Meditation Helps Make Rational Decisions in Financial Gain Situations

Decision-making in humans is often a balance between two components – logic (or cognition) and emotions (or feelings). It is found that excess of the emotional component hampers rational judgment. This study assessed the degree of control over the emotional component of Buddhist meditators while they made decisions in a financial decision-making game. The results of this study showed that meditators made decisions that are more rational and used a different part of their brain while making economic decisions, compared to the control individuals. The authors thus conclude that these findings show clinically and socioculturally important features with regard to training the mind in decision-making.

In human behavior, it is noted that when people are given a chance to get a reward compared to not getting anything, they choose the former. However, when getting the reward involves giving away a larger reward to another, there is a change in decision-making. There are two components of decision-making. One is guided by logic and the other by emotions or feelings that guide social behavior. Studies have shown that the “willingness to sacrifice money to punish an unfair proposer” is often guided by the emotional component of decision-making. This study speculated that a specific region of the brain called the anterior insula is involved in the emotional component of decision-making. The authors thus attempted to compare decision-making and brain activity among Buddhist meditators and ordinary individuals to understand the importance of these components in human decision-making.

* For this experiment, there were 40 individuals in the control group, with no history of meditation (21 women and 19 men) and 26 individuals (16 men and 10 women) with six months to 24 years of Buddhist meditation experience and a secular family life.
* The individuals of both the groups were allowed to play 45 rounds of an economic decision-making game (the ultimatum game) where they needed to decide on whether to give away a part of their predetermined financial rewards.
* All the individuals simultaneously underwent brain scans or functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to see the brain activity in response to the decision-making.

Key findings
* The meditators accepted highly unfair rewards that split $19 to the opponent and $1 to themselves at least 54 percent of the time. This division was accepted by the control group on only 28 percent of trials.
* Similarly, while the meditators accepted $18 to $2 split 61 percent of the time, the control group accepted it only 42 percent of the time. Thus, the meditators accepted more asymmetric offers compared to the control group.
* The brain scans showed that the control group used their anterior insula to make the decisions for unfair offers. On the other hand, the meditators showed low activity in the anterior insula and showed more activity in the posterior insula region of the brain for decision-making.
* Those in the control group that accepted more than 85 percent of the unfair offers were termed to be playing rationally. They showed more activity in their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex region of their brains. The rational meditators on the other hand used their somatosensory cortex and posterior superior temporal cortex more than other regions.

Next steps/Shortcomings
The authors confirm that they tested the meditators versus controls at one point in time. A better study design for future work would be to test the same individuals before and after they have begun practicing meditation to give them a clearer picture of the effects of meditation on emotional and logical decision-making behavior.

This study shows that individuals who practice meditation have a tendency to take financial decisions that are more rational, by reducing their emotional component in decision-making. They do not mind others getting a larger reward for their small monetary gains as compared to most of the general population. The authors believe that this type of behavior displayed by the control group is commonly seen in siblings, schoolchildren and CEOs who end up with unhappy social endings due to their irrational decision-making. The authors conclude that it is unimportant to calculate gains rationally each time but important to move away from what-if scenarios anout others’ gains and to focus on the reward, no matter how small.

For More Information:
Interoception Drives Increased Rational Decision-making in Meditators Playing the Ultimatum Game
Publication Journal: Frontiers in Neuroscience, April 2011
By Ulrich Kirk; Jonathan Downar; Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, Roanoke, Virginia; Toronto Western Hospital, Toronto; University of Toronto

FYI Living Lab Reports are a summary of the original report.

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