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13 Decision Making and Reasoning


No matter which public topic you discuss or which personal aspect you worry about – one thing you definitely need are reasons for your opinion and argumentation. People need justifications to satisfy themselves as well as they need backed up arguments in order to express themselves in society.

But how do such reasons develop? What are conclusions based on? This complex topic is very important for any person, independent of the age, the gender or the life situation, especially because it always inhales consequences and can influence life enormously.

The following chapter gives an overview about the different methods and types of reasoning considering its psychological background. Additionally it deals with the topic Executive Functions.They connect to the complex of decision making and reasoning, as they encompass ‘higher-order’ mental abilities such as attention, planning, organization, abstract reasoning and self-monitoring.

The problem of reasoning can be split into two important types of reasoning: Deductive reasoning (drawing conclusions based on premises) and Inductive reasoning (drawing conclusions based on evidence). Additionally there are the fields of Reasoning and the Brain as well as Decision making.

Deductive reasoning refers to the process of concluding that something must be true since it is a special case of a general principle that is already known to be true. Hence, one can deduce from the whole process how its single states could or should work. It implies two ways of thinking, on the one hand to think in categories – the so called thinking categorically field - and on the other hand to think conditional – thinking conditionally.

The field of inductive reasoning covers the topic on how people do reason from evidence. Inductive reasoning is the process of reasoning that a general principle is true because the special cases you do know about are true, so you conclude from the parts onto how the whole process or state must be like.

A more complex part of this article tries to show how the brain is involved in reasoning processes. Furthermore it is important to know where exactly inside the brain these cognitive skills take place and how different brain regions work together during the process of reasoning. The prefrontal cortex is known to play one of the essential roles in reasoning.

Coming now to the topic of executive functions, we will at first discuss the breakdown of them and goal-directed behavior which deals with problems such as deficits in initiation, cessation and control of action, impairments in abstract and conceptual thinking, lack of cognitive flexibility and deficits in the response to novelty and deficits in goal directed behaviors.

Second, theories of frontal lobe function in executive control are presented. These include the role of working memory, the role of controlled versus automatic processes, the use of scripts and the role of a goal list.

Deductive Reasoning

Thinking Categorically

The basic principle of deductive reasoning is that a conclusion follows from two premises. An example of such a syllogism is:

All flowers are plants. No plants are artificial. Therefore no flowers are artificial.

The statements of the premises begin typically with “all”, “none” or “some” (as in the example) and the conclusion starts with “therefore”. These kinds of syllogisms fulfil the task of describing a relationship between two categories. Two different approaches serve the study of syllogisms which are the normative approach and the descriptive approach.

The Normative Approach

The normative approach is based on logic and deals with the problem of categorizing conclusions as either valid or invalid. Two basic principles and a method called Euler circles have been developed to help judging about the validity. The first principle was created by Aristotle and says “If the two premises are true, the conclusion of a valid syllogism must be true” (Goldstein, 2005,page 431). The second principle explains why the following syllogism is (surprisingly) valid:

All flowers are animals. All animals can jump. Therefore all flowers can jump.

Even though it is quite obvious that the first premise is not true and further that the conclusion is not true, the whole syllogism is still valid. The second principle inhales that “The validity of a syllogism is determined only by its form, not its content.”

Due to this precondition it is possible to display a syllogism formally with symbols or letters and explain its relationship graphically with the help of diagrams. As shown in the picture, there are various ways to demonstrate a premise graphically. Starting with a circle to represent the first premise and adding one or more circles for the second one, the crucial move is to compare the constructed diagram with the conclusion. It should be clearly laid out whether the diagrams are contradictory or not. Agreeing with one another, the syllogism is valid.

The Descriptive Approach

The descriptive approach is concerned with estimating people´s ability of judging validity and explaining judging errors. This psychological approach uses two methods in order to determine people`s performance. For the method of evaluation (which is the preferred one) people are given two premises, a conclusion and the task to judge whether the syllogism is true or not. The method of production supplies the participants with two premises and asks them to develop a logically valid
conclusion (if possible).

With the method of evaluation researchers found typical reasons misjudgements about syllogisms. Premises starting with “All”, “Some” or “No” imply a special atmosphere and influence a person in his decision. One mistake often occurring is judging a syllogism incorrectly as valid, in which the two premises as well as the conclusion starts with “All”. The influence of the provided atmosphere leads to the right decision at most times, but is definitely not reliable and guides the person to a rash decision. This phenomenon is summarized by the atmosphere effect. In addition to the form of a syllogism, the content is likely to influence a person’s decision as well and cause the person to neglect his logical thinking. Given a conclusion as “ Some bananas are pink”, hardly any participants would judge the syllogism as valid, even though it might be valid according to its premises (e.g. Some bananas are fruits. All fruits are purple.) The belief bias states that people tend to judge syllogisms with believable conclusions as valid, while they tend to judge syllogisms with not believable conclusions as invalid.

Mental Models of Deductive Reasoning

From the data already given it is still not possible to consider what mental processes might be occurring as people are trying to determine if a syllogism is valid. After finding out that Euler circles can be used to determine the validity of a syllogism Phillip Johnson – Laird (1999) wondered whether people would use such circles naturally when not haven been taught to them. At the same time he found out that they do not work for some more complex syllogisms and that a problem can be solved by applying logical rules, but most people most people solve them by imagining the situation. This is the base idea of people using mental models – a specific situation that is represented in a person’s mind that can be used to help determine the validity of syllogisms – to solve deductive reasoning problems. The basic principle behind such a mental model theory is: A conclusion is valid only if it cannot be refuted by any mode of the premises. This theory is attractive because it makes predictions that can be tested and because it can be applied without training in the rules of logic. But there are still problems that face researchers when trying to determine how people reason about syllogisms. These problems include the fact that a variety of different strategies are used by people in reasoning and that some people are better in solving syllogisms than others.

Effects of Culture on Deductive Reasoning

Now it is known that people can be influenced by the content of syllogisms rather then by focusing on logic when judging their validity. Psychologists have wondered whether people are influenced by their cultures when judging. Therefore they have done cross – cultural experiments in which reasoning problems were presented to people in different cultures. They found out that people from different cultures judge differently to these questions. For example, a man from a traditional tribe in Liberia would give a wrong answer to such a reasoning problem when the question is considered purely in terms of formal logic, but for justifying his answer he would use logic. This shows that the man uses evidence from his own experience (empirical evidence) but is ignoring evidence presented in the syllogism (theoretical evidence). When asking people to explain their answers it becomes clear that they often base their response on empirical evidence. Another fact that becomes by these experiments is the difference between educated and uneducated participants. Uneducated people are often affected by the believability of the conclusion, while educated people base their judgments on logic. These results might occur because of the difference in raising up their children. It also shows that European Americans for example are less susceptible to the belief bias then Eastern Asians. Such experiments strengthen the idea that people in different cultures may use different strategies for reasoning.

Thinking Conditionally

Another type of syllogisms is called ‘conditional syllogism’. Just like the categorical one, it also has two premises and a conclusion. In difference the first premise has the form ‘If … then’. Syllogisms like this one are common in everyday life. Consider the following example:

1. assumption: If it is raining, Frank gets wet.

2. assumption: Frank gets wet.

3. conclusion: therefore it is raining.

Forms of conditionla syllogisms

Now it can be differenciated between four forms of conditional syllogisms, which all do have abstract terms p and q indicated in parenthesis. These notations p and q are typically used for conditional syllogisms where p is the antecedent (the ‘If’ term in ‘If p then q’) and q is the consequent (the ‘then’ term in ‘If p then q’). The first form of conditional syllogisms which will be explained is called modus ponens (which means ‘method of affirmation’ in Latin, because the antecedent p is affirmed in the second premise/ assumption). This rule of inference says: ‘If p then q, and also given p’ (affirming the antecedent). To make it more clearly the example given before is used, but this time the antecedent is affirmed in the second premise:

If it is raining, Frank gets wet.

It is raining.

Therefore Frank gets wet.

The conclusion of this example is valid.

Another rule of inference which is the second form of conditional syllogisms is called modus tollens (which means ‘method of denying’ in Latin, because the consequent is negated in the second premise).It says: ‘If p then q, and q is false.’ Again the same example is used but it is differs a bit because of negating the consequent in the second premise:

If it is raining, Frank gets wet. Frank does not get wet. Therefore it is not raining.

This conclusion is also valid.

Now the following two forms are invalid. It will be soon considered why. Denying the antecedent is the third form which procedes the negation of p in the second premise:

If it is raining, Frank gets wet. It is not raining.

Therefore Frank does not get wet.

Many people argue the above conclusion is valid, but it is not. The reason for invalidity is that it does not have to be raining for Frank to get wet (e.g he might have jumped into a swimming pool). Last but not least the forth form is called affirming the consequent. It is called so, because q is affirmed in the second premise, which is described more clearly by the following example:

If it is raining, Frank gets wet. Frank gets wet. Therefore it is raining.

This conclusion is also invalid for the same reason as before. The fact that Frank gets wet can follow from another antecedent (again he might have been swimming). The results of many experiments have shown that most people (close to 100 percent) correctly judge that modus ponens is valid, but perform lower on modus tollens and the other two forms. Another important point for people`s performance in conditional reasoning tasks is the way the task is stated. This means people’s performance is dependent on whether the task is stated abstractly or concretely. The knowledge possessed by the person who is evaluating the syllogism is also important for the performance.

Why people make errors in conditional reasoning: The Wason Four- Card- problem

People are often better at judging the validity of syllogisms when real – world items are substituted for abstract symbols. But it is also known that real – world items can sometimes lead to errors as when people are influenced by the belief bias. There are many experiments which provide the evidence for the effect of using real – world items in a conditional reasoning problem. The Wason Four – Card – problem is one of these experiments. Four cards are shown to the participants. There is a letter on one side of each card and a number on the other side. The participants task was to indicate the minimum number of cards they would need to turn over to test the following rule: If there is a vowel on one side then there is an even number on the other side. In one of the most used versions of this experiment the cards have the following four symbols visible: ‘E’ ‘K’ ‘4’ ‘7’ 55 percent of participants selected the ‘E’ card which is correct, because turning this card over tests the rule. However still another card needed to be turned over to fully test the rule. 64 percent indicated the ‘4’ card to be turned over after ‘E’. This answer indeed is not the best one, because if there is a vovel on the other side of the card it is conistent with the rule, but if there is a consonant on the other side, then turning the ‘4’ wouldn`t tell anything about the rule since having a consonant on one side and a vowel on the other side does not violate the rule. In Wasons`s experiment only 4 percent of participants answered correctly that the ‘7’`card also needs to be turned over. This is important because turning this card over would disconfirm the rule by revealing a vowel. Now for solving such a card problem one should be aware of the falsification principle which says for testing a rule it is necessary to look for situations that falsify the rule.

Stating the Four – Card task in real – world terms: the role of ‘Regulations’

The main reason researchers are interested in the Wason Four – Card problem is that they want to figure out why participants make so many errors. For answering this, they determined how participants perform when the problem is restarted in real – world terms. One of the experiments for determining this was the beer/drinking-age problem used by Richard Griggs and James Cox (1982). This experiment is identical to the Wason Four – Card problem except that instead of numbers and letters on the cards everyday terms (beer, soda and ages) were used. Griggs and Cox found out that 73 percent of participants provided the correct response for the following rule: ‘If a person is drinking beer then he or she must be over 19 years old.’ As mentioned before few of the participants answered the abstract Four - Card task correctly. Now, why is it easier to solve such a problem when using real – world terms? Apparently being able to relate the beer task to regulations about drinking makes it easier to pick the right card to turn over. Another experiment was done, the instructions following: ‘Pretend you are a postal worker sorting letters. A letter which is sealed must have a ‘5d’ stemp on it according to the postal regulations. Which of the four envelopments (one is shown from the sealed side, the other one is shown unsealed, the third one is shown with a ‘5d’ stemp and the last one is shown with a ‘4d’ stemp) would you have to turn over to determine whether the rule is being obeyed?’ The experiment was done with English and American participants. The fact that English participants performed better (a higher percentage of them chose the sealed envelope and the one with a 4d-stamp on it to be turned over) than American was very striking. The reason for this result appeared to be that the American participants were not familiar with postal regulations like this one but the English were.

Pragmatic Reasoning Schemas in the Wason Task: The role of ‘Permission’

Patricia Chena and Keith Holyoak (1985) proposed the concept of pragmatic reasoning schemas. A pragmatic reasoning schema is a way of thinking about case and effect in the world that is learned as part of experiencing everyday life. One of these schemas that people learn is called the permission schema which states that if a person satisfies condition A, then he/ she get to carry out action B. As an example the permission schema for the beer’/ drinking – age problem (‘If you are 19 years old, then you are allowed to drink beer.’) has already been learned by most of the participants, so they were able to apply that schema to the card task.

This makes it easier to people to understand the difference between the abstract version or the ‘drinking beer’ or ‘postal regulation’ version of the card task. Apparently activating the permission schema helps people to focus on attention on the right card, which is often ignored by them in the abstract task.

An evolutionary approach to the Four – Card – problem: The role of ‘Cheating’

The Wason Four – Card – problem did not only prove the evidence for the effect on using it in a conditional reasoning problem, but it also had led cognitive psychologists to another controversy in which there were different explanations offered for the result of various experiments. As already mentioned the permission schema is one of them. Now there is a proposed alternative to this idea which states that the performance on the Wason task is governed by a built – in cognitive program for detecting cheating.

Some psychologists (among them are Leda Cosmides and John Tobby (1992)) do have an evolutionary perspective on cognition in which they argue that human beings can trace many properties of their minds to the evolutionary principle of natural selection. Now according to this natural selection adaptive characteristics (characteristics that help a person or an animal to survive to pass their genes to the next generation) will become a basic characteristic of humans.

Applying to this idea it follows that a highly adaptive feature of the mind would become a basic characteristic of the mind. According to the evolutionary approach, one such characteristic is related to the idea of social exchange theory. This theory states that an important aspect of human behavior is the ability for two persons to cooperate in a way that is beneficial to both of them. As long as each person is receiving a benefit for whatever he/ she gives up, everything works well in social exchange. But if someone cheats, some problem arises. Therefore it is important that people are able to detect cheating behavior to avoid it. Because this is an important tool for them to have better chances to survive, ‘detecting cheating’ has become a part of the brain’s cognitive makeup.

Now with this evolutionary approach the Wason Four – Card – problem can be understood in terms of cheating. Cosmides and Tobby devised a number of experiments to determine whether ‘detecting cheating’ is helping by decisions or not. They created unfamiliar situations in Four – Card scenarios which include cheating. It was obvious that the participants’ performance was high, though even task was unfamiliar to them. They also ran some other experiments which did not include cheating to prove that participants perform better in experiments which include it.

However other researchers have created scenarios with unfamiliar situations, but which did not include cheating. It was astonishing that stating problems in this way caused an increase in performance. An example of these experiments was one devised by Ken Maktelow and David Over (1990) in which they tested people using a rule that says ‘If you clean up spillt blood, you must wear gloves’. Now there are a lot more examples for controversial research in the field of cognitive reasoning and for each of the mechanisms presented for and against it.

What will be left is the important finding that the context within which conditional reasoning occurs makes a big difference. All this controversy can be inferred from the behavioral evidence. This shows how complex the mind is and that it can have a number of different ways of approaching such a task like the Wason task, depending on the situation.

Inductive Reasoning

In the previous chapters we discussed deductive reasoning, reaching conclusions based on logical rules applied to a set of premises.

However, many problems cannot be represented in a way that would make it possible to use these rules to get a conclusion. In this chapter we will talk about a way to be able to decide in terms of these problems as well: inductive reasoning.

Inductive reasoning means making simple observations of a certain kind and apply these observations via generalization to a different problem to make a decision.

One famous example for this kind of reasoning is the following:

All crows I have ever seen are black. Therefore, every crow in the world is black.

This is an example for the so called ‘strong inductive reasoning’. It is easy to see that inductive reasoning leads to a quick conclusion that is likely but not certain, since it is impossible to check the color of every crow in the world. An example for ‘weak inductive reasoning’ would be a statement like this:

I always cook noodles in a frying pan.

Therefore, noodles are cooked in a frying pan.

(For this kind of reasoning the same conditions hold than stated before for strong inductive reasoning.)

This is the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning. While deduction brings conclusions that are inevitably based on certain rules (arguments are called ‘sound’ or ‘valid), induction is concerned rather with the probability of an event or a statement based on previously gathered evidence (the correct terminology here is ‘cogent’).

Induction vs deduction

Induction is the form of reasoning that is used more often and much more easily. Most of the time we use it without even realizing that we do some kind of reasoning at the moment. Whether it is the sunrise every morning and the sunset in the evening, the change of seasons, the TV program, the fact that a chair does not collapse when we sit on it or the lightbulb that flashes after we have pushed a button, all of these are examples for inductive reasoning. We think that certain events will occur or that our actions have certain kinds of effects because this is the way it always is and has been and therefore we have good reason to believe that it is going to happen in just the same way. It would take way too much time and effort to think about all these things every time anew.

Deduction and induction are also regarded as being the complement of one another and inductively reached conclusions are usually deductively invalid. But it would be a mistake to say that these two are totally independent from each other. It is often the case that one needs inductive reasoning first to get to deductive reasoning. A good example for this is the whole field of science. To be able to compile a formula in physics for example, one needs a theory at first that can be tested. This is nothing but inductive reasoning:

I realize that everything I see, including myself, is somehow fixed to the surface of the earth. I have been to different places on this planet and noticed the same. Although I have not seen every single corner in the world, I assume that this principle holds for every piece of matter with a certain mass.

This is a prime example for inductive reasoning because it shows that it can be regarded as making an assumption that is thought quite probable to be the case but not foolproof.

How reliable are conclusions reached through induction?

What it also shows is an important aspect for evaluating conclusions reached through induction: The size of the sample, also called the ‘law of large numbers’.

If I have been to many countries and saw the same circumstances everywhere, it is much more likely that these circumstances can be found on the whole planet than if I have seen nothing but my own town. It might be the case that in the next town people are walking on the ceiling. I cannot say anything about that because I have never been out of town to check on it.

Other factors that contribute to the so-called ‘strength’ of the argument is the representativeness of the observations and the quality of the evidence.

To ask only members of a reigning political party about the current government of their country is certainly not very representative because it only takes into account the opinion of people that are very likely to approve it.

And it is no better idea to ask other people the same question when it is in the middle of the night and they have spent the last five hours in a pub. It would be quite doubtful that their answers were of the quality we want for doing proper reasoning.

Processes and constraints of inductive reasoning

But how does inductive reasoning happen in more special cases than strong inductive reasoning? And what kinds of psychological pitfalls are there to it? To get a little bit deeper into this subject, we will introduce some processes and consraints related to inductive reasoning:

The availability heuristic

Things that are more easily remembered are judged to be more prevalent. Examples are two experiments that have been made. One of them asked people to say which one of two different causes of death occurs more often (Lichtenstein et al., 1978). Because of the availability heuristic people judged more ‘spectacular’ causes like homicide or pregnancy to cause more deaths than others, like asthma. In another similar experiment participants had to say whether there were more words in a list starting with an ‘r’ or more words having ‘r’ as the third letter (Tversky & Kahneman, 1973). Most people picked the former although there were actually three times as many words having ‘r’ in third position.

The representativeness heuristic

Judgements are often made based on how much an event resembles another event. If I hear loud scratching noises in the back of my car while parking, I know that I bumped into another car. If I hear the same kind of noise from the front of the car, I will be much more likely to think about an accident than if I heard a soft sound like when I drive my car into a heap of freshly fallen snow in winter. Even if the noise comes from another direction, it is much more similar to the first scenario than the snow scenario.

Illusory correlations

People tend to judge according to stereotypes. This is what is known by the term ‘prejudice’. It means that a much oversimplified generalization about a group or a class of people is made. Usually this focuses on the negative and has absolutely no proof in reality. This property of inductive reasoning can be very dangerous. Examples for this are racist believes about Afro-Americans or Jews during the time of the Third Reich.

The conjunction rule

The conjunction of two events is never more likely to be the case than the single events alone. An example for this is the case of the femininist bank teller (Tversky & Kahneman, 1983). If we are introduced to a woman of whom we know that she is very interested in women’s rights and has participated in many political activities in college and we are to decide whether it is more likely that
she is a bank teller or a feminist bank teller, we are drawn to conclude the latter based on our knowledge about her. But it is in fact much more likely that somebody is just a bank teller than it is that someone is a feminist in addition to being a bank teller.

Confirmation bias

This phenomenon describes the fact that people tend to decide in terms of what they themselves believe to be true or good. If we go back to the example of the members of the political party, let us imagine that they are strictly against abortion. If they are presented with a bill that prohibits abortion but features in addition to that a list of some arguments pro and contra abortion, they would judge the prohibition as being a good thing although the list might contain twice as many arguments for abortion than against it.

The hindsight bias

Estimations are reconsidered after getting more infromation. If you ask someone about the percentage of water on the planet's surface and after a while you give him the answer and ask what it was that he had estimated before, he is quite likely to give another number that is closer to the actual percentage.

The probability heuristic

This is simply the term for the fact that the subjective probabilities one would give for an event might differ to a smaller or larger extent from the actual probabilities of the event. Reasons for this can be all of the above.

The gambler’s fallacy

And a little tidbit at the end of the list: Against most intuitions the rolling of a dice is totally independent from earlier outcomes, of course. Throwing a six has exactly the same probability after the throwing of five, one and four than it has after three sixes have been thrown already. This is also an example for the representativeness heuristic.

So, why inductive reasoning at all?

All of these introduced phenomenons are responsible for leading our reasoning by induction. And as we can easily see, quite often they lead us on the wrong track. But they are important nevertheless because they act as shortcuts for our reasoning. We have said that inductive reasoning is used in everyday situations much more often than deductive reasoning because it is faster and easier. The attributes featured in the above list are the reason for that.

And this shows exactly what inductive reasoning is and why it is so useful:

It is a way of making decisions that might not ground on real facts, but on what best suits the purposes of the individual in a particular situation and it is a very quick way of making these decisions. And this is much more important because most of the time decisions are supposed to serve the purposes of a person and are made within parts of seconds without us even noticing that we just made a decision.

Decision Making: Choosing Among Alternatives

About the Process

The psychological process of decision making constantly goes along with situations in daily life. Determining preferences among different alternatives can have minor consequences (e.g. deciding between chocolate and vanilla ice cream), but it can also have relevant influence on important circumstances of life in the future (e.g. job decisions, influencing also family life, hobbies, self-esteem, salary, …). The mentioned examples are both characterized by personal decisions, whereas professional decisions, dealing for example with economic or political issues, are just as important.

According to the different levels of consequences, each process of making a decision requires appropriate effort and various aspects to be considered. Such a process can be roughly structured into three steps, beginning with the information-gathering stage, proceeding through likelihood estimation and deliberation and being completed by the final act of choosing.

There are three different approaches to the analysis of decision making. The normative approach assumes a rational decision-maker with well-defined preferences. While the rational choice theory is based on a priori considerations, the descriptive approach is based on empirical observation and on experimental studies of choice behavior. The prescriptive enterprise develops methods in order to improve decision making.

The Utility Approach

According to Manktelow and Reber´s definition, “utility refers to outcomes that are desirable because they are in the person’s best interest” (as cited in Goldstein, 2005, p. 468). An early economic approach characterizes optimal decision making by the maximum expected utility (in terms of monetary value). This approach can be helpful in gambling theories, but simultaneously inhales several disadvantages. People do not necessarily focus on the monetary payoff, since they find value in things other than money, such as fun, free time, family, health, … Therefore not choosing the maximal monetary value does not automatically describe an irrational decision process.

Misleading Effects

Situation Models

By imagining the most intuitive consequences of different decisions, people often create situation models (Kahneman & Tversky, 1982; Dunning & Parpal, 1989) which might be misleading, since they rely on subjective speculations. An example could be deciding where to move by considering typical prejudices of the countries (e.g. always good pizza,nice weather and a relaxed life-style in Italy in contrast to some kind of boring food and steady rain in Great Britain). The predicted events are not equal to the events occurring indeed.

Focusing Illusion

Another misleading effect is the so-called focusing illusion. By considering only the most obvious aspects in order to make a certain decision (e.g. the weather) people often neglect various really important outcomes (e.g. circumstances at work). This effect occurs more often if people judge about others than in case of judging about their own life conditions.

Framing Effect

A problem can be described in different ways and therefore evoke different decision strategies. If a problem is specified in terms of gains, people tend to use a risk-aversion strategy, while a problem description in terms of losses leads to apply a risk-taking strategy. An example of the same problem and predictably different choices is the following: A group of people asked to imagine themselves $300 richer than they are, is confronted with the choice of a sure gain of $100 or an equal chance to gain $200 or nothing. Most people avoid the risk and take the sure gain, which means they take the risk-aversion strategy. Alternatively asked to assume themselves to be $500 richer than in reality, given the options of a sure loss of $100 or an equal chance to lose $200 or nothing, the majority opts for the risk of losing $200 by taking the risk seeking or risk-taking strategy. This phenomenon is known as framing effect. (text)

Justification in Decision Making

Decision making often includes the need to assign a reason for the decision and therefore justify it. This factor is illustrated by an experiment by Tversky and Eldar Shafir (1992). A very attractive vacation package has been offered to a group of students who have just passed an exam and to another group of students who have just failed the exam and have the chance to rewrite it after the holidays coming up. All students have the options to buy the ticket straight away, to stay at home, or to pay $5 to keep open the option and to buy it later. At this point, there is no difference between the two groups, since the number of students who passed the exam and deciding to book the flight (with the justification of a treat), is the same as the number of students who failed and booking the flight (justified by a consolation with time to reoccupate).

A third group of students who were informed to receive their results in two more days was confronted with the same problem. The majority decided to pay $5 and keep the option open until they would get their results. Even though the actual exam result does not influence the decision, it is required in order to provide a rationale.

Executive Functions

The talk about decision making leads us deeper into the brain and gives us the chance to look at this and similar psychological abilities on a more neurological level: the executive functions.

As in part already introduced in the overview section of this chapter, executive functions include (among others) having a master plan or a general conception about reaching some specific goal, assimilating new information, modifying plans and being responsive to change, keeping track of multiple tasks simultaneously and understanding relations among them, prioritizing both decisions and
actions and, in a more abstract way, social skills and political savvy. For short you could say that your executive functions altogether act as the executive manager of your behavior. As you can see, the above list of abilities is already quite long though still incomplete. This shows that providing an exact definition is very difficult. They are not completely separated from one another but have multifaceted and shared characteristics. Furthermore, each function cannot be linked to a specific brain region either, but has to be connected with overlapping regions.

For the most part, though not in every case, these regions are located in the frontal or more precisely, the prefrontal lobe. If these regions are damaged, this can lead to profound deficits in a patient’s executive functions, called executive dysfunction, whereas this does not mean that his or her overall intelligence is affected, as can be shown through IQ-tests. But depending on the extent of the damage, it can be nonetheless impossible for this person to ever lead a ‘normal’ life without constant help and support from the outside.

In the following we would like to explain why this is so by describing the most common executive dysfunctions.

Deficits in initiation, cessation and control of action

We start by describing the effects of the loss of the ability to start something, to initiate an action. A person with executive dysfunction is likely to have trouble beginning to work on a task without strong help from the outside, while people with left frontal lobe damage often show impaired spontaneous speech and people with right frontal lobe damage rather show poor nonverbal fluency. Of course, one reason is the fact that this person will not have any intention, desire or concern on his or her own of solving the task since this is yet another characteristic of executive dysfunction. But it is also due to a psychological effect often connected with the loss of properly executive functioning: psychological inertia.

Like in physics, inertia in this case means that an action is very hard to initiate, but once started, it is again very hard to shift or stop. This phenomenon is characterized by engagement in repetitive behavior, is called perseveration and can best be observed in a famous experiment, the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test or short, WCST.

A participant is presented with cards that show certain objects. These cards are defined by shape, color and number of the objects on the cards. These cards now have to be sorted according to a rule based on one of these three criteria. The participant does not know which rule is the right one but has to reach the conclusion after positive or negative feedback of the experimenter. Then at some point, after the participant has found the correct rule to sort the cards, the experimenter changes the rule and the correct sorting will lead to negative feedback. The participant has to realize the change and adapt to it by sorting the cards according to the new rule.

Patients with executive dysfunction have problems identifying the rule in the first place. It takes them noticeably longer because they have trouble using already given information to make a conclusion (will be explained later). But once they got to sorting correctly and the rule changes, they keep sorting the cards according to the old rule although many of them notice the negative feedback. They are just not able to switch to another sorting-priciple, or at least they need many tries to learn the new one. They perseverate.

Another problem caused by executive dysfunction can be observed in patients suffering from the so called environmental dependency syndrome. Their actions are impelled or obligated by their physical or social environment. This manifests itself in many different ways and depends to a large extent on the individual’s personal history. Examples are patients who begin to type when they see a computer key board, who start washing the dishes upon seeing a dirty kitchen or who hang up pictures on the walls when finding hammer, nails and pictures on the floor. This makes these people appear as if they were acting impulsively or as if they have lost their ‘free will’. It shows a lack of control for their actions. This is due to the fact that an impairment in their executive functions causes a disconnection between thought an action, these patients know that their actions are wrong but like in the WCST, they cannot control what they are doing. Even if they are told by which attribute to sort the cards, they will still keep sorting them sticking to the old rule due to major difficulties in the translation of these directions into action.

What is needed to avoid problems like these are the abilities to start, stop or change an action but very likely also the ability to use information to direct behavior.

Impairments in abstract and conceptual thinking

To solve many tasks it is important that one is able to use given information. Often this means that material has to be processed in an abstract rather than in a concrete manner. Patients with executive dysfunction have abstraction difficulties. This is proven by another card sorting experiment (Delis et al., 1992).

This time, the cards show names of animals and black or white triangles placed above or below the word. Again, the cards can be sorted with attention to different attributes of the animals (living on land or in water, domestic or dangerous, large or small) or the triangles (black or white, above or below word). Unlike in the WCST, people with frontal lobe damage fail to solve the task because they cannot even conceptualize the properties of the animals or the triangles, thus are not able to deduce a sorting-rule for the cards (in contrast, there are some individuals with only perseverative tendencies, they find a sorting-criterion but then are unable to switch it).

As we have seen in other examples before, these problems in abstract conceptualization remain after the participants have been given abstract or even concrete cues. Therefore, it is sometimes believed that their problem might be caused by, once again, the difficulty in translating thought to action. Furthermore, once they found a rule to sort, they are unable to describe their sorting-criterion.

In general, all these problems are not connected to perseverative tendencies but rather to major difficulties for patients with frontal lobe damage to conceptualize information in an abstract manner. Plus, that information cannot be used to guide behavior. A reason for these problems might be a general difficulty in strategy formation (will be discussed later).

Deficits in cognitive estimation

Cognitive estimation is the ability to use known information to make reasonable judgements or deductions about the world. Now the inability for cognitive estimation is the third type of deficits often observed in individuals with executive dysfunction. It is already known that people with executive dysfunction have a relatively unaffected knowledge base. This means they cannot retain knowledge
about information or at least they are unable to make inferences based on it. There are various effects which are shown on such individuals. Now for example patients with frontal lobe damage have difficulty estimating the length of the spine of an average woman. Making such realistic estimation requires inference based on other knowledge which is in this case, knowing that the height of the average woman is about 5ft 6 in (168cm) and considering that the spine runs about one third to one half the length of the body and so on.

Patients with such a dysfunction do not only have difficulties in their estimates of cognitive information but also in their estimates of their own capacities (such as their ability to direct activity in goal – oriented manner or in controlling their emotions).

Prigatuno, Altman and O’Brien (1990) reported that when patients with anterior lesions associated with diffuse axonal injury to other brain areas are asked how capable they are of performing tasks such as scheduling their daily activities or preventing their emotions from affecting daily activities, they grossly overestimate their abilities. From several experiments Smith and Miler (1988) found out that individuals with frontal lobe damages have no difficulties in determining whether an item was in a specific inspection series they find it difficult to estimate how frequently an item did occur. This may not only reflect difficulties in cognitive estimation but also in memory task that place a premium on remembering temporal information.

Later the fact that individuals with such dysfunction and frontal lobe damage are impaired on a variety of sequencing tasks will be explained more in detail. Thus both difficulties (in cognitive estimation and in temporal sequencing) may contribute to a reduced ability to estimate frequency of occurrence.

Despite these impairments in some domains the abilities of estimation are preserved in patients with frontal lobe damage. Such patients also do have problems in estimating how well they can prevent their emotions for affecting their daily activities. They are also as component as patients with temporal lobe damage or neurologically intact patients at judging how many dues they will need to solve a puzzle. For solving a puzzle patients with frontal lobe damage try to guess the answer. Therefore the ability for estimating is not entirely lost but is compromised in a number of areas.

Lack of Cognitive Flexibility and Deficits in the Response to Novelty

People with executive dysfunction are unable to look at situations from more than one point and to produce a variety of behavior and therefore unable to be cognitively flexible. Now this cognitive inflexibility can be called distinct from and related to cognitive estimation. But when dealing with new situations this flexibility is very important. It is also required when a person has to react newly to an old stimulus. Because damage to the prefrontal areas in the brain leads to difficulties in dealing with novel situations some theorists suggest that this area plays an important role.

Deficits in goal directed behavior

The last part that is affected by the breakdown of executive functions we want to discuss are the problems in goal-directed behavior. This topic is closely related to the area of problem solving since this is nothing else than organizing behavior towards a goal.

160 | Cognitive Psychology and Neuroscience

Decision Making and Reasoning

To make this more plastic, for the course of this topic we want to introduce an example that requires an individual to behave goal-directed. Let us imagine that a person, call him John, has just got up in the morning and wants to get dressed, in this case John’s goal is being dressed. For neurologically intact people this task is not at all hard to master, they might not even realize that it is any task because it is so trivial. But if you look closely, there are a lot of things that have to be taken into account while working towards being fully dressed and any other task – trivial or not – in general.

What characterizes goal directed behavior?

Now, in the case of John, which are these?

Goal must be kept in mind

During the whole process it is improtant to always remember what it actually was that John wanted to do. If he starts getting dressed and forgets that he wanted to get dressed quickly because he might have oversplept and is late in time, and starts making his breakfast, he definitely will not reach his goal of getting fully dressed.

Dividing into subtasks and sequencing

Most tasks have to de divided into subtasks, in John’s case: getting clothes, such as underwear, a shirt, trousers, socks and a tie, and putting them on one after the other in a sensible order. This means that John has to sequence the subtasks. He has to think about the fact that he cannot put on any clothes that are still inside of the wardrobe and that he cannot put on the underwear after he has put on his trousers.

Completed portions must be kept in mind

John has to remember which of the subtasks he has performed already, meaning that he need not do them again. He only needs to get one piece (or pair) of clothes of each kind out of the wardrobe and after he has put on his tie he must know that he does not have to look for another one and put this on as well.

Flexibility and adaptability

Imagine that John has a shirt that is his favourite one and he plans on wearing it today. He looks into the wardrobe and does not find it. Now he has to realize that the shirt is not inside the wardrobe and has to develop alternative ways to complete the task of getting dressed. Maybe his wife has put the shirt into the laundry because it was dirty? In this case, John has to adapt to this situation and has to pick another shirt that was not in his plan originally.

Evaluation of actions

Along the way of reaching his ultimate goal John constantly has to evaluate his performance in terms of ‘How am I doing considering that I have the goal of being dressed?’. If he is looking for socks or is working on the knot of his tie (after he has put on all the other clothes), he should know that he is doing perfectly fine in completing the subtasks required to reach his goal. But if he is distracted by his new tuxedo inside the wardrobe and starts getting dressed in it just to see how it looks on him, he has to realize that he is not working towards his goal of being properly dressed for a day at the office. He also will not reach his goal if he has the opinion that he is done getting dressed when he is only wearing his underpants and socks.

As we have seen, goal directed bahaviour is by far not as easy as it looks on first sight. Most people still will not have any trouble though, but think about what we have said about executive functions already.

Executive dysfunction and goal directed behavior

The breakdown of executive functions impairs goal directed behavior to a large extend. In which way cannot be stated in general, it depends on the specific brain regions that are damaged. So it is quite possible that an individual with a particular lesion has problems with two or three of the five points described above and performs within average regions when the other abilities are tested, however, if only one link is missing from the chain, the whole plan might get very hard or even impossible to master. Furthermore, the particular hemisphere affected plays a role as well. Patients with lesions in the left hemisphere have difficulties with one aspect of a task and patients with lesions ind the right hemisphere have difficulties with other aspects of the same tasks.

Problems in sequencing

For example, in an experiment (Milner, 1982) people were shown a sequence of cards with pictures. The experiment included two different tasks: recognition trials and recency trials. In the former the patients were shown two different pictures, one of them has appeared in the sequence before, and the participants had to decide which one it was. In the latter they were shown two different pictures, both of them have appeared before, they had to name the picture that was shown more recently than the other one. The results of this experiment showed that people with lesions in temporal regions have more trouble with the recognition trial and patients with frontal lesions have difficulties with the recency trial since anterior regions are important for sequencing. This is due to the fact that the recognition trial demanded a properly functioning recognition memory, the recency trial a properly functioning memory for item order. These two are dissociable and located in different areas of the brain.

Another interesting result was the fact that lesions in the frontal lobes of left and right hemisphere impaired different abilities. While a lesion in the right hemisphere caused trouble in making recency judgements, a lesion in the left hemisphere impaired the patient’s performance only when the presented material was verbal or in a variation of the experiment that required self-ordered sequencing. Because of that we know that the ability to sequence behavior is not only located in the frontal lobe but in the left hemisphere particularly when it comes to motor action.

The frontal lobe is not only important for sequencing but also for working memory because the patient has to keep track of the items presented to them to make recency judgements. This idea is supported by the fact that lesions in the lateral regions of the frontal lobe are much more likely to impair this ability than damage to other areas of the frontal cortex.

But this is not the only thing there is to sequencing. For reaching a goal in the best possible way it is important that a person is able to figure out which sequence of actions, which strategy, best suits the purpose, in addition to just being able to develop a correct sequence. This is proven by an experiment
called 'Tower of London' (Shallice, 1982) which is similar to the famous 'Tower of Hanoi' task with the difference that this task required three balls to be put onto three poles of different length so that one pole could hold three balls, the second one two and the third one only one ball, in a way that a changeable goal position is attained out of a fixed initial position in as few moves as possible. Especially patients with damage to the left frontal lobe proved to work inefficiently and ineffectively on this task, they needed many moves and engaged in actions that did not lead toward the goal. But in the end, although there are differences in how executive functions are affected depending on the particular hemisphere where the frontal lobe lesion is located, abilities connected with sequencing are mostly provided by overlapping structures in both frontal lobes.

Problems in shifting and modifying strategies

The intact neuronal tissue in the frontal lobe is also crucial for another exectuvie function connected with goal directed behavior that we described above: flexibility and adaptability. This means that a person with frontal lobe damage will have difficulties in shifting in set - meaning creating a new plan after it has been found out that the original one cannot be carried out for some reason - and in modifying the initial strategy according to this new set. In what particular way this can be observed in patients can again not be stated in general but depends on the nature of the shift that has to be made.

An experiment (Owen, 1991) that presented patients with pictures that required different kinds of conceptual shifts, discrimination between two black shapes, between two black shapes while ignoring intermingled white shapes ('intradimensional') and between the two white shapes ('extradimensional'), showed that patients with lesions in the frontal lobe have difficulties only with the extradimensional shift. This shows that these people cannot apply general rules to situations that are different from the origninal situations when these rules were learned. Besides, they are unable to create alternatives to their original plans because they stay fixed on their original way of dealing with a situation and cannot disengage from it. This is also part of the usual perseveration problems found in patients with executive dysfunction.

Another problem of patients with frontal lobe damage is that they do not use as many appropriate hypotheses for creating a strategy as people with damage to other brain regions do or they suddenly abandon it when they have found an appropriate hypothesis. Also, it seems not very surprising that they have big trouble switching beteen hypotheses indicated by Owen's experiment. Even when it is clear that one hypothesis cannot be the right one, patients will stick to it nevertheless and are unable to abandon it (called 'tunnel vision').

These earlier described problems of 'redirecting' of one's strategies stand in contrast to the atcual 'act of switching' between tasks. This is yet another problem for patients with frontal lobe damage. Since the control system that leads task switching as such is independent from the parts that actually perform these tasks, the task switching is particularly impaired in patients with lesions to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex while at the same time they have no trouble with performing the single tasks alone. This of course, causes a lot of problems in goal directed behavior because as it was said before, most tasks consist of smaller subtasks that have to be completed.

Problems with the interpretation of available information

Quite often, if we want to reach a goal, we get hints on how to do it best. This means we have to be able to interpret the available information in terms of what the appropriate strategy would be. For many patients of executive dysfunction this is not an easy thing to do either. They have trouble to use this information and thus, engage in inefficient actions and it takes them much longer to solve a task than it would if they took into account the extra information and developed an effective strategy.

Problems with self-criticism and -monitoring

The last problem for people with frontal lobe damage we want to present here is the last point in the above list of properties important for proper goal directed behavior. It is the ability to evaluate one's actions, an ability that is missing in most patients. These people are therefore very likely to 'wander off task' and engage in behavior that does not help them to attain their goal. In addition to that, they are also not able to determine whether their task is already completed at all. Reasons for this are thought to be a lack of motivation or lack of concern about one's performance (frontal lobe damage is usually accompanied by changes in emotional processing) but these are probably not the only explanations there are for these problems.

Another important brain region in this context – the medial portion of the frontal lobe – is responsible for detecting behavioral errors made while working towards a goal. This has been shown by ERP experiments where there was an error-related negativity 100ms after an error has been made. If this area is damaged, this mechanism cannot work properly anymore and the patient loses the ability to detect errors and thus monitor his own behavior.

However, in the end we must add that although executive dysfunction causes an enormous number of problems in behaving correctly towards a goal, most patients when assigned with a task are indeed anxious to solve it but are just unable to do so which can manifest in all the various ways discussed in the passages above.

Theories of Frontal Lobe Function in Executive Control

In order to explain that patients with frontal lobe damage have difficulties in performing executive functions, four major approaches have developed. Each of them leads to an improved understanding of the role of frontal regions in executive functions, but none of these theories covers all the deficits occurred.

Role of Working Memory

The most anatomically specific approach assumes the dorsolateral prefrontal area of the frontal lobe to be critical for working memory. The working memory which has to be clearly distinguished from the long term memory keeps information on-line for use in performing a task.

Not being generated for accounting for the broad array of dysfunctions it focuses on the three following deficits. Sequencing information and directing behavior toward a goal, understanding of temporal relations between items and events, and some aspects of environmental dependency and perseveration.

Research on monkeys has been helpful to develop this approach (the delayed-respone paradigm, Goldman-Rakic, 1987, serves as a classical example.

In 2000 the working memory was defined by Baddeley as “a limited capacity system for temporary
storage and manipulation of information for complex tasks such as comprehension, learning, and reasoning” (Goldstein) consisting of three components. The central executive coordinating the activity of the phonological loop (which holds verbal and auditory information) and the visuospatioal sketch pad (which holds visual and spatial information) and pulling information from long-term memory is the most important part.

Role of Controlled Versus Automatic Processes

There are two theories based on the underlying assumption that “the frontal lobes are especially important for controlling behavior in nonroutine situations and for overriding typical stimulusresponse associations, but contribute little to automatic and effortless behavior.” (Banich, p. 397).

Stuss and Benson (1986) consider control over behavior to occur in a hierarchical manner. They distinguish between three different levels, of which each is associated with a particular brain region. In the first level sensory information is processed automatically by posterior regions, in the next level (associated with the executive functions of the frontal lobe) conscious control is needed to direct behavior toward a goal and at the highest level controlled self-reflection takes place in the prefrontal cortex.

This model is appropriate for explaining deficits in goal-oriented behavior, in dealing with novelty, the lack of cognitive flexibility and the environmental dependency syndrome. Furthermore it can explain the inability to consciously control action and to self-criticize.

The second model developed by Shalice (1982) proposes a system consisting of two parts to influence the choice of behavior. The first part, a cognitive system called contention scheduling, is in charge of more automatic processing. Various links and processing schemes cause a single stimulus to result in an automatic string of actions. Once an action is initiated, it remains active until inhibited.

The second cognitive system is the supervisory attentional system which directs attention and guids action through decision processes and is only active “when no processing schemes are available, when the task is technically difficult, when problem solving is required and when certain response tendencies must be overcome” (Banich).

This theory supports the observations of few deficits in routine situations, but relevant problems in dealing with novel tasks (e.g. the Tower of London task, Shallice), since no schemes in contention scheduling exist for dealing with it. Impulsive action is another characteristic of patients with frontal lobe damages which can be explained by this theory. Even if asked not to do certain things, such patients stick to their routines and cannot control their automatic behavior.

Use of Scripts

The approach based on scripts, which are sets of events, actions and ideas that are linked to form a unit of knowledge was developed by Schank (1982) amongst others.

Containing information about the setting in which an event occurs, the set of events needed to achieve the goal and the end event terminating the action, such managerial knowledge units (MKUs) are stored in the prefrontal cortex. They are organized in a hierarchical manner being abstract at the top and getting more specific at the bottom.

Damage of the scripts leads to not being able to behave goal-directed, finding it easier to cope with usual situations (due to the difficulty of retrieving a MKU of a novel event) and deficits in the initiation and cessation of action (because of MKUs specifying the beginning and ending of an action.)

Role of a goal list

The perspective of artificial intelligence and machine learning introduced an approach which assumes that each person has a goal list, which contains the tasks requirements or goals. This list is fundamental to guiding behavior and since a frontal lobe damage disrupts the ability to form a goal list, the theory helps to explain difficulties in abstract thinking, perceptual analysis, verbal output and staying on task. It can also account for the strong environmental influence on patients with frontal lobe damages, due to the lack of internal goals and the difficulty of organizing actions toward a goal.


• Goldstein, E. Bruce (2005). Cognitive Psychology - Connecting, Mind Research, and Everyday Experience. Thomson Wadsworth.

• Marie T. Banich (1997). Neuropsychology. The neural bases of Mental Function. Houghton Mifflin.

• Wilson, Robert A.& Keil, Frank C. (1999). The The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences. Massachusetts: Bradford Book.

• Schmalhofer, Franz. Slides from the course: Cognitive Psychology and Neuropsychology, Summer Term 2006, University of Osnabrueck.



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Web-published journal by the Society for Judgement and Decision Making

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Elaborate document (pdf) from the Technical University of Dresden (in German) Text from the Max Planck Society, Munich (in English) Short description and an extensive link list


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