Decision-making resides at the very heart of what defines humans as individuals. For every choice that passes through a person’s mind, there is a set of processes that collect new information, recalls past memory, and after some analysis produces a final decision. These processes are hidden beneath conscious thought, thereby leaving a gap in how we reason about ourselves. Thus, it is important to examine how mental simulations and the memories they are built upon influence the decision-making processes within the brain. In doing so, shedding some light on how mutable the mind is to outside influence.
One fundamental influencing decision-making is the brain’s ability to remember events, places, objects, and ideas. The current working theory of memory comes from George Miller’s research paper “Plans and the Structure of Behavior.” His theory of “working memory” boils down to the idea that the brain is not infinite, instead, it can only hold a finite amount of data in the temporary, active or “working” part of the brain (Miller, 65). Prior to proposing this theory, Miller‘s research study called “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two” attempted to show how short-term memory in humans is limited to Seven, plus or minus two chunks of information. Miller’s theory isn’t an isolated case; another foundational work is Hermann Ebbinghaus‘s “Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology.” Ebbinghaus discusses the exponential loss of information in the human brain over time which he dubs the “forgetting curve.” This finding exposed a number of other important memory concepts such as how repetition influences the ability to recall increasingly older items from memory. These two cornerstone researchers, Ebbinghaus and Miller, were among the first to show how limited the mind is when attempting to retain information and actively utilizing it in working memory. Miller’s cognitive limits specifically showed how decision-making is not an infinitely complex mechanism, instead it has discrete limits bounded by the physical limitations of the brain. Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve also illuminated this realization by showing how time erodes the ability to recall previous memories.
A neurological theory called “Mental Models” provides an interesting accompanying viewpoint to Miller’s work. Kenneth Craik in his book “The Nature of Explanation” describes the initial theory behind how the mind makes internal models to represent real world objects, systems, and ideas (51). These models aren’t meant to be perfect, however; they are the brain’s attempt at simplifying the world around it into a usable, incomplete picture by only focusing on aspects that matter. Much like Miller’s limited working memory theory, Craik’s mental models are also another attempt by the brain to decrease the cognitive load its under from the senses. Considering how many decisions are made daily by an individual it is clear from an evolutionary perspective mental models are efficient. This tradeoff swaps accuracy for efficiency therefore forcing decision-making to be more reliant on the memories associated with the mental model.
Further research by James Shanteau and Ruth Phelps titled “Livestock Judges: How Much Information Can an Expert Use” was conducted a decade after Miller first proposed his theory and reveals an interesting twist to Miller’s memory limit. Shanteau demonstrated that, for expert livestock judges, Miller’s working memory limit was not enough. These judges were able to use up to 11 pieces of information simultaneously to judge the quality of livestock (215). This research demonstrates that highly trained and experienced individuals are able to maximize and even break Miller’s theoretical limit. By verbally describing eleven key factors of a group of 64 gilts, female pigs less than a year old, seven judges were able to surpass the average seven and even the upper bound of nine for Miller’s cognitive limit theory. This research, even considering the small sample size, demonstrates how Miller’s seven plus or minus two limit can be stretched under certain conditions. In a related research paper by Dawes and Corrigan titled, “Linear Models in Decision Making” studies were conducted to decide how well 90 graduate students were able to evaluate ten variables that predicted academic success in ten precomputed GPAs. The results of this study showed that students were pretty bad at predicting these models but an overarching theme presented at the end really hits home – “the whole trick is to decide what variables to look at” (105). This conclusion illustrates how mental models don’t have to be holistic, as long as they model those key variables that provide the “close enough” answer then decisions can be reached efficiently and with reasonable accuracy.
The main limiting factor of Shanteau’s later research titled, “Psychological Characteristics and Strategies of Expert Decision Makers,” showed that an expert judge cannot sustain such above average performance and often fall back to Miller’s “normal” range of seven plus or minus two. Although higher than average work term memory results have been recorded, it seems like the brain is unable to maintain that high of a cognitive load for very long, revealing just how restricted mental processes are in the brain. The limitations of the brain are actively being researched and understood. The variability demonstrated between studies show that further study is required but the overarching takeaway is that the brain’s short-term memory is finitely limited. In general Shanteau’s research can be treated as proving Miller’s larger conclusion that the brain is physically limited from holding more than a set count of items in short-term memory. Shanteau’s main contribution in terms of decision-making is the demonstration of just how flexible experts can utilize simpler mental models from long term memory in order to get around the Miller’s limit.
The modularity and adaptability of mental models enables experts to cheat the system in a way by providing a way to pack more information into short-term memory. As new information is obtained, models can be adapted to incorporate it. Many theories have arisen attempting to understand the structure of memory. One such model from Atkinson and Shiffrin in 1968, dubbed the “Multi Store Model” which attempts to show how three main sections of memory – sensory, short-term and long term interconnect in order to provide memory faculties. This theory is centered around the idea that the Short-Term Store is processed in order to become the Long-Term Store. That is to say, through a process known as a rehearsal loop the information residing in short-term memory can be integrated into the longer term memory. This loop, as hinted at by Ebbinghaus a century prior is crucial to decision-making. Rehearsal loops are the key faculty of the mind that strengthens connections to previously formed memories. This sensory information doesn’t have to be from the outside either, just by recalling a past memory one strengthens the ability to recall that memory again. Like a carver carving letters into stone, the more times he does it the more ingrained the knowledge becomes. Decision making stems from these long term memories and, as a result, causes its own feedback loop reinforcing that behavior.
Boronat and Logan wrote in 1997 about how attention could be linked to memory encoding and the formation of mental models more specialized to facilitate domain-specific knowledge. Specifically, Boronat and Logan showed in their paper, “The Role of Attention in Automatization,” how attention influences both the encoding of short-term memory into long term memory and theorized memory retrieval (45). The study consisted of 150 students tasked with remembering 64 words from four categories. The words were flashed in quick succession on a computer and subjects were asked to record whether the word was from a target category or not. Another section of the test split subjects into two groups, the first was the focused attention group that only focused on green words for testing while the other group practiced divided-attention by having two words presented simultaneously, both colored, but only asked to press a key if one was in their target category. To pull from their conclusion, “Attention limits what will enter memory: What one pays attention to will enter, and what one does not will either not enter or not enter in as strong a manner” (45). This shows that while absorbing new information it is crucial to stay focused since it influences how well the brain is able to encode, or adopt information into a new or existing mental model. This focused learning state could also be one of the reasons that allow doctors to encapsulate more information into one of Miller’s “chunks.” This means that Miller’s limit on “working memory” as well as how much information is stored in each unit is finite but is significantly more modular than otherwise believed. The time and focused required to accomplish these feats are not easily accomplished however and as previously mentioned; even experts cannot maintain these high levels of focus for very long. This is one aspect of Miller’s theory that exposes how little researchers know about the actual storage mechanism for memories in the brain.
For decision-making, attention is the first barrier to understanding. In order to become an expert that is capable of strategically identifying key variables of a problem one must first be intimately aware of all the possible variables. Just like the research subjects, it is necessary to consciously filter out unneeded information, like the color of the word, in order to consciously shape the internal mental model of that activity. Boronat and Logan also demonstrated how attention influences recall during the second half of the experiment leading one to believe that recall of a past memory could impact the aspects of the memory that are available for decision-making in short-term memory.
With the physical requirements of the brain limiting its short-term capacity, the possibility of influencing short-term memory to yield different results becomes feasible. This idea is called “Anchoring” and was established by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in their study “Judgement Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases.” This idea is based on the perceived tendency for individuals to base their answer on an initial estimate, then modifying it from that initial guess instead of outright picking a new guess. In one study, Kahneman asked subjects to estimate a percentage, like the number of African countries in the United Nations. Before giving their answers, a wheel labeled with numbers 0 to 100 was spun in the subjects’ presence and afterward they were asked if the number on the wheel was higher or lower than their estimated percentage. The subjects were then asked for the value of their guess. Overall, every percentage guess stayed within plus or minus 20 of the number presented on the wheel. Interestingly enough, this suggests that the value on the wheel influenced participants’ perceived value of their own guess. (1128) This study also suggests that humans have a tendency to frame long term memories in light of the more immediate short-term data. This is significant because it shows how the limited working memory of the brain is not only finite, preventing holistic decision-making, but is also unconsciously altered by senses or processes within the brain. From an evolutionary perspective this priority toward the present is critical to survival. Much like the hidden limit of short-term memory and the the simplification of mental models this idea of an externally mutable short-term memory can be quite alarming. It is easy to consider one’s thoughts private and only their own but in reality the human brain liberally absorbs information and without conscious action, seamlessly incorporates it into every decision.
In a similar vein as the concept of anchoring is how framing contributes to one’s decision. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in their research “The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice” establish how presentation of a choice to an individual can totally influence their perception and the overall outcome the person takes. One commonly overlooked aspect of framing is the actual number of choices. In a famous research study often referred to as the “Jam Study” by Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper, it was demonstrated that more choice actually seems to be detrimental to the consumer. In this study, booths were set up in a grocery store with one displaying six flavors of jam and the other 24. The main goal was to determine the customer’s motivation when first seeing the booth and then their later purchasing behavior in regard to the jam. The outcome of this study showed that the limited choice set was actually significantly more profitable and popular than the other the quantity of the other set. Barry Schwartz in his book “The Paradox of Choice” coined the term “choice overload” to describe this phenomena. By exploiting the limitations of short-term memory framing and anchoring effectively negates the authenticity of an individual’s decision. Framing, like anchoring is another psychological trick to influence your perceptions and hook into unconscious cognitive processes. By limiting choice this selling technique allows the brain to need fewer decisions in order to come to a reasonable outcome. Cognitively the brain already does this through the finite short-term memory and the reduction of variables used to represent mental models. These cost saving methods save on cognitive load but by limiting the choices initially the brain is even less burdened, removing one more barrier between the consumer and the products.
The type of information being remembered also has an influence on the forgetting curve and size in working memory. Miller and others noted how sensory information like visuals and smell are easier to access during short-term memory testing. To explain this an alternative theory to working memory by Baddeley and Hitch was created in 1974 that splits the multi store model of Atkinson and Shiffrin up based on type, each specialize in different senses. The main sections are split between the central executive, which manages short-term memory, the visuospatial sketchpad, for visual and spatial data, and the phonological loop which deals with spoken and written material. By splitting up the mind into these theoretical sections it helps explain why during Miller’s research, for instance, how visual tasks always tended to be near nine in his seven plus or minus two range. Combined with the simplification and information reduction associated with mental models is the idea of reordering how one thinks about a problem in terms of senses that are easier for the brain to process. A common example comes from ancient Rome and Greece where a technique called “Method of the Loci” is used to remember anything as a list of graphical representations imagined along a well traveled path. By utilizing both the well developed spatial and visual faculties of the brain individuals can work around Miller’s short-term memory limits to an extent and create more vivid mental models.
In conclusion, memory and decision-making seem definitively linked. Short term memory, through its inherent limitations cause profound implications for decision-making. From limiting reasoning capabilities to causing “choice overload” the mind attempts to hide the finite restrictions from the conscious mind. Through the evolution of theoretical models detailing how memory works and the various feedback loops between short and long term memories a powerful driving force is created that constantly improves and revises mental models. The brain is in a constant race to keep mental models up-to-date with the world. From these models and the short-term memory that augments them decisions are formed. Through the subconscious external psychological like anchoring or framing can skew a decision by exploiting the finite nature of the mind. Overall, understanding one’s mind and the processes that shape thought are crucial skills for actively taking charge over mental limitations and the cognitive roadblocks that inhibit deeper thought.
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