April 30, 2012

WELLNESS: Decisions and Depression

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Imagine standing in the middle of the Arts Quad. Now imagine you are Neo, in a gigantic maze that suddenly drops on you Matrix-style. The maze is not difficult to exit out of, but you will earn or lose money for every step you take in a certain path. As soon as you step on a path that costs you money, would you turn away towards a different path, despite the possibility of bearing greater award by sticking with the initial path that cost you money?

The answer was a clear “yes” for most people who participated in the psychology experiment published in the journal PLoS Computational Biology. Researchers concluded that people have a tendency to organize information in a way that limits choices as to simply decision processes. It occurs most frequently when we are faced with complex choices that require intense concentrations. But this tendency, which is known as “pruning decision-making bias,” may have negative effects most people are not aware of.

Researchers found that our tendency to cut our options, or “prune,” might be the cause of depressive symptoms. When people immediately decided to abandoned the maze paths that cost them money (even though they could have made more in the end by having access to more profitable paths), they pruned their choices and reported symptoms of depression. Experimenters believe this was due to chemicals called serotonin, which is involved in depression and avoidance when it comes to decision-making. Neir Eshel from the Harvard Medical School posed a contradictory problem that many of us face when making complex decisions. On one hand, we must be able to simply our options by pruning choices that help us organize information. However, the maze experiment implies this might lead to poor decision making as well as possibility of biologically inducing depressive symptoms.

What do we do now? I say we all attempt to overcome our tendency to simply and reduce decisions that make us feel worse than we should. So take that chance, go down that path where it might initially sting you to pay up. Because towards the end, you know who is victorious when the game is over. If you’re not richer when you step out of the maze, at least you won’t be the depressive one with serotonin problems.

Junsuk Ahn is a student in the College of Human Ecology. He may be reached at ja562@cornell.edu. The Missing Link: Wellness appears on Tuesdays.

Original Author: Junsuk Ahn

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