Category: Decision making

When Does The Present Become The Future? It Depends Who You Ask

GettyImages-530941167.jpgBy Emma Young

In 2017, in my first ever post for the Digest, I wrote about a paper that challenged the popular idea that “now” — also known as the “subjective present” — is three seconds long. It’s just not possible to define the present so strictly, this review concluded.

Instead of trying to explore what constitutes “right now”, another way to get at our conceptions of time is to ask: when does the present end and the future begin? And precisely this question has now been explored in a series of studies by Hal Hershfield at UCLA and Sam Maglio at the University of Toronto. In their paper, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, the pair report that these perceptions can vary substantially between people — and can affect the kinds of choices that we make, with potentially significant implications for our future lives. Continue reading “When Does The Present Become The Future? It Depends Who You Ask”

Simply Changing The Order Of Fast Food Menus Nudges Customers Towards Healthier Soft Drink Choices

Fast food and unhealthy eating concept - close up of fast food snacks and cold drink on yellow background

By guest blogger Freddy Parker

Fast food chains are not exactly renowned for encouraging healthy eating. But in a new study a team of psychologists, eager to turn that assumption on its head, chose McDonald’s as their target for a somewhat unconventional, psychologically-informed health intervention. Writing in Psychology & Marketing, the researchers report successfully “nudging” a group of Coca-Cola-guzzling customers into opting for its sugar-free counterpart, Coke Zero — simply by changing the order of options on the menu.

Continue reading “Simply Changing The Order Of Fast Food Menus Nudges Customers Towards Healthier Soft Drink Choices”

When False Claims Are Repeated, We Start To Believe They Are True — Here’s How Behaving Like A Fact-Checker Can Help

By Matthew Warren

If you hear an unfounded statement often enough, you might just start believing that it’s true. This phenomenon, known as the “illusory truth effect”, is exploited by politicians and advertisers — and if you think you are immune to it, you’re probably wrong. In fact, earlier this year we reported on a study that found people are prone to the effect regardless of their particular cognitive profile.

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do to protect ourselves against the illusion. A study in Cognition has found that using our own knowledge to fact-check a false claim can prevent us from believing it is true when it is later repeated. But we might need a bit of a nudge to get there.

Continue reading “When False Claims Are Repeated, We Start To Believe They Are True — Here’s How Behaving Like A Fact-Checker Can Help”

Higher Intelligence And An Analytical Thinking Style Offer No Protection Against “The Illusory Truth Effect” – Our Tendency To Believe Repeated Claims Are True

GettyImages-952609456.jpgBy Matthew Warren

It’s a trick that politicians have long exploited: repeat a false statement often enough, and people will start believing that it’s true. Psychologists have named this phenomenon the “illusory truth effect”, and it seems to come from the fact that we find it easier to process information that we’ve encountered many times before. This creates a sense of fluency which we then (mis)interpret as a signal that the content is true.  

Of course, you might like to believe that your particular way of thinking makes you immune to this trick. But according to a pre-print uploaded recently to PsyArXiv, you’d be wrong. In a series of experiments, Jonas De keersmaecker at Ghent University and his collaborators found that individual differences in cognition had no bearing on the strength of the illusory truth effect. 

Continue reading “Higher Intelligence And An Analytical Thinking Style Offer No Protection Against “The Illusory Truth Effect” – Our Tendency To Believe Repeated Claims Are True”

People Have A Hard-To-Explain Bias Against Experimental Testing of Policies And Interventions, Preferring Just To See Them Implemented

A/B testing vector.

By Jesse Singal

Randomised experiments (also known as A/B testing) are an absolutely critical tool for evaluating everything from online marketing campaigns to new pharmaceutical drugs to school curricula. Rather than making decisions based on ideology, intuition or educated guess-work,  you randomise people to one of two groups and expose one group to intervention A (one version of a social media headline, a new drug, or whatever, depending on the context ), one group to intervention B (a different version of the headline, a different drug etc), and compare outcomes for the two groups.

To anyone who believes in evidence-based decision making, medicine and policy, randomised tests make sense. But as a team led by Michelle N. Meyer at the Center for Translational Bioethics and Health Care Policy at the Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania, write in PNAS, for some reason A/B testing sometimes elicits moral outrage. As an example, they point to the anger that ensued when Pearson Education “randomized math and computer science students at different schools to receive one of three versions of its instructional software: two versions displayed different encouraging messages as students attempted to solve problems, while a third displayed no messages.” The goal had been to test objectively whether the encouraging messages would, well, encourage students to do more problems, yet for this, the company received much criticism, including accusations that they’d treated students like guinea pigs, and failed to obtain their consent.

Continue reading “People Have A Hard-To-Explain Bias Against Experimental Testing of Policies And Interventions, Preferring Just To See Them Implemented”

Could Your Immune System Be Making You Impulsive?

By Emma Young

You can have £10 today or £12 next week. Which do you go for? 

Being able to forego a reward now in favour of gaining something better later is known to be important in determining all kinds of desirable outcomes in life, including greater educational attainment, social functioning and health. 

However, choosing to delay gratification won’t always be the best option. If you’re in desperate circumstances – you badly need money to buy food, for example – taking the £10 today could be sensible. But this isn’t necessarily an entirely conscious judgment – there may be biological systems that automatically shift your decision-making priorities according to what is most likely to enhance your survival. A new open-access study published in Scientific Reports provides evidence that having raised levels of inflammation in your body, which is generally caused by the immune system’s response to infection or injury, can skew your judgment to focus more on present rewards, and on instant gratification. If further research backs this up, there could be wide-ranging implications not only for understanding why some people are more impulsive than others, but even for treating substance abuse. 

Continue reading “Could Your Immune System Be Making You Impulsive?”

Being Prompted To Think About Coffee Elevates Your Physiological Arousal And Focuses Your Mind, No Ingestion Required

GettyImages-1058507228.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

So entrenched is the association in our culture between coffee and ideas of arousal, ambition and focus that merely thinking about, or being reminded of, the drink is enough to increase the body’s arousal levels, in turn provoking a more focused, literal cognitive style. That’s according to Eugene Chan at Monash University and Sam Maglio at the University of Toronto Scarborough who, reporting their findings in Consciousness and Cognition, write that “… people may be more aroused simply after walking by a coffee shop. Not only would they be more aroused, but at a more downstream level, their decision making might shift as well.”

The intriguing results come from four studies involving hundreds of online and lab-based participants, but given the replication problems in the general area of “social priming” (concerned with how abstract ideas and sensory experiences can influence thoughts and behaviour, and vice versa), some readers may find that merely hearing about this new research is enough to elevate their pulse and alter their mindset to a more sceptical mode.

Continue reading “Being Prompted To Think About Coffee Elevates Your Physiological Arousal And Focuses Your Mind, No Ingestion Required”

Brazilian Researchers Say Smartphone Addiction Is Real, And That It’s Associated With Impaired Decision-making

GettyImages-525949841.jpgBy Emma Young

Smartphone addiction (SA) is a controversial concept that is not recognised by psychiatry as a formal diagnosis. Critics say that a problematic relationship with one’s phone is usually a symptom of deeper underlying issues and that it is inappropriate to apply the language of addiction to technology. Nonetheless, other mental health experts believe SA is real and they’ve accumulated evidence suggesting it is associated with reductions in academic and work performance, sleep disorders, symptoms of depression and loneliness, declines in wellbeing – and an increased risk of road traffic accidents. According to a group of psychiatry and psychology researchers at one of the largest universities in Brazil, to that list can now be added: poorer decision-making. 

Studies suggest that the numbers of people with notional SA (defined by difficulty in controlling use of the smartphone, constant preoccupation with the possibility of being without it, and poor mood when it is taken away) are high – about 25 per cent of the population in the US; 10 per cent of adolescents in the UK; and a massive 43 per cent of people in Brazil, where the new research, published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, was conducted. 

Continue reading “Brazilian Researchers Say Smartphone Addiction Is Real, And That It’s Associated With Impaired Decision-making”

People Who Are Most Fearful Of Genetically Modified Foods Think They Know The Most About Them, But Actually Know The Least

Screenshot 2019-02-07 at 17.04.52.png
via Fernbach et al, 2019

By Jesse Singal

There are few subjects where a larger gap exists between public opinion and expert opinion than people’s views on foods, like corn or wheat, that have been genetically manipulated to, for example, increase crop yields or bolster pest-resistance. Experts generally view so-called GM foods as totally safe to consume, while the public is suspicious of them — and this divide is massive. One Pew Research Center survey found that just 37 per cent of the American public believed GM foods are safe to eat, compared with 88 per cent of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (public attitudes are similarly negative in the UK, with a 2014 poll finding that 40 per cent of adults felt the government should not promote GM foods, compared with 22 per cent in favour, and the rest unsure).

Unlike some subjects where this divide between layperson and expert opinion is heavily mediated by politics, such as climate change caused by human activity — in the U.S. and elsewhere, conservatives are far less likely to believe in it than are liberals and climate scientists — the GM-food divide doesn’t really have a political dimension: Liberals, centrists, and conservatives are all about equally likely to have what are, from the point of view of experts, unfounded fears about the safety of GM foods.

To better understand the source of these fears, a team led by Philip M. Fernbach, a professor at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder, surveyed nationally representative samples in America, Germany and France, and other online participants, about their views on both GM foods and climate change, tested their knowledge on these subjects by asking them to answer factual questions, and also asked them to gauge their perceived level of knowledge on those subjects.

The headline finding from the study, published as a letter in Nature Human Behaviour, is neatly summed up by its title: “Extreme opponents of genetically modified foods know the least but think they know the most.” That is, on average, the more vehemently a given respondent said they were opposed to GM foods, the fewer questions about the subject they answered accurately, and the higher they rated their own knowledge.

Continue reading “People Who Are Most Fearful Of Genetically Modified Foods Think They Know The Most About Them, But Actually Know The Least”

Explaining the power of curiosity – to your brain, hunger for knowledge is much the same as hunger for food

By Christian Jarrett

Curiosity is a welcome trait in many respects and is the fuel that powers science. Yet literature is filled with fables that warn of the seductive danger of curiosity (think of how Orpheus loses his wife Eurydice forever after he succumbs to the temptation to glimpse at the underworld). In real life too, we all know the regret that can follow if we give in to curiosity – glancing at a private message that we shouldn’t have, for instance; reading a TV review when we know it contains spoilers; or trying out what happens if you put metal in a microwave (tip: don’t).

From whence does curiosity derive such power over us? One answer lies in the brain. In a pair of brain-imaging studies published as a preprint at bioRxiv – aptly titled Hunger For Knowledge: How The Irresistible Lure of Curiosity Is Generated In the Brain – Johnny King Lau and his colleagues have shown that curiosity appears to be driven by the same neurobiological process as physical hunger.

Continue reading “Explaining the power of curiosity – to your brain, hunger for knowledge is much the same as hunger for food”