Choosing wisely for positive long-term outcomes — often at the expense of tempting short-term gains — is a hallmark of mature leadership. At the individual level, these types of decisions signal patience, vision and self control.

New research published in the journal Nature Neuroscience (March 28, 2010) provides significant evidence as to where in the brain these cognitive processes are taking place: the lateral prefrontal cortex. That region of the brain — tap your forehead, it’s right under there — is considered to be the executive lobe and is associated with planning, complex decision making and moderating socially acceptable behavioral responses.

Bernd Figner, a research scientist at the Business School and the University’s Department of Psychology, working with Professor Eric Johnson and Professor Elke Weber, used a brain stimulation technique called rTMS to temporarily disrupt the function of the lateral prefrontal cortex in a group of volunteers. After the brain stimulation, the volunteers were asked to make choices between smaller, more immediate rewards or larger, future rewards.

“When we disrupted the function of the volunteers’ left lateral prefrontal cortex, we found they strongly preferred the smaller, more immediate rewards,” says Figner. The effect of increased impatience was specific in three ways: it only occurred after stimulation of the left, but not the right prefrtontal cortex; when the smaller reward was a tempting immediate reward; and when a choice, not just an evaluative judgment, had to be made.

The results add to the growing body of scientific literature on decision making, which has examined the behavioral, cognitive and neural mechanisms. A recent Ideas at Work article profiled related research by Weber, Johnson and other researchers, on the role of cognitive mechanisms in decision making. Specifically, they examined how people use memory and attention in delaying gratification or taking an immediate reward; they found “people muster the most evidence to support the first choice they consider, drowning out other options.”

The implication of the research findings is important for “choice architecture” or the way in which environments are structured to lead people through a decision-making process.

In Ideas, Weber says out that we live in an era that makes choice architecture easy to implement: “More and more decision making and communication occurs on the Web, where it is easier to structure a choice environment in a way that focuses people on one type of option or query over another,” she says. “So you can provide people first with information about the future when they make health or financial decisions, building decision environments that promote less impulsive choices and encourage more long-term choice.”