Bauer, Bond, Salt and their real-life counterparts have ample experience making tough choices between risky options. You’d think this would be a good thing but psychology research shows expertise can backfire when it encourages a short-hand, gist-based approach to problems, rather than a more detail-focused, calculating thinking style. According to researchers at Cornell University, this is what lies behind their demonstration that intelligence officers are more prone to irrationality than students in choosing between risky options.
Valerie Reyna and her colleagues presented 63 undergrads, 54 college-educated adults and 36 intelligence officers (77 per cent were special agents; 7 per cent were officers; and 16 per cent were admin) with dozens of decision-making scenarios related to saving human lives. For example: Imagine the U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two options were then presented and the participants were asked to decide between them as they would in real life. The options were presented in a way that either emphasised lives to be saved:
e.g. Please indicate which option you prefer: a) 200 people saved for sure or (b) 1/3 probability 600 people saved and 2/3 probability no one saved?
Or worded in a way to emphasise lives to be lost:
i.e. Please indicate which option you prefer: a) 400 die for sure or (b) 2/3 probability 600 people die and 1/3 probability no one dies?
The idea is that probable outcomes are matched for options (a) and (b) across the two presentations of the choice, and yet the “framing” of the options affects how people choose. The key finding is that intelligence officers were more swayed by the framing of the problems, and they were also more confident in their choices. The researchers say this is a sign of irrational decision making because the agents were more prone to “treating equivalent outcomes differently based on superficial wording.” In short, “they were more willing to take risks with human lives when outcomes were framed as losses rather than as gains.”
College educated adults’ susceptibility to framing was mid-way between the students’ and the agents’. Overall the results are consistent with “developmental reversal” – the finding that children are less prone to framing effects than adults. By this account, intelligence agents are located further along the developmental trajectory than typical adults and so even more prone to framing effects.
“Taken together,” Reyna and her colleagues said their results “suggest that meaning and context play a larger role in risky decision-making as experts gain experience, which enhances global performance but also has predictable pitfalls.”
Valerie F. Reyna, Christina F. Chick, Jonathan C. Corbin, & Andrew N. Hsia (2013). Developmental Reversals in Risky Decision-Making: Intelligence Agents Show Larger Decision Biases than College Students. Psychological Science (In Press).
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.