A new study in PLoS suggests that expert advice causes the brain to “offload” calculations of expected utility (loss or gain) when making a financial decision under risk. This is an intriguing result, but we should take a closer look to see why this study really only examines one aspect of decision-making, and does not suggest, contrary to headlines, that expert advice causes the brain to “switch off rationality” or “shut down.”
Study participants were asked to make financial choices both inside and outside an fMRI scanner (choices were divided into two categories: “sure win” and “lottery”). During the scanner session, researchers introduced a financial expert variable, and provided the expert’s credentials to enhance his influence. The expert’s advice was presented to participants on a computer screen above their financial choice options. If the expert recommended an option, the word “Accept” was displayed above it; if he advised against the option the word “Reject” was displayed. During half the trials, the word “Unavailable” was displayed, indicating that the expert had no advice for that decision.
The results: both behavior and neural activation patterns were significantly affected by expert advice. When given an “Accept” signal by the expert, participants tended to make decisions based on the advice. Simultaneously, neural activation patterns correlating with valuation were witnessed in the absence of expert advice; no significant neural correlations with valuation were witnessed in the presence of expert advice.
In other words, the brain appears to offload the burden of figuring out the best decision when given expert financial advice. At first glance, that’s what the study tells us. But, of course, there’s always a but.
Study participants were given a mean of 3.5 seconds to make a decision, which means that they did not have time to deliberate to even a modest degree. Debriefing at the end of the study trial bears this out; quoting from the methods section: “participants indicated that they had not identified any way to engage in strategic behavior.”
Seldom is anyone faced with making a risky financial decision in seconds. More reasonably, most of us take hours if not days to make an important risk decision – and certainly we’d consider a decision important if seeking expert financial advice to sort it out. The point being, the study does not tell us anything substantial about real-world decision making.
What the study really tells us is that the brain defers to the expert when first given expert advice, much as we’d expect. If then immediately challenged to make a decision, we’d also expect someone to go ahead with the expert’s advice. The study evidences that. But we know this isn’t really how decision-making works. Rather, the expert’s advice gets folded into a more lengthy process of figuring out the right way to go. That process will probably include information from other sources, perhaps other experts, family members impacted by the decision, associates who have faced similar decisions, etc.
With the backdrop of the financial crisis, this study supplies fodder for critics to lay blame on financial experts, especially those on TV, for the misguided decisions of investors. But that’s a painfully simplistic conclusion that at best applies to people who are not careful decision-makers to begin with. Anyone sitting in front of the TV with stock-happy trigger fingers caressing his or her laptop is playing a game, not making a careful decision.
As to the brain “shutting down” or “switching off,” nothing in this study indicates either. Results show an “attenuation” of neural activity correlating with valuation – that is, a tapering or reduction of activity. And again, in the context of how decisions are actually made, this attenuation would presumably reverse as soon as more factors are considered (as soon as, to use the words of the study, “strategic behavior” is engaged). It would be interesting to study how much time it takes for valuation-linked neural activity to rebound after the expert’s advice has been digested with a stew of other variables.
To sum up – immediately upon receiving expert advice, the brain appears to offload value calculations and the words of the expert carry the day. If all risk decisions were made in an instant, this would be extremely important to know. But thankfully they are not, at least not by most of us.