Heart rate and pupil dilation give an indication of how confident someone feels about a decison. Image provided by Allen et al. (CC BY 4.0)

Arousing confidence

Unconscious sensations affect how happy we are in our decisions.

As you read the words on this page, you might also notice a growing feeling of confidence that you understand their meaning. Every day we make decisions based on ambiguous information and in response to factors over which we have little or no control. Yet rather than being constantly paralysed by doubt, we generally feel reasonably confident about our choices. So where does this feeling of confidence come from?

Computational models of human decision-making assume that our confidence depends on the quality of the information available to us: the less ambiguous this information, the more confident we should feel. According to this idea, the information on which we base our decisions is also the information that determines how confident we are that those decisions are correct. However, recent experiments suggest that this is not the whole story. Instead, our internal states — specifically how our heart is beating and how alert we are — may influence our confidence in our decisions without affecting the decisions themselves.

To test this possibility, Micah Allen and co-workers asked volunteers to decide whether dots on a screen were moving to the left or to the right, and to indicate how confident they were in their choice. As the task became objectively more difficult, the volunteers became less confident about their decisions. However, increasing the volunteers’ alertness or “arousal” levels immediately before a trial countered this effect, showing that task difficulty is not the only factor that determines confidence. Measures of arousal — specifically heart rate and pupil dilation — were also related to how confident the volunteers felt on each trial. These results suggest that unconscious processes might exert a subtle influence on our conscious, reflective decisions, independently of the accuracy of the decisions themselves.

The next step will be to develop more refined mathematical models of perception and decision-making to quantify the exact impact of arousal and other bodily sensations on confidence. The results may also be relevant to understanding clinical disorders, such as anxiety and depression, where changes in arousal might lock sufferers into an unrealistically certain or uncertain world.

To find out more

Read the eLife research paper on which this eLife digest is based: “Unexpected arousal modulates the influence of sensory noise on confidence” (October 25, 2016).
eLife is an open-access journal that publishes outstanding research in the life sciences and biomedicine.
This text was reused under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.