Cost-benefit decision making, a vital skill in business, occurs in a mysterious but important region of the brain, the lateral habenula, say researchers at the University of British Columbia.
The lateral habenula is a very small region of the brain that is associated with avoidance behaviors and depression. Professor Stan Floresco and PhD candidate Colin Stopper wrote in the journal Nature Neuroscience that it could be “integral in cost-benefit decisions”.
Prof. Floresco said:
“These findings clarify the brain processes involved in the important decisions that we make on a daily basis, from choosing between job offers to deciding which house or car to buy. It also suggests that the scientific community has misunderstood the true functioning of this mysterious, but important, region of the brain.”
Decision making behaviors tested on laboratory rats
In their animal experiment, the researchers trained laboratory rats to select between a consistent small reward, consisting of one food pellet, or a potentially greater reward (four pellets) that appeared intermittently.
When humans find the benefits versus costs are greater for larger rewards, we tend to opt for the larger reward. When the benefits are lower we choose the smaller, less risky one.
Rats are the same. The scientists explained that they would select the larger reward when the amount of time they had to wait before getting their food (the cost) was low. But when waiting times were extended they would opt for the smaller, more reliable one-pellet reward.
Switching off the lateral habenula destroys decision making ability
Scientists in previous studies had suggested that if the rats’ lateral habenula brain region were turned off they would probably start making riskier decisions. However, this did not happen.
When the lateral habenula was switched off, the rats appeared to lose their decision making abilities regarding cost-benefits. They would choose either option randomly, “no longer showing the ability to choose the best option for them.”
Floresco said “Deep brain stimulation – which is thought to inactivate the lateral habenula – has been reported to improve depressive symptoms in humans. But our findings suggest these improvements may not be because patients feel happier. They may simply no longer care as much about what is making them feel depressed.”
Do antidepressants improve non-depressed executives’ decision making skills?
A number of business executives take anti-depressants even though they do not have depression. They say it helps them remain positive and alert in a very stressful environment – or is it because the medication boosts their decision making skills?
Floresco and Stopper said more studies are needed to better understand what goes on in the brain during the cost-benefit decision making process and related behaviors.
Some psychiatric disorders are linked to problems in the decision making processes, including schizophrenia, depression and stimulant abuse.