On the role of executive subcomponents, goal mechanisms, and methods of measurement in decision making under risk conditions

In several scientific disciplines human decision-making behavior has gained rapidly growing interest in the last decades. Neuropsychological research made remarkable effort to investigate the cognitive and emotional processes involved during decision making in different types of decision situations, for example under ambiguity and under risk conditions. In decisions under risk conditions, explicit information about the rules for gains and losses is available to the decision maker (Brand, Labudda, & Markowitsch, 2006; Yates & Stone, 1992). In the wide research field on this type of decisions, there are still theoretical and methodological gaps. Three outstanding gaps are addressed in this thesis. First, a neuropsychological model that theoretically describes the processes involved in these decisions was proposed by Brand and colleagues (2006) but still waits to be specified. Particularly, the model suggests executive functions as the main director of decision-making behavior, but it is not described in detail which subcomponents of the central executive system contribute in which way to decision making. Second, the model does not incorporate one of the main moderators of human behavior and cognitive performance: explicit outcome goals. Third, a methodological gap in decision-making research is to be found in the measurement of decision-making competences. For the measurement several laboratory gambling tasks are used. The variety of existing tasks as well the tasks’ architectures severely restrict the theoretical and practical conclusions that can be drawn from the results they provide. The main problems of the tasks are that they differ with regard to several attributes, are often inflexible for experimental manipulation, and that their ecological validities are restricted due to their gambling orientation. The first two studies of this thesis aimed to fill the gaps in the theoretical model. Study 1 investigated the role of different executive subcomponents in decision-making performance. It was found that particularly strategy managing functions, such as planning and monitoring, predicted performance, while situation processing functions, such as attention/inhibition and coding of information, supported the strategy managing operations. Study 2 investigated the effects of explicit goals on performance in a decision situation that provides increased strategic control. Realistic and attainable goals were found to have a positive effect, improving decision-making performance. In contrast, if the goals were unrealistic and too high, performance decreased. Study 3 evaluated an innovative methodological framework for measuring decision-making performance. The new framework allows designing several decision-making problems within one real-world oriented and unitary story line. The attributes of three standard decision-making tasks were mapped to the new scenario and it was found that participants behaved similarly in the new scenario compared to the original tasks. This indicates that the new scenario measures decision-making performance accurately. The results of the three studies enhance the theoretical understanding of the neurocognitive processes involved in decision making under risk conditions and open new perspectives for the examination of decision-making competence. A specified theoretical model is suggested, which incorporates the executive sub-processes directing the decision-making process, as well as the role of explicit goal setting and other situational conditions. These adaptions are supposed to help to better explain variances in decision-making competence as they can be found in healthy persons as well as patients with neurological or psychiatric diseases.


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