Independent of IQ, “Decision Acuity” Predicts Broad Range of Decision-Making Abilities

Summary: Independent of IQ, decision acuity predicted performance in decision-making tasks. This factored higher in older adults and increased in light of parental education.

Source: Cell Press

A common factor called “decision acuity” underpins diverse decision-making abilities in adolescents and young adults, suggests a study appearing May 20th in the journal Neuron. A large set of behavioral and neuroimaging data revealed that decision acuity is stable over time, distinct from IQ, and reduced in individuals with low general social functioning.

“We describe a new cognitive construct that captures global decision-making ability across multiple domains,” says senior study author Raymond Dolan of University College London. “This construct may be important for understanding mental health, particularly regarding poor social function and aberrant thought patterns.”

Decision-making is a cognitive process that plays a central role in a range of daily life activities. But relatively little is known about the neural underpinnings of decision-making ability in adolescence and early adulthood–a crucial period for brain maturation and the emergence of many psychiatric disorders.

“There is an increasing urgency in understanding the neural basis of cognitive development in young people, including its relationship with brain connectivity,” says co-first author Michael Moutoussis of University College London.

To address this need, the researchers administered seven decision-making tasks to 830 individuals, who ranged in age from 14 to 24 years old. These tasks were able to measure sensitivity to gains and losses, the propensity to take risks and exhibit impulsivity, and the ability to make beneficial social judgements. The researchers extracted 32 decision-making measures from these tasks and identified a common underlying dimension named “decision acuity.”

High decision acuity reflected factors such as fast learning, considering outcomes in the distant future, reward sensitivity, trust in others, and low propensity for retaliation. Independent of IQ, decision acuity predicted performance in the decision-making tasks, was higher in older subjects, and increased with parental education.

In addition, decision acuity remained stable over time among 571 of the original participants who were re-tested on the same behavioral tasks 18 months later.

The researchers also evaluated the subjects’ self-reported psychological dispositions and mental-health symptoms. High decision acuity was most strongly linked to better social functioning. Although decision acuity was associated with aberrant thinking, this relationship wasn’t statistically significant when sociality was taken into account.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, the researchers next explored the neural basis of decision acuity for 295 participants who had no history or signs of psychiatric disorders. Their brain activity was measured while they were resting and performing no explicit task.

This shows the outline of a girl and a sign post reading "this way" and "that way"
Decision-making is a cognitive process that plays a central role in a range of daily life activities. Image is in the public domain

Independent of IQ, decision acuity predicted patterns of correlated activity among opercular cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, and somatosensory and motor areas–brain regions previously linked to decision-making. This result remained stable among the 223 subjects who were re-tested 18 months later.

The study limitations include low retention rate and the potential of self-selection biases introduced by the reliance on volunteers. In addition, the self-reported symptoms do not reflect diagnosable clinical disorders.

“Further research is needed to trace the pathways between decision acuity, adaptive social function, and psychiatric symptoms, especially as poor social functioning may confer a greater functional impact to psychiatric symptoms,” Dolan says.

“Crucially, studies informed by the associations found here can be extended to clinical populations to assess the generality of the findings, as well as determine if decision acuity might inform diagnosis and treatment plans for individual psychiatric patients.”

Funding: This work was supported by the Wellcome-Trust-funded “Neuroscience in Psychiatry Project” (NSPN), a Wellcome Strategic Award, a Wellcome Investigator Award, the Swedish Research Council, the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) UCLH Biomedical Research Centre.

About this decision making research news

Source: Cell Press
Contact: Carly Britton – Cell Press
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
Decision-making ability, psychopathology, and brain connectivity” by Raymond Dolan et al. Neuron


Decision-making ability, psychopathology, and brain connectivity


  • Young people have a general decision-making ability, which we call “decision acuity”
  • Decision acuity is reflected in how strongly connected certain brain networks are
  • Low decision acuity is associated with general social function psychopathology


Decision-making is a cognitive process of central importance for the quality of our lives.

Here, we ask whether a common factor underpins our diverse decision-making abilities. We obtained 32 decision-making measures from 830 young people and identified a common factor that we call “decision acuity,” which was distinct from IQ and reflected a generic decision-making ability.

Decision acuity was decreased in those with aberrant thinking and low general social functioning. Crucially, decision acuity and IQ had dissociable brain signatures, in terms of their associated neural networks of resting-state functional connectivity.

Decision acuity was reliably measured, and its relationship with functional connectivity was also stable when measured in the same individuals 18 months later. Thus, our behavioral and brain data identify a new cognitive construct that underpins decision-making ability across multiple domains.

This construct may be important for understanding mental health, particularly regarding poor social function and aberrant thought patterns.

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