Study: Agents like Snowden prone to irrational decision making

July 9, 2013

U.S. intelligence agents – like the embattled Edward Snowden – are more prone to irrational inconsistencies in decision making when compared to college students and post-college adults. That's according a new Cornell University study to be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science.

The study found intelligence agents exhibited larger on 30 gain-loss framing decisions, and were also more confident in those decisions. Thirty-six agents were recruited for the study from an anonymous federal agency, and were presented with scenarios such as:

  • The U.S. is preparing for the of an unusual disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Do you: Save 200 people for sure, or choose the option with 1/3 probability that 600 will be saved and a 2/3 probability no one will be saved?
  • In the same scenario, do you pick the option where 400 will surely die, or instead a 2/3 probability that all 600 will die and a 1/3 probability no one dies?

The results showed agents treated equivalent outcomes differently based on superficial wording. They were more willing than college students to take risks with human lives when outcomes were framed as losses.

These results shed light on the decision-making mechanisms of intelligence agents who identify and mitigate risks to national security, said Valerie Reyna, Cornell professor of human development and psychology, and lead author of the study. Like some other laboratory gambling tasks, framing effects have been shown to predict real-world behavior, Reyna added.

Reyna also said these results suggest that meaning and context play a larger role in -making as experts gain experience. That experience can enhance performance, but also has predictable pitfalls.

Explore further: Practice makes perfect, but not when it comes to decisions about risk

Related Stories

Book on teen brains can help improve decision making

December 16, 2011

Teenage brains undergo big changes, and they won't look or function like adult brains until well into one's 20s. In the first book on the adolescent brain and development of higher cognition, a Cornell professor helps highlight ...

Why are Internet anti-vaccine messages dangerous

July 19, 2011

Evidence has long shown routine vaccines to be safe and effective, but a growing community of critics still claims that they pose more danger than the diseases they prevent. A Google search of "vaccine," for example, produces ...

Pathological gambling caused by excessive optimism

April 30, 2013

Compulsive gamblers suffer from an optimism bias that modifies their subjective representation of probability and affects their decisions in situations involving high-risk monetary wagers. This is the conclusion drawn by ...

Recommended for you

Elderly may face increased dementia risk after a disaster

October 24, 2016

Elderly people who were uprooted from damaged or destroyed homes and who lost touch with their neighbors after the 2011 tsunami in Japan were more likely to experience increased symptoms of dementia than those who were able ...

Research examines role of early-life stress in adult illness

October 24, 2016

Scientists have long known that chronic exposure to psychosocial stress early in life can lead to an increased vulnerability later in life to diseases linked to immune dysfunction and chronic inflammation, including arthritis, ...

Plan ahead for successful aging, researcher says

October 20, 2016

For many people, the prospect of aging is scary and uncomfortable, but Florida State University Assistant Professor Dawn Carr says that research reveals a few tips that can improve our chances of a long, healthy life.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (1) Jul 09, 2013
"agents like snowden"? what am i reading, the sun?!?

and as usual, no link to the study. this site is getting less professional with every hour.
not rated yet Jul 10, 2013
An agent will know how the blame will flow for particular outcomes and make their decisions based on that eg if you save 200 but let 400 die and newspapers find out then the agency will be hammered for letting those people die and it will be equated with murder.

This comes because the question asks "would you.." and so the person naturally takes into account their own situation and the likely consequences for a particular result.

For instance in the 1/3 all live vs 2/3 all die condition the papers will assume that nothing could be done if they all die and that the agency is a hero if all live. This is a better outcome when those extended conditions are considered. Students would have no idea or experience of these extended conditions and so make decisions based purely on the probability of various outcomes and ignore ongoing consequences, the very issue essential for responsible agents to consider!!!

You would expect young inexperienced people to fail to see the bigger picture.
5 / 5 (1) Jul 14, 2013
Propaganda courtesy of Cornell? Shame!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.