eLife digest | Perceptual decisions are biased by the cost to act
Imagine you are in an orchard, trying to decide which of the many apples to pick. On what do you base your decision? Most research into this type of decision-making has focused on how the brain uses visual information – about features such as colour, size and shape – to make a choice. But what about the effort required to obtain the apple? Does an apple at the top of the tree look more or less tempting than the low-hanging fruit?
To answer this kind of question, Hagura et al. asked volunteers to decide whether dots on a screen were moving to the left or to the right. The volunteers indicated their choice by moving one of two levers. If they thought the dots were moving to the right, they moved a lever in their right hand. If they thought the dots were moving to the left, they moved a lever in their left hand. What the volunteers did not know, however, is that one of the levers was slightly heavier and therefore harder to move than the other.
Hagura et al. found that the volunteers biased their decisions away from the direction that would require the most effort. If the right-hand lever was heavier, the volunteers decided that dots with ambiguous motion were moving to the left. Those for whom the left-hand lever was heavier felt that the same dots were moving to the right. The participants showed this bias despite failing to notice that the levers had different weights. Moreover, they continued to show the bias even when subsequently asked to simply say their answers rather than use the levers.
These results indicate that the effort required to act on a decision can influence the decision itself. The fact that participants were biased even when responding verbally, and despite being unaware that the levers differed in weight, suggests that they were not deliberately choosing the easier option. Instead, the cost to act changed how they perceived the stimuli themselves. The findings also suggest that it might be possible to help people make better decisions by designing environments in which less favourable options require more effort.