Study of emotion and cognition when making decisions
He says it is pushing back frontiers. Cognitive psychologist Professor Bernhard Hommel is going to lead an extensive interdisciplinary study into the interwovenness of rational and emotional aspects of human decisions. The NWO Programme of Exellence is supporting the project with a grant of € 500,000.
How do people determine which action they should best take when they want to achieve a certain goal? Psychological theories to date assumed either rational or emotional processes. Together with Professor Reinout Wiers and Dr Sanne de Wit from the University of Amsterdam, Hommel is now going to try and integrate both lines of research. A single linking theory of intentional behaviour is the ultimate aim.
Hommel readily acknowledges that this will not be easy. ‘In order to make links between different theoretical movements we will first need to overcome language barriers. In cognitive psychology we mainly talk about goals, perceptions and actions. In clinical psychology it is mainly drives and emotions: terms there is often no room for in cognitive psychology. One of our greatest challenges will be to develop a common language.’
Hommel and his colleagues do already have a suspicion about how rational and emotional decision processes are connected. ‘We think that people decide on intentional actions via a two-part process. If you have a certain goal you first need to know which actions lead to the desired effect. That is a cognitive process. On the basis of learnt associations between actions and their consequences you know which actions you can choose from if you wish to achieve a certain goal. But in order to then choose between these actions you must be driven by a certain preference. That is where the emotions come into play. One action leads to a positive feeling and the other to a negative one. People choose the action that previously aroused the most positive feeling.’
According to Hommel, traditional cognitive and motivational theories are therefore not incompatible but instead they supplement each other. Cognitive mechanisms ensure that people know from which actions they can choose if they wish to achieve a goal. Emotional mechanisms then determine the choice of one of these actions. These two mechanisms appear to take place via different neural networks in the brain. With the cognitive processes, the front part of the brain plays an important role, whereas emotional choices take place deeper in the brain.
The model developed by Hommel and his colleagues makes it possible to relate individual differences in behaviour, personality and genetic makeup to differences in patterns of brain activity. The fMRI facilities of the Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition (LIBC) will enable Hommel to measure the brain activity of different groups of test persons while they make decisions in the laboratory.
Among other things, the researchers wish to compare impulsive people and sensation seekers. Both types of people exhibit unrestrained behaviour, but the causes of this are probably different. In impulsive people the front part of the brain does not work optimally. According to Hommel’s model, this primarily leads to problems in the cognitive phase of the decision process: impulsive people embark on action before they have identified all options. With sensation seekers the problem is rather of a motivational nature: they choose the most risky option, because they are after the biggest kick. Hommel is hoping to reveal such individual differences by using different experiments and fMRI scans. ‘Ideally, you would be able to predict on the basis of brain activity which type of decision-maker a person is, and conversely you would be able to predict brain activity if you knew what type of decision-maker a person was. But we are no way near that far yet.’
People with an alcohol addiction and people with an eating disorder will also go into the fMRI scanner. This will make the study clinically relevant. ‘If, for example, you can establish that with an addict the problem is purely motivational, you know for sure that you cannot solve the addiction by just responding to cognitions. Furthermore, insight into the underlying brain mechanisms may give pharmacologists new leads for developing medication.’
The study by Hommel and his colleagues is one of the first attempts to bring together insights from cognitive psychology, clinical psychology and the neural sciences. ‘The collaboration between different fields of study makes this study exciting,’ says Hommel. ‘As an expert in a certain field you have your own cognitive boundaries. By working together with other experts you shift these boundaries. The study therefore also has a lot of potential within the LIBC. Without the LIBC we would never have been able to do such interdisciplinary research here at Leiden.’
Hommel also wishes to shift boundaries by developing innovative experiments. ‘80 percent of the current cognitive-psychological research uses computer tasks in which the researcher prescribes how the test person must react to a stimulus. But if our theory is right, you definitely do not measure the cognitive aspect of human decisions with this. In our experiments we are going to present test persons with situations in which they can attain their goals in a number of ways. Whether we come closer to the flexible, creative aspect of human cognition with this, I don’t know. But we are, in any case, going to try our utmost to do this. I like challenges. If you start something new you want to prove that it is not nonsense.’
This study is part of the Leiden research profile area Brain function and dysfunction over the lifespan .
(17 August 2010)