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Monday, February 25, 2019

Information Processing Biases in the Brain: Implications for Decision-Making and Self-Governance

Sali, A.W., Anderson, B.A. & Courtney, S.M.
Neuroethics (2018) 11: 259.


To make behavioral choices that are in line with our goals and our moral beliefs, we need to gather and consider information about our current situation. Most information present in our environment is not relevant to the choices we need or would want to make and thus could interfere with our ability to behave in ways that reflect our underlying values. Certain sources of information could even lead us to make choices we later regret, and thus it would be beneficial to be able to ignore that information. Our ability to exert successful self-governance depends on our ability to attend to sources of information that we deem important to our decision-making processes. We generally assume that, at any moment, we have the ability to choose what we pay attention to. However, recent research indicates that what we pay attention to is influenced by our prior experiences, including reward history and past successes and failures, even when we are not aware of this history. Even momentary distractions can cause us to miss or discount information that should have a greater influence on our decisions given our values. Such biases in attention thus raise questions about the degree to which the choices that we make may be poorly informed and not truly reflect our ability to otherwise exert self-governance.

Here is part of the Conclusion:

In order to consistently make decisions that reflect our goals and values, we need to gather the information necessary to guide these decisions, and ignore information that is irrelevant. Although the momentary acquisition of irrelevant information will not likely change our goals, biases in attentional selection may still profoundly influence behavioral outcomes, tipping the balance between competing options when faced with a single goal (e.g., save the least competent swimmer) or between simultaneously competing goals (e.g., relieve drug craving and withdrawal symptoms vs. maintain abstinence). An important component of self-governance might, therefore, be the ability to exert control over how we represent our world as we consider different potential courses of action.