Interrupting the Cascade: Orienting Contributes to Decision Making Even in the Absence of Visual Stimulation

By Simion, Claudiu; Shimojo, Shinsuke | Perception and Psychophysics, May 2007 | Go to article overview

Interrupting the Cascade: Orienting Contributes to Decision Making Even in the Absence of Visual Stimulation


Simion, Claudiu, Shimojo, Shinsuke, Perception and Psychophysics


Most systematic studies of human decision making approach the subject from a cost analysis point of view and assume that people make the highest utility choice. Very few articles investigate subjective decision making, such as that involving preference, although such decisions are very important for our daily functioning. We have argued (Shimojo, Simion, Shimojo, & Scheier, 2003) that an orienting bias effectively leads to the preference decision by means of a positive feedback loop involving mere exposure and preferential looking. The illustration of this process is a continually increasing gaze bias toward the eventual choice, which we call the gaze cascade effect. In the present study, we interrupt the natural process of preference selection, but we show that gaze behavior does not change even when the stimuli are removed from observers' visual field. This demonstrates that once started, the involvement of orienting in decision making cannot be stopped and that orienting acts independently of the presence of visual stimuli. We also show that the cascade effect is intrinsically linked to the decision itself and is not triggered simply by a tendency to look at preferred targets.

Our previous work linked orienting and preference decision making by revealing a particular gaze behavior when observers chose the stimulus they liked in a two-alternative forced-choice task (Shimojo, Simion, Shimojo, & Scheier, 2003). Namely, whenever observers were asked to make a preference decision as naturally as possible, a continually increasing gaze bias toward the eventual choice was observed. This effect was not present in the case of controlled nonpreference tasks, and its size increased with task difficulty-as if the brain needed a stronger gaze signal to make a more difficult decision. We accounted for the behavior by postulating a positive feedback loop between the structures responsible for decision making on the one hand and the areas controlling orienting on the other. If we imagine that the more we look at a stimulus, the more we like it, according to the well-known process of mere exposure (Kunst-Wilson & Zajonc, 1980; Moreland & Zajonc, 1977, 1982; Zajonc, 1968), and that we look longer at stimuli we like (Birch, Shimojo, & Held, 1985; Fantz, 1964), we realize that the formation of preference could be strongly modulated by gaze.

It thus seems that orienting assists cognition in making preference decisions, with the feedback loop described earlier driving the decision signal above a possible decision threshold (Shimojo et al., 2003). Shimojo et al.'s study eliminated alternative causes for this behavior and provided strong evidence in favor of the proposed model. However, orienting is regarded as a novelty detector and is usually linked to the presence of salient features in the relevant stimuli. Using a gaze-contingent window (peephole) paradigm, we have already shown that holistic stimulus processing is not necessary for the cascade effect to happen (Simion & Shimojo, 2006). In the Simion and Shimojo study, observers could inspect the stimuli only through a small, gaze-contingent window; they then had to choose the stimulus they liked. Therefore, they had to actively use their gaze to gather information about the stimuli. Naturally, the rate at which observers accumulated visual information was much slower, and the cascade effect was much longer (7 sec) than in the 2003 experiments. This result supported the claim that the brain integrates gaze information over time and makes a decision only after a threshold has been passed. Additionally, this result showed that orienting could be entirely memory (and intention) driven, independent of stimulus perception.

Our main claim is that orienting has been incorporated into the mechanism of preference decisions, and its biases contribute to decision making; this claim is similar to what Damasio proposed in the well-known somatic marker hypothesis (Bechara, Damasio & Damasio, 2000; Damasio, 1996). …

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