Heart Rate May Influence Decision-Making

New research suggests heart rate variation and thinking processes work together to enable wise reasoning about complex social issues.

In a profound new finding, University of Waterloo investigators found the fluctuations of your heartbeat may affect your wisdom.

Igor Grossmann, a professor of psychology at Waterloo, and colleagues say their study breaks new ground in wisdom research by identifying conditions under which psychophysiology impacts wise judgment.

Study findings appear online in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

“Our research shows that wise reasoning is not exclusively a function of the mind and cognitive ability,” says Prof. Grossmann. We found that people who have greater heart rate variability and who are able to think about social problems from a distanced viewpoint demonstrate a greater capacity for wise reasoning.”

The study expands previous work on the cognitive underpinnings of wise judgment to include consideration of how the heart’s functioning impacts the mind.

An emerging consensus among philosophers and cognitive scientists define wise judgment as including a variety of considerations. These include: the ability to recognize the limits of one’s knowledge, the awareness of the varied contexts of life and how they may unfold over time, the need to acknowledge others’ points of view, and the benefit from seeking reconciliation of opposing viewpoints.

The new study is the first to show that the physiology of the heart, specifically the variability of heart rate during low physical activity, is related to less biased, wiser judgment.

Human heart rate tends to fluctuate, even during steady-state conditions, such as while a person is sitting. Heart rate variability refers to the variation in the time interval between heartbeats and is related to the nervous system’s control of organ functions.

The researchers found that people with more varied heart rates were able to reason in a wiser, less biased fashion about societal problems when they were instructed to reflect on a social issue from a third-person perspective.

But, when the study’s participants were instructed to reason about the issue from a first-person perspective, no relationship between heart rate and wiser judgment emerged.

“We already knew that people with greater variation in their heart rate show superior performance in the brain’s executive functioning such as working memory,” says Prof. Grossmann.

“However, that does not necessarily mean these people are wiser — in fact, some people may use their cognitive skills to make unwise decisions. To channel their cognitive abilities for wiser judgment, people with greater heart rate variability first need to overcome their egocentric viewpoints.”

Experts believe the study will stimulate further exploration of wise judgment at the intersection of physiological and cognitive research.

Source: University of Waterloo