Story at a glance

  • Our memories are not perfect.
  • A group of researchers were interested in how memory affects decision making.
  • In experiments, people had higher activity in memory retrieval when given open-ended questions compared to multiple-choice questions.

What’s your process for deciding what to eat for dinner? Is it different when you are offered a list to choose from? Experts are curious about how your memory could affect what you end up choosing. In a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team in California examines a model that tries to understand how memory could affect decision making.

Our memories are imperfect.

“While everyone knows that human memory is limited—and there’s a thriving market for reminder apps and Post-it Notes—scientists know surprisingly little about how this limit impacts our decisions,” said Zhihao Zhang, a University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business postdoctoral scholar and lead author on the paper, in a press release.

The researchers developed a new mathematical model that combines economic models of decision making with psychological models of memory recall.

“Very little attention has been paid to connecting these two areas,” Zhang said. “By taking the best features of each, we found that we could make amazingly accurate predictions of how often people fail to choose their more preferred options due to their imperfect memories.”

So this suggests that people would choose a less-preferred option because their memories are imperfect. At first, the team was skeptical that their model was working properly, so they tested and experimented multiple times. They ran experiments where they presented participants with questions with open-ended choices or with a multiple-choice list.

“When people made open-ended choices in our experiments, we saw increased activity in memory retrieval regions of the brain and enhanced communication with valuation regions,” Zhang said. This didn’t happen as much when participants chose from a list.


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Open-ended choices might mimic real life more accurate and activate our brains in ways that actually happen in decision-making situations.

“Life is not a multiple-choice test,” said Berkeley Haas Associate Professor Ming Hsu, director of UC Berkeley's Neuroeconomics Laboratory. “Yet researchers traditionally give people a menu of options and ask them to choose.”

The researchers think that this work could help understand neurological illnesses, such as Alzheimer’s disease, better.

“We know that memory declines as Alzheimer's disease progresses. We also see that decision-making capacity diminishes in areas such as financial management. But we don't yet have good models of how they might be linked, or even good ways to measure changes in decision-making capacity,” said another of the paper’s authors, Andrew Kayser, an associate professor of neurology at University of California, San Francisco. “For neurologists, these are urgent questions.”


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Published on May 15, 2021