How to make difficult choices when the future appears very bleak

Our capacity to make decisions is also being impacted by the epidemic. As long as we’re living in a state of ambiguity, the process becomes more difficult.

University of Cambridge researchers Barbara J. Sahakian, a professor of clinical neuropsychology, and Aleya A. Marzuki, a PhD candidate in cognitive neuroscience, conducted an experiment to better understand how individuals approach decisions when they can’t anticipate how things will end up.

Researchers invited two groups of youths, one with OCD and one without, to perform a probabilistic decision-making test, in which they had to choose between two pictures displayed on a computer screen. While the other photo offered points just 20% of the time, it was designed to supply them with points 80% of the time. Rewards for each selection would be reversed at some point during the challenge.

Exploration vs exploitation were the two decision-making techniques studied in the study, which was published in JAMA Network Open. Exploitation is the process of picking alternatives that are well-known and have a high probability of success, whereas exploration is the process of trying new things and seeing if they work or not.

A combination of exploration and exploitation, according to Marzuki, is the best approach to take in this situation. Early on, take advantage of the more lucrative option, but then begin to explore whenever you notice a change in how frequently points are awarded.”

These students were found to be unable to deal with the two task possibilities because of their OCD. Compared to youth without OCD, those with OCD made a greater number of switchbacks and opted for the less rewarding option. Despite the fact that the study involved persons with OCD, the results may be applied to a larger group of people since, according to Marzuki, making optimum judgments requires a tolerance for ambiguity.

“This is not simple, since humans are creatures of habit and frequently do not cope well under unpredictability,” she explains. According to the current global pandemic, “this is demonstrated by the fact that people are engaging in excessive information-seeking and showing maladaptive behavior, ranging from hoarding toilet paper to deliberately ignoring government mandated safety advice and believing and spreading false information.”


It’s possible that businesses can benefit from this research. According to Marzuki, the first step in improving decision-making is for employees and executives to be prepared to deal with ambiguity. Resilience to uncertainty may be improved by providing employees with more clear information, which allows them to make better decisions.

Also, she continues, understanding when and why individuals utilize exploration or exploitation is critical. When pressed for time, people are more prone to make the same decisions over and over again and to examine fewer options.

Decisions made in the past might also have an effect. Marzuki believes that individuals are more inclined to try new things if they have had positive experiences in the past. Negative experiences make people more likely to remain with what they’ve learned in the past.


Both systems have their advantages and disadvantages. “Exploration may be incredibly useful, since trying out innovative possibilities can enable you to possibly reap better rewards and assist you to make better decisions in the future,” adds Marzuki. When a new alternative turns out to be inferior, it might cost time, effort, and even financial resources in terms of time and effort.

Nonetheless, neither method is sufficient on its own. Rather, it is vital to be able to flip between exploratory and exploitative tactics,” she argues, citing a recent research on the explore-exploit dilemma that focused on foraging. ” Summer is a good season for a forager to spend more time looking for food sources. When food is sparse in the winter, a forager must take use of this knowledge.”

In the same way, corporations may benefit by applying the same approach. As long as the economy is stable, firms should look to expand their horizons by pursuing new enterprises, investments, partners, and alternative working patterns, says Marzuki. Through the use of knowledge and benefits obtained earlier, they will be better prepared to weather moments of uncertainty and volatility.

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