There is now strong evidence that value isn’t something we just look up from some internal table, our brains construct subjective value when we make decisions and even when we’re just going through our daily activities value isn’t something stable intrinsic or immutable.

Our brains construct subjective value

Even if our brains process food using one pathway and money using another those different pathways each feed into the medial orbito-frontal cortex, so that different goods can be compared on the same scale. Subsequent research has explored whether the construction of subjective value is a relatively automatic process such as whether this brain region constructs value signals even in the absence of explicit choices.

Researchers wanted to evaluate whether people construct subjective value automatically, but they didn’t want to look at decisions about physical goods like food or electronics. The reason is simple. If we show people those sorts of goods in an experiment we only get a sense of their anticipated value, the actual experienced value comes later when people consume or use the good, so they decided to look at decisions about viewing faces.

Human faces are perhaps the single most universally motivating visual stimulus. We love looking at bases of our family our friends even of people unfamiliar to us advertisers know this. Click through any magazine and you’ll see faces staring back to you on page after page. In many advertisements a model’s face will be more noticeable than the product that’s being sold. They took advantage of this bias in a two-part neuroscience experiment.

In the first part each were spent just passively viewed faces of varying attractiveness and passively receive monetary rewards. They didn’t have to do anything just lie back and look at faces and receives the money, from this we could examine how the brain responds to the experience of more versus less attractive faces and the experience of better versus worse monetary rewards.

Then in the second part of the experiment the same participant made active decisions to spend some of the money they had just earned in order to view more attractive faces. From this we can determine how much money they were willing to pay in order to see an attractive face. Now if’s subjective value is being constructed automatically then we should be able to use brain signals generated what people look at attractive faces to predict their later decisions about different attractive faces.

That’s exactly the brain signal we found in the medial orbito-frontal cortex the same brain region that was thought to represent a common currency across different rewards. If someone was willing to pay a lot to view attractive faces in the brain response in that region was much greater for faces than money. But if someone would rather keep their money than the brain response was greater for money than faces.

Our brains construct subjective value when we make decisions

In summary there is now strong evidence that value isn’t something we just look up from some internal table, our brains construct subjective value when we make decisions and even when we’re just going through our daily activities value isn’t something stable intrinsic or immutable. This might seem inefficient. Why bother with all that processing each time we have to make a decision?

Despite the additional time and energy required constructed preferences provide an enormous advantage over something more static they are extraordinarily flexible. What we prefer an intern what we choose can change depending on the current context which we are making decisions. When our mood shifts or we enter a new environment we start to prioritize new features of a complex decision and our preferences changes well

This scientific background leads to specific advice for decision-making.  In particular I emphasize that your value for something is constructed based on the questions you ask so ask different question. If you are trying to decide between two similar items step back and ask yourself how much you be willing to pay for one of then ask how much you be willing to pay for the other.

You might come to a different decision or have different insight about your decision by thinking about items independently rather by only thinking about them in comparison with each other. If you are making a decision among a set of options ask yourself how your decision might change if one or more of those options were just unavailable. Rule something out for the moment and see if your preferences shift.

Are you compromising for compromises sake? Are you influenced by the irrelevant decoy? You don’t always know what’s important to you so use these processes of active construction to your advantage. Use them to simulate a slightly different sort of decision problem so that you can learn more about your own preferences whether you are valuing the right things or whether you are fixating on some minor aspect of the decision

This construction process is critical because we don’t have perfect knowledge about the world about goods we could purchase or even about our own preferences.