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Sharpening This Skill Can Make You Better at Big Decisions, According to Science

A new study shows how training your selective attention can help you make better decisions in just five days.

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BY Mithu Storoni - 10 May 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

You're seeking capital for your start-up and you're sifting through several investment offers. One offer is generous, but its conditions could be risky for you in the long-term. Another offer feels more secure but is considerably smaller. There are other potential offers between these two extremes and you're having trouble deciding whom to go with. You're meeting all the interested parties in a week's time, for a last round of talks before you make your decision. Is there anything you can do in just one week to increase the chances of making the right decision? A new study has shown how "selective attention" training can significantly improve decision-making skills in just five days.

 

What is "selective attention" training?

"Selective attention" training hones your ability to block out distractions and focus on a specified target. In the study, some volunteers were shown two sets of colored shapes on a computer screen. They had to compare some shapes on the left with some shapes on the right by focusing their attention "selectively" on just a few shapes and ignoring everything else on the screen. They practiced this 200 times for one hour, every day, for five days.

 

What kind of decision-making did "selective attention" training help?

The study tested decision-making with a setup known as the Iowa Gambling Task or IGT. In the IGT, you sit at a table with four decks of cards, labelled A, B, C and D. You get to pick a card 100 times from one of the four decks. Each card may win you money or lose you money of varying amounts. You're told the cards are arranged strategically, but no one knows exactly how. What you don't know is that decks A and B offer large and frequent rewards and catastrophic losses. Decks C and D offer smaller rewards but even smaller losses. Losses are more frequent in decks A and C and less frequent in B and D. Your goal is to figure out a strategy that will make as much money (or lose as little) as possible.

 

What the study found

The study split 29 healthy men and women in their twenties into two groups. One was given one hour of "selective attention" training every day for five days while the other spent the same hour training their working memory. When making a complex decision, you're weighing various bits of information in your memory stores and you're selecting relevant data while blocking away useless noise. You use your working memory for the first process and your attention for the second. The study tested how training both of these skills affected IGT performance over the five day period.

"Selective attention" training significantly improved decision-making by day 5.

 

How do the study's authors explain the results?

The part of your brain that's hard at work when you focus, filters useless data and shifts your attention away from unwelcome emotions, which can interfere with rational thinking. The authors propose that as you become better at focusing attention, you may also improve your ability to suppress strong, distracting emotions and think coolly under pressure.

 

Taking action

The study is the first of its kind and needs replication. If its findings are true, it unveils an easy hack for improving decision-making within a very short time.

• Train yourself for an hour every day with an activity that places an intense demand on your "selective attention"

• Video games may be one option - there are several on the market that have been shown to train attention skills.

• You may need to keep training your attention skills for sustained results.