Decisions based on instinct have surprisingly positive outcomes, researcher finds

November 8, 2012

Decision-making is an inevitable part of the human experience, and one of the most mysterious. For centuries, scientists have studied how we go about the difficult task of choosing A or B, left or right, North or South—and how both instinct and intellect figure into the process. Now new research indicates that the old truism "look before you leap" may be less true than previously thought.

In a behavioral experiment, Prof. Marius Usher of Tel Aviv University's School of and his fellow researchers found that intuition was a surprisingly powerful and accurate tool. When forced to choose between two options based on instinct alone, the made the right call up to 90 percent of the time.

The results of their study were recently published in the journal PNAS.

Value-added thinking

Even at the intuitive level, an important part of the decision-making process is the "integration of value"—that is, taking into account the positive and negative factors of each option to come up with an overall picture, explains Prof. Usher. One weighs the strengths and weaknesses of different apartments for rent or applicants for a job. Various relevant criteria contribute to the decision-making process.

"The study demonstrates that humans have a remarkable ability to integrate value when they do so intuitively, pointing to the possibility that the brain has a system that specializes in averaging value," Prof. Usher says. This could be the operational system on which common decision-making processes are built.

In order to get to the core of this system, Prof. Usher designed an experiment to put participants through a carefully controlled . On a computer screen, participants were shown sequences of pairs of numbers in quick succession. All numbers that appeared on the right of the screen and all on the left were considered a group; each group represented returns on the stock market.

Participants were asked to choose which of the two groups of numbers had the highest average. Because the numbers changed so quickly—two to four pairs were shown every second—the participants were unable to memorize the numbers or do proper mathematical calculations, explains Prof. Usher. To determine the highest average of either group, they had to rely on "intuitive arithmetic."

Doing the math

The participants were able to calculate the different values accurately at exceptional speed, the researchers found. They were also able to process large amounts of data—in fact, their accuracy increased in relation to the amount of data they were presented. When shown six pairs of numbers, for example, the participants chose accurately 65 percent of the time. But when they were shown 24 pairs, the accuracy rate grew to about 90 percent.

Intuitively, the human brain has the capacity to take in many pieces of information and decide on an overall value, says Prof. Usher. He says that gut reactions can be trusted to make a quality decision—a conclusion supported by his earlier work with Prof. Dan Zakay and Dr. Zohar Rusou published in Frontiers in Cognitive Science.

Risky behavior

Of course, intuition is also subject to certain biases, explains Prof. Usher, and leads to more risks—risks that people are willing to take. That was shown when the researchers engaged participants in tests that measured their risk-taking tendencies, and were surprised to discover that the majority of the participants didn't play it safe. When faced with a choice between two sets of numbers with the same average, one with a narrow distribution, such as 45 and 55, and another with a broad distribution, such as 70 and 30, people were swayed by the large numbers and took a chance on the broadly distributed numbers rather than making the "safe" choice.

Although this work was based on a behavioral experiment, Prof. Usher says that an interesting next step could be to measure brain activity throughout the task in an attempt to uncover the physiological aspects of value integration.

Explore further: Awareness biases information processing

Related Stories

Awareness biases information processing

November 22, 2011
How does awareness influence information processing during decision making in the human brain? A new study led by Floris de Lange of the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour at Radboud University Nijmegen, ...

Texting has rewired your brain

September 28, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- Do you know what the numbers 5683 and 3327 mean? According to a recent study, if you are a person who frequently sends text messages, your brain knows what these numbers mean and is unconsciously influencing ...

Are the anxious oblivious?

December 20, 2011
Anxious people have long been classified as "hypersensitive" – they're thought to be more fearful and feel threatened more easily than their counterparts. But new research from Tel Aviv University shows that the anxious ...

Researchers pinpoint brain region that influences gambling decisions

May 5, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- When a group of gamblers gather around a roulette table, individual players are likely to have different reasons for betting on certain numbers. Some may play a "lucky" number that has given them positive ...

Weighing your options? Thinking of less supportive relationships leads to wanting more choice

August 27, 2012
(Phys.org)—People who view their relationships as secure have less need to consider many options when making choices about purchases, a new University of Michigan study shows.

Recommended for you

Probing how Americans think about mental life

October 20, 2017
When Stanford researchers asked people to think about the sensations and emotions of inanimate or non-human entities, they got a glimpse into how those people think about mental life.

Itsy bitsy spider: Fear of spiders and snakes is deeply embedded in us

October 19, 2017
Snakes and spiders evoke fear and disgust in many people, even in developed countries where hardly anybody comes into contact with them. Until now, there has been debate about whether this aversion is innate or learnt. Scientists ...

Dutch courage—Alcohol improves foreign language skills

October 18, 2017
A new study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, conducted by researchers from the University of Liverpool, Maastricht University and King's College London, shows that bilingual speakers' ability to speak a second ...

Inflamed support cells appear to contribute to some kinds of autism

October 18, 2017
Modeling the interplay between neurons and astrocytes derived from children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues in Brazil, say innate ...

Study suggests psychedelic drugs could reduce criminal behavior

October 18, 2017
Classic psychedelics such as psilocybin (often called magic mushrooms), LSD and mescaline (found in peyote) are associated with a decreased likelihood of antisocial criminal behavior, according to new research from investigators ...

Taking probiotics may reduce postnatal depression

October 18, 2017
Researchers from the University of Auckland and Otago have found evidence that a probiotic given in pregnancy can help prevent or treat symptoms of postnatal depression and anxiety.

0 comments

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.