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Team Wins $291,000 NSF Grant To Study Decision Making

Three University of Iowa professors have won a $291,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for a research study in the emerging field of "Decision Neuroscience."

The team includes Irwin Levin, professor of psychology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor of marketing in the Henry B. Tippie College of Business; Baba Shiv, associate professor of marketing in the Tippie College of Business; and Antoine Bechara, associate professor of neurology in the UI Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine. They will examine the relationship between emotion and logic in decision making by studying two groups of people, one with emotional impairment due to brain injury and the other non-impaired.

The goal is to better understand the human decision making process at its most basic, neurological level, which each professor says would be impossible without the expertise of the other two.

"We are in an excellent position to make an impact in this new field because we have here in one university the research expertise in medicine, decision-making and psychological modeling," said Shiv. "We also have a solid base of data from the Damasio lab from which to build our study."

He was referring to the work of neurologists Antonio and Hanna Damasio, who have developed at the UI one of the premier neuroscience research centers in the world and made significant breakthroughs in the study of emotion and cognition.

Levin, Shiv and Bechara will study a core group of patients with brain lesions that impair the brain's emotional circuitry. Such lesions are the result of a brain injury, usually a stroke, Shiv said.

Levin said that by comparing their responses to decision making tasks with the responses of a control group without brain lesions, the team will offer a more solid understanding of how "anticipatory emotion" affects decision making.

"Most people, when faced with some risk or uncertainty in making a decision, will experience some emotional distress or uneasiness as they anticipate possible outcomes," he said. "That emotional center is impaired in the patients with brain lesions so they have little or no concern about what might happen as a result of their decisions. We believe that by observing the neurological and behavioral differences between these two groups we will create a more complete picture of how the decision making process works in humans."

The study will be conducted in parallel laboratories -- one in the neurology department, where the lesion patients will be studied, and one in the College of Business, where the control group will be studied. Participants will be asked to complete a series of tasks that involve choosing between "safe" and "risky" options.

Using their combined expertise the professors will analyze the participants' responses on both neurological and behavioral levels. They will collect data on how long participants wait before making a decision, how often they choose the risky over the safe option, and what types of other behavioral responses they exhibit, such as racing pulse or temperature increase. They also can adjust the experiment to add different levels of uncertainty or risk and then measure and compare those responses.

The study, "Interplay of Affect and Cognition in Decision Making: Comparing Emotionally Impaired Patients and Controls," is funded by the Decision Risk and Management Sciences program of the National Science Foundation.


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