—that results from natural gas production, distribution and storage.

“From the climate point of view, it’s not clear that natural gas is better [than coal],” Patino-Echeverri said. “Even if you only had a few percent of methane emissions, natural gas plants would not be better than coal plants. Now the industry says they can lower these emissions, but there are all these uncertainties. And the question is where we should have some flexibility for these new plants so that not all coal plants today switch to natural gas or have to be retrofitted with expensive controls.”

Perhaps one of the best examples of interdisciplinary research within D-CIDES is the work of Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Chauncey Stillman professor in practical ethics. He has studied obsessive-compulsive disorder and addiction, scanned the brains of psychopaths at a New Mexico prison and examined the use of neuroscience in the courtroom. His diverse interests require the use of a variety of techniques, including psychological testing, eye tracking and neuroimaging.

“My research doesn’t really have a focus,” he said. “If it has any focus at all, it’s moral judgment. After we’ve learned more about moral judgments, we look at [their] philosophical implications or [their] status as justified or reasonable.”

Sinnott-Armstrong collaborates extensively with other researchers in D-CIDES, including Huettel and other researchers in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience.

“I’m a philosopher—I would never think of publishing an empirical study without a scientist as a co-author,” he said. “Philosophers are very good at conceptual innovation and thinking about issues from new angles. They raise new questions that they need the help of scientists in order to settle.”

One of these questions is the issue of whether morality is a unique entity. Sinnott-Armstrong wonders if morality is like jade, which is actually two different minerals with the same name.

“I want to know if morality is like that,” he said. “Is there anything that is common and particular to moral judgments that makes them moral judgments?”

Sinnot-Armstrong’s curiosity and questioning lies at the foundation of the ongoing research at D-CIDES. The desire to elucidate various relationships in decision-making, whether it be between policy and energy systems or morally contentious issues, weaves these different researchers together.

“I’ve been at many institutions and Duke is the best one I’ve ever been at for collaborative work,” Sinnott-Armstrong said. “The people are receptive and helpful in a way that they’re not at many other institutions. So [D-CIDES] has to be appreciated by the community as something uniquely Duke.”


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