The neuroscience of good decision-making: Lessons from lab rats

Behavioural neuroscientist Kelly Lambert reveals a few universal truths about motivation, resilience and good judgement.

by Kelly Lambert
Last Updated: 21 Jun 2019

Most people look up the executive chain to CEOs for universal truths about optimal decision-making and performance, but I prefer to look down the chain to less complex mammals. The rodents in my lab can tell us a lot about how our environment affects leadership traits like resilience, motivation and decisiveness, and how you can train yourself to improve them.

Don’t ignore stress

One key observation is that stress leads to worse decision-making. After mice learn all the escape paths in an experimental arena, their performance becomes noticeably less reliable if the animals are stressed (in this case, by the presence of a looming, larger, unwelcomed "boss" rodent).

With emotional stress on board, the mice forget their rehearsed exit strategy and engage in ineffective end runs. Consequently, anything that reduces stress may enhance one’s problem-solving and decision-making abilities.

Recent research suggests that exposure to natural elements – such as a walk in the park – enhances emotional resilience in the face of stress, and restores one’s ability to refocus attention in adaptive ways. When we expose rats in my lab to naturally-enriched environments with engaging stimuli such as logs, dirt, sticks, and rocks, they perform challenging tasks with less activation of their neural fear circuits suggesting that their past experiences increased their self-confidence and emotional regulation.

Stimulating environments make you better at spotting opportunities

Being exposed to engaging environments also keeps our rats busy and less bored – exhibiting increased social interactions and more consistent interactions with the physical world around them. All of these interactions provide experiences that alter the rats’ perceptions of "affordances". 

This term, introduced by US experimental psychologist James Gibson approximately a half-century ago, refers to one’s ability to identify the advantageous possibilities offered by certain objects or scenarios. A handle on a teapot, for example, offers the potential of picking up that teapot and pouring its contents into a teacup.

Armed with a rich stockpile of experience, people too can upgrade their "contingency calculators" – the neural pathways we use to predict outcomes and therefore spot opportunities – which are critical to business success.

Hard work trains resilience

Rodents also point to universal truths about resilience and motivation in the face of challenges. For example, we explored questions about effective work strategies by comparing working rats with trust fund rats.

The working group exerted cognitive and physical effort to scan their environment and identify mounds of bedding to dig in and retrieve their coveted sweet rewards (a piece of Froot Loops™ cereal). In contrast, the trust fund group receives the same rewards earned by the worker rats even thought they’re not required to do any work to earn them.

After extended training, when rats are challenged in additional tasks, the worker rats’ emotional resilience exceeds what is observed in the trust-fund rats. When presented with a novel, challenging puzzle task, the worker rats persist longer than the trust fund rats, as if the worker rats are telling themselves, "I’ve got this."

This rodent form of self-efficacy isn’t observed in the noncontingency-building trust fund rats who exhibit all the same potential and ability, but just walk away from the task a lot sooner. 

Beyond behavioral differences, the worker rats also have higher levels of the resilience neurochemical dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and evidence of enhanced neuroplasticity, which is important for flexible responses and healthy brains – enhanced resilience hormones have similarly been found in US special operations soldiers in response to challenging tasks following their extensive training.

Research suggests that staying physically active serves as an indicator for the brain that we are literally going places, and that neural upgrades are necessary to keep up with the changing times.  According to German neuroscientist Gerd Kempermann’s research, for example, mice that are more active have more complex brains that are primed to respond to cognitive challenges in changing life contexts. 

Thus, persistently rolling our sleeves up and engaging in both physical and cognitive endeavors in the work environment is a strategy that builds neural networks that can help inform future decisions. 

Healthy gut, healthy mind

The field of neuroeconomics focuses on the critical question of brain areas that are active in uncertain situations, a common scenario in business contexts.  We typically draw upon past experiences and current neural networks to calculate the most profitable contingency calculations.

That gut feeling an executive turns to is likely a neural response that is too fast to be recognized in a rational, cognitive way. The intense neural connections between the gut and the brain provide the infrastructure for these potential fast-paced decisions informed by our experiences.

Even so, these seemingly intuitive feelings should be qualified with appropriate evidence, data, and outcomes. And, speaking of gut feelings, increasing evidence indicates that the gut’s bacterial environment, dubbed the microbiome, may also influence our gut decisions by influencing gut bacterial communities that diminish decision-distorting anxiety.

What you can do

So, what does current neurobiological research reveal about preparing human beings to make informed decisions? Here are three key takeways:

1. All the evidence points to the importance of remaining engaged in all relevant aspects of a business climate in order to continuously update experiential stockpiles and therefore enhance our brain’s contingency calculators. Keeping the most important decision-makers isolated in a corner office, away from the buzz of the business, is not a good idea.

2. It’s important to keep toxic stress at bay to keep the proper neural circuits firing throughout the inevitable crises that you will face. Focused attention may be gained through natural contexts and, surprisingly, by keeping our gut microbiomes in check with healthy diets, lifestyles, and probiotics. 

3. Anything we can do to avoid becoming an out-of-touch, stressed out, lazy trust fund rat will make us less vulnerable to decision-making disasters while making us more poised to respond to challenges with rational strategies.  

Kelly Lambert is professor of behavioral neuroscience at the University of Richmond and author of Well-Grounded: The Neurobiology of Rational Decisions (Yale University Press)

Image credit: Pixabay/Pexels

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