If you’re less confident in a decision — your diagnosis of a patient or your choice to take a job offer, for example — you’ll be less quick to make a change if something goes awry, New York University neuroscientists found.
When we’re less confident in our choices, we’re more likely to wonder if a negative outcome is a coincidence or because of the decision we made, said Braden Purcell, the lead author on the study.
“When we make a mistake, it might mean we were simply unlucky or it could indicate a deeper flaw in our overall strategy,” Purcell said in a release about the study.
For instance, if a patient’s health gets worse, should the doctor just try another treatment or should she revise the original diagnosis altogether? Our findings map out a framework of how we make such evaluations.”
A confident person is able to make changes more nimbly to right the ship if there’s a mistake, the study found. But researchers didn’t do this by asking people about recent big decisions they made and how good they felt about their choices, they did this by watching people watch dots on a screen.
Subjects looked at the directions of multiple dots moving on a computer screen while researchers followed their eye movements. The dots would change direction abruptly without any warning. Subjects who were more confident in how the dots were moving in the first place were able to figure out what had changed more quickly and focus on the new moving target.
When research subjects were less confident about following the dots, they considered tracking mistakes to be caused by possible changes in the direction of the dots, but they waited longer to make sure before looking around for a new target to watch.
Researchers wanted to learn not only about one-off decisions, but about the thought processes that guide a string of decisions over time. Whether it’s watching dots on a screen or deciding what your next big move in life is, the concept is the same — increased confidence in yourself helps you roll with the punches better and ultimately end up in a better place.
“Overall, we found that the brain uses confidence to gauge errors and revise decision strategy,” said study co-author Roozbeh Kiani, an assistant professor in NYU’s Center for Neural Science. “Specifically, the confidence in our initial assessments influences how we revisit them.”
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for the daily newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she edits and writes the articles that appear on Rewire, and works with its pool of freelance journalists. She has also written episodes of PBS Digital Studios series “Sound Field” and “America From Scratch.” She’s the host of the history webseries “30-Second Minnesota,” which was nominated for an Upper Midwest Regional Emmy Award. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.