The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

The Secret to Better Decision Making

A 50 to 100 millisecond delay enables the brain to make better decisions.

Yield 50-100 milliseconds for better decision making.
Neuroscientists at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) have discovered that postponing the making of a decision by a fraction of a second can dramatically improve outcomes. The researchers found that a 50 to 100 millisecond delay enables the brain to make better decisions in the heat of the moment.

Previous studies have shown that response accuracy can be improved by prolonging the decision-making process, which gives the brain time to collect more information. This study is the first to pinpoint exactly how long of a delay optimizes outcomes when making a decision.

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Although accuracy is often improved by longer reaction times, this can backfire when lightning-fast decisions are necessary. Therefore, the process of delaying a decision to improve accuracy is referred to as the "speed-accuracy trade-off." This study is helpful because it specifically identifies the sweet spot for delaying a decision to be around 50 to 100 milliseconds.

The March 2014 study titled "Humans Optimize Decision Making by Delaying Decision Onset” was published in the online journal PLoS One.

"This might be the first scientific study to justify procrastination," said first author Tobias Teichert, Ph.D., and postdoctoral research scientist in neuroscience at CUMC at the time of the study. "On a more serious note, our study provides important insights into fundamental brain processes and yields clues as to what might be going wrong in diseases such as ADHD and schizophrenia. It also could lead to new training strategies to improve decision making in complex high-stakes environments, such as air traffic control towers and military combat."

"Postponing the onset of the decision process by as little as 50 to 100 milliseconds enables the brain to focus attention on the most relevant information and block out irrelevant distractors," said co-author Jack Grinband. "This way, rather than working longer or harder at making the decision, the brain simply postpones the decision onset to a more beneficial point in time."

In making decisions, the brain integrates many small pieces of potentially contradictory sensory information. "Imagine that you're coming up to a traffic light—the target—and need to decide whether the light is red or green," said Dr. Teichert. "There is typically little ambiguity, and you make the correct decision quickly, in a matter of tens of milliseconds."

The Columbia researchers had a hunch that the most effective way to reduce errors might be to delay the decision-making process for a split-second so that your brain can make better informed decisions. The research team conducted two experiments to test this hypothesis.

In the first experiment, subjects were shown what looked like a swarm of randomly moving dots (the target stimulus) on a computer monitor and were asked to judge whether the overall motion was to the left or right. A second and brighter set of moving dots (the distractor) appeared simultaneously in the same location, obscuring the motion of the target. The second experiment was similar to the first, except that the subjects also heard regular clicks, indicating when they had to respond.

Knee-Jerk Reactions Can Lead to Poor Judgement

Over the weekend, I was discussing these findings with my friend Zygmunt Plater, who is a law professor at Boston College. Zyg made the observation that if a police officer is conditioned to "shoot to kill"—and that muscle memory gets hardwired into the cerebellum—that it could lead to inaccurate and deadly decision making. Zyg agreed that law enforcement, military personnel, and any other high-stake professions would benefit greatly from incorporating these recent neuroscientific findings into their training.

Through practice, practice, practice, Purkinje cells in the cerebellum become hardwired to make automatic decisions that require very little cerebral input. A well-conditioned cerebellum allows you to bypass the executive function of the prefrontal cortex. This is the key to elite level performance and is how athletes are able to hit home runs, return a 160 mph tennis serve, rally in a game of ping-pong, etc.

The muscle memory held in the cerebellum allows us to do things automatically without having to think about the action. This has both pros and cons. In sports, the cerebellum allows instantaneous reflexes to perform without having to involve the cognitive function of the cerebrum. In fact, if you delay decision making in sport by engaging the prefrontal cortex for too long, it causes what Arthur Ashe called "paralysis by analysis." Overthinking in sports causes people to choke.

But in other situations, taking a few milliseconds to pause and think about what you're doing will lead to better outcomes because the cerebrum has some time to process all the information and coordinate with the cerebellum. A slight delay can create perfect harmony between the function of the cerebrum and the function of the cerebellum, which leads to better decision making.

As Dr. Teichert explains, “the results showed that decision onset is, to some extent, under cognitive control. The subjects automatically used this mechanism to improve response accuracy. However, we don't think that they were aware that they were doing so. The process seems to go on behind the scenes. We hope to devise training strategies to bring the mechanism under conscious control."

Conclusion: A Millisecond Decision-Making Delay Could Save Lives

These experiments reveal that it's beneficial to slightly delay the decision-making process. The delay allows attention to be focused on the target stimulus and helps prevent irrelevant information from interfering with making an accurate decision. "Basically, by delaying decision onset—simply by doing nothing—you are more likely to make a correct decision," Dr. Teichert concluded. 

Hopefully, the findings from Dr. Teichert and colleagues will lead to more research and advance our understanding of neuropsychiatric conditions characterized by abnormalities in cognitive function, and lead to new training strategies to improve decision making in high-stake environments.

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete’s Way blog posts.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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