Researchers say a good decision-maker does not have to be the smartest one in the room.

A new study from the UK looks at the idea of “decision acuity”, and finds that the ability to make good decisions is not necessarily linked to IQ. 

Decision-making is a cognitive process that plays a central role in daily life activities, but relatively little is known about the neural underpinnings of decision-making ability.

Neuroscientists are particularly interested in how decision-making abilities develop, so they focused a new study on 830 individuals, ranging in age from 14 to 24 years old. 

They were given tasks to measure sensitivity to gains and losses, the propensity to take risks and exhibit impulsivity, and the ability to make beneficial social judgments. 

The researchers extracted 32 decision-making measures from these tasks and identified a common underlying dimension dubbed “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. Acuity was reduced in individuals with low general social functioning.

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 fMRI scanners, the researchers 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. 

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.

“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,” says senior study author Raymond Dolan of University College London. 

“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.”

The full study is accessible here.