Decisions, Decisions

When we go to the fair and pick a cob of corn over the deep-fried butter, are we exerting self-control — or getting what we always get?
Pamela J. Johnson

Everything in life requires making decisions. Even deciding when — or if — to get out of bed.

“Or choosing what to wear,” said Wendy Wood, Provost Professor of Psychology and Business. “How much effort did you put into that today?”

But are we really deciding or are we just creatures of habit?

This Fall, Wood is leading a new USC Dornsife 2020 initiative, “Adapting to Downturn, Rising with Recovery: Multi-Method Training for Social, Behavioral and Brain Scientists.” As part of this initiative, she is co-teaching a course for graduate students linking neurological and social data to better understand self-control successes and failures involving obesity, addictions and other serious problems.

USC Dornsife 2020 brings together faculty from different departments or areas within departments to work on themes that will greatly impact society in years to come. The class is co-taught with John Monterosso, associate professor of psychology, who uses cognitive neuroscience and behavioral economics also called neuroeconomics, in his self-control and addiction research. Wood is a social psychologist.

“When we think people are exerting self-control by eating healthy and exercising, they may just be following habits,” Wood said. “Habits are automatic mental associations that involve the basal ganglia and associated parts of the brain. Bad habits conflict with goals, but good habits help us get through the day and meet our goals without much thought. So being able to test neuroactivation is very important for social psychological theories.”

In a recent paper about mindless eating published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin that garnered much media attention, Wood revealed that moviegoers who indicated they typically munched on popcorn at the movies ate about the same amount of popcorn whether it was fresh or stale.

“Nobody likes cold, spongy, week-old popcorn,” said co-author Wood. “But once we’ve formed an eating habit, behavior is guided by mental associations — sitting in theater equals eating popcorn. We eat even if the food doesn’t taste good.”

Margaret Gatz, professor of psychology, gerontology and preventive medicine, and chair of the Department of Psychology, noted the extremely wide breadth and depth of decision-making research.

“There are really intriguing issues with aging,” said Gatz, an expert on Alzheimer’s disease and the overall mental health of elderly people. “When the brain changes with age, it affects the ways decisions are made; on health care, finances, one’s residence. Scams perpetrated on the elderly are in part due to how the decision-making process changes with age.”

Increasingly, psychologists are working with neuroscientists and neuroimaging to enhance their empirical research, Gatz said.

“Each group is contributing from their discipline’s perspectives to create progress,” Gatz said. “It’s useful not to forget the history. But it’s terrific that different fields are talking to one another.”

Richard John is one psychologist doing precisely this. The associate professor of psychology is a USC Dornsife faculty member involved in USC’s National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE), funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and housed at the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

John is on CREATE’s risk assessment team and in part researches how terrorist leaders make decisions.

“They make decisions in much the same way a Fortune 500 company makes decisions,” John said. “They have a certain amount of ‘opportunities’ in a year, they can invest resources and they come up with a portfolio of choices. So the work we’ve done is to try to quantify their objectives and motivations.” 

John is also an expert in legal decision-making. There is much debate over mental health professionals’ methods in predicting a detainee’s danger to society. Historically, psychologists have used only their unaided judgment to conclude whether someone is sufficiently dangerous to be admitted.

More and more, psychologists are using actuarial tools — which mathematically assess the likelihood of events — to predict the risk of violence. Sometimes, however, the tools are not used correctly and consequently people who shouldn’t are being locked up.

“Courts are slow to use these tools but professionals use them as an aid for making these judgments,” John said. “We look at whether these tools actually work. There’s a certain perception that people who suffer from mental illness tend to be violent. Turns out that’s a myth.”

Other faculty use social media methodologies in their research. Jesse Graham, assistant professor of psychology, co-created a Web site,, with professors and graduate students of social psychology nationwide. The brainchild of Ravi Iyer, a social psychology postdoc in Graham’s lab, the site enables people to explore their morality while contributing to the group’s research.

One of Graham’s goals is to understand why people disagree so passionately about what is right and what morality even means. His research suggests that people decide on a political party not so much based on issues but based on their worldviews. Graham and his team created a scale to map the full range of human moral concerns by surveying 35,000 self-identified liberals and conservatives. Published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the study tested universal sets of moral intuitions, including care, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity.

Issues people often classify as political also become issues of morality, Graham said. For example, the recent debate over the debt ceiling involved more than different financial opinions. It touched on moral reactions to poverty and a sense of fairness to the next generation. The study found that liberals and conservatives value morals differently.

Liberals placed the individual as the focus of morality, with concerns prioritized around protecting people from harm or unfair treatment. Conservatives, the study found, center morality on the family unit and what they think as proper relationships between a person and his or her god, man and woman, parent and child.

While equal pay is a moral issue for liberals, conservatives would consider it immoral for a soldier to disagree with a commanding officer, Graham said.

“The most intractable political debates involve respect for tradition and authority, and physical and spiritual purity,” said Graham, citing gay marriage laws that pit tradition and purity against issues of fairness.

Strong morals, Graham said, can lead to righteous extremism.

Read more articles from Dornsife Life magazine’s Fall 2011/Winter 2012 issue