An individual's confidence is a translation of the brain's statistical assessments, a new study has suggested.

The subjective feeling of confidence is derived from objective calculations similar to how a computer uses statistical computations, says lead author and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Neuroscience professor Adam Kepecs, whose goal is to identify the brain center of statistical analysis and how it processes data.

Oftentimes, deciding on important things like career choices and financial investments depend on how confident an individual is. People also apply decision making skills on menial things such as choosing to make a turn when driving or whether to speak to a stranger or not. Kepecs says people need to have confidence to decide on something. People find it hard to make a decision when they do not have the accurate mechanism for confidence.

Statisticians use data set to come up with an algorithm that they use to make conclusions based on the entire data. For instance, in the battle with artificial intelligence AlphaGo, Lee Sedol relied on intuition and calculation. Sedol routed the AI on the fourth try because he was already more confident with his decisions.

This claim contradicts earlier studies suggesting that the human brain uses shortcuts when making decisions, coming up with approximations and rules of thumb to decide on something instead of making tedious statistical analyses. For this reason, confidence is still prone to error.

Kepecs contends that if confidence is prone to error, deciding on simple things would become difficult for individuals to do.

To settle this, Kepecs set out to prove that human confidence uses objective calculation using controlled data streams. Together with graduate student Joshua Sanders, Kepecs developed video games to compare computer and human performance.

In the experiment, Kepecs' team asked participants to listen to various clicking sounds and identify which of them were faster. They were also asked to rate whether the answer they gave is a random guess or based on high confidence. They found that the volunteers' responses were comparable to statistical computations. Feelings of confidence dictate decisions just as how statistics create patterns from a number of data.

A follow-up study complemented Kepecs' human confidence model, in which participants have individual knowledge base. The feeling of overconfidence even during difficult decisions and the feeling of under-confidence when making a basic choice follows Kepecs' model.

Using the model of confidence, Kepecs wants to identify the specific brain area where confidence calculation occurs and to study its neural network. He is planning to study rodent brain and examine the brain circuitry that could play a role in gaining feelings of confidence and control-associated behaviors.

"Having a theory about confidence is a required first step to figure out how the brain actually does it, how the nerve cells perform this process," says Kepecs.

The study was published in Neuron on May 4.

Photo: Till Westermayer | Flickr

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