Category: Decision making

An influential theory about emotion and decision-making just failed a new test

balloonBy Christian Jarrett

It’s a common belief that to make optimal decisions we need to be more logical and less emotional, rather like Mr Spock in Star Trek. In fact, much evidence argues against this. Consider the behaviour of patients whose brain damage has made them unusually cold and logical. Rather than this helping them make decisions, they often seem paralysed by indecision.

These patients, who usually have damage to parts of their frontal cortex, also tend to perform poorly on a game that’s used by psychologists to measure risk-taking behaviour: the Iowa Gambling Task. The neurologist and author Antonio Damasio thinks this is because they have lost the ability to incorporate gut instincts – literally, their visceral reactions – into their decision-making, an idea that forms the basis of his Somatic Marker Hypothesis. This hypothesis has been very influential but the evidence supporting it, now gathered over several decades, is nearly all based on research using the Iowa Gambling Task.

In a recent paper in Decision, two British psychologists tested the Somatic Marker Hypothesis in a new context, the Balloon Analogue Risk Task, which involves deciding how far to pump a balloon. They found little evidence to support the central tenet of the Somatic Marker Hypothesis, the idea that our physiological reactions shape our decisions.

Continue reading “An influential theory about emotion and decision-making just failed a new test”

Why are some of us better at handling contradictory information than others?

Pros versus cons as vector illustration with speech bubblesBy Alex Fradera

Imagine it: you’re happily surfing through your social media feeds – or what we nowadays call your filter bubble – when some unexpected perspectives somehow manage to penetrate. After you “like” the latest critique of police power, for instance, you come across an article arguing that cracking down on crime can benefit minority neighborhoods. Or, elbowing its way into a crowd of articles celebrating trickle-down economics, you encounter a study showing higher taxes boost growth. What happens next? In new research in Contemporary Educational Psychology, Gregory Trevors and his colleagues looked at how reading conflicting information can push our emotional buttons, and lead us either towards resistance or a chance to learn.

Continue reading “Why are some of us better at handling contradictory information than others?”

Contra Kahneman, your mind’s fast and intuitive “System One” is capable of logic

Numbers of the MindBy Christian Jarrett

Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s international best-selling book is titled Thinking Fast and Slow in reference to the idea that we have two mental systems, one that makes fast, automatic decisions based on intuition, and a second that is slower, deliberate and logical. A further detail of this “dual processing theory” is that given time, and if we make the effort, the second system can step in and correct the intuitive illogical reasoning of the trigger-happy first system.

It’s an elegantly simple model supported by a huge number of studies, but it’s far from perfect. As demonstrated by a new paper in Cognition, it seems that contrary to Kahneman’s caricature of the mind, our intuitive System One is perfectly capable of logic, without the need for any help from System Two. Moreover, it’s actually rather rare for System Two to step in and overrule System One; more common is for System One to find the logical answer all by itself.  Continue reading “Contra Kahneman, your mind’s fast and intuitive “System One” is capable of logic”

Studying “fast chess” to see how decision making varies through the day

38477719_ce9d3dc8a3_bBy Christian Jarrett

We’ve all had the experience of trying to make a tricky decision through the fog of fatigue, but there’s surprisingly little objective evidence about how time of day affects the way we decide. Perhaps late-day tiredness makes us more rash, as we lack the energy to be considered. Alternatively, maybe it’s our mid-morning zest that could lead us to be impetuous. Of course, our own chronotype is also likely come into play – perhaps morning people – “larks” – make better decisions in the morning, whereas evening people – “owls” – make better decisions in the evening.

One place to look for answers is in the data trails left by our online behavior. For a new paper in Cognition, a team led by María Leone has analysed the moves made by dozens of internet “fast chess” players, some of whom have played tens of thousands of two or three-minute games, consisting of an even greater number of moves. The results suggest that regardless of chronotype, we’re inclined to make progressively faster, less accurate decisions as the day wears on, with the effect plateauing in mid-afternoon.  Continue reading “Studying “fast chess” to see how decision making varies through the day”

Sorry to say, but your pilot’s decisions are likely just as irrational as yours and mine

Flying a plane is no trivial task, but adverse weather conditions are where things get seriously challenging. Tragically, a contributing factor to many fatal accidents is when the pilot has misjudged the appropriateness of the flying conditions. Now in a somewhat worrying paper in Applied Cognitive Psychology Stephen Walmsley and Andrew Gilbey of Massey University have shown that pilots’ judgment of weather conditions, and their decisions on how to respond to them, are coloured by three classic cognitive biases. What’s more, expert flyers are often the most vulnerable to these mental errors.

The researchers first addressed the “anchoring effect”, which is when information we receive early on has an undue influence on how we subsequently think about a situation. Nearly 200 pilots (a mix of commercial, transport, student and private pilots) were given the weather forecast for the day and then they looked at visual displays that showed cloud cover and horizontal visibility as if they were in a cockpit, and their task was to quantify these conditions by eye.

The pilots tended to rate the atmospheric conditions as better – higher clouds, greater visibility – when they’d been told earlier that the weather forecast was favourable. Essentially, old and possibly irrelevant information was biasing the judgment they were making with their own eyes. Within the sample were 56 experts with over 1000 hours of experience, and these pilots were especially prone to being influenced by the earlier weather forecast.

Next, hundreds more pilots read about scenarios where a pilot needed to make an unplanned landing. An airstrip was nearby, but the conditions for the route were uncertain. Each participant had to solve five of these landing dilemmas, deciding whether to head for the strip or re-route. For each scenario they were told two statements that were reassuring for heading for the strip (e.g. another pilot had flown the route minutes ago) and one that was problematic (e.g. the visibility was very low). In each case, the participants had to say which piece of information was most important for deciding whether to land at the nearby airstrip or not.

Across the scenarios, the participants showed no real preference for one type of statement over another. This might sound sensible, but actually it’s problematic. When you want to test a hypothesis, like “it seems safe to land”, you should seek out information that disproves your theory. (No matter how many security guards, alarms and safety certificates a building possesses, if it’s on fire, you don’t go in.) So pilots should be prioritising the disconfirming evidence over the others, but in fact they were just as likely to rely on reassuring evidence, which is an example of what’s known as “the confirmation bias”.

In a final experiment more pilot volunteers read decisions that other pilots had made about whether to fly or not and the information they’d used to make their decisions. Sometimes the flights turned out to be uneventful, but other times they resulted in a terrible crash. Even though the pilots in the different scenarios always made their decisions based on the exact same pre-flight information, the participants tended to rate their decision making much more harshly when the flight ended in disaster than when all went well.

It concerns Walmsley and Gilbey that pilots are vulnerable to this error – an example of the “outcome bias” – because pilots who decide to fly in unwise weather and get lucky could be led by this bias to see their decisions as wise, and increasingly discount the risk involved. Note that both the confirmation and outcome experiments also contained an expert subgroup, and in neither case did they make better decisions than other pilots.

The use of cognitive heuristics and shortcuts – “thinking fast” in Daniel Kahneman’s memorable phrase – is enormously useful, necessary for helping us surmount the complexities of the world day-to-day. But when the stakes are high, whether it be aviation or areas such as medicine, these tendencies need to be countered. Simply raising awareness that these biases afflict professionals may be one part of the solution. Another may be introducing work processes that encourage slower, more deliberative reasoning. That way, when pilots scan the skies, they might be more likely to see the clouds on the horizon.


Walmsley, S., & Gilbey, A. (2016). Cognitive Biases in Visual Pilots’ Weather-Related Decision Making Applied Cognitive Psychology DOI: 10.1002/acp.3225

further reading
Just two questions predict how well a pilot will handle an emergency
If your plane gets lost you’d better hope there’s an orienteer on board

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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What does an ambivalent mood do to your problem-solving skills?

Psychologists have got a pretty good picture of how we’re influenced by the big emotional states. Feeling positive encourages an explorative cognitive style that is risk-tolerant and well suited to the open aspects of creativity, whereas negative emotions make us sensitive to threat and prone to vigilant, focused thinking. But what happens when our emotional states are a mix of the two – when we’re in an ambivalent mood? Appropriately, research to date has been inconsistent, with some work suggesting it sharpens our minds, others that it distracts us. In a new paper in Journal of Applied Psychology researchers at the University of Virginia have tidied up the mixed findings about mixed feelings.

Cristiano Guarana and Morela Hernandez lay out why feeling ambivalent should facilitate decision-making: it sends a strong signal that a situation is complex, and that simple solutions are likely to be unsatisfactory. Consistent with this, past research, including their own, has shown ambivalence can lead to more cognitive flexibility and holistic, comprehensive solutions. But other research has linked ambivalence with poor decision-making. How can we reconcile these findings?

Guarana and Hernandez’s theory is that in a real-life situation it’s not always clear where your emotional states arrive from, and if you feel ambivalent, but haven’t bottomed out why, you won’t give that complex situation the attention it needs… and worse, you could attribute your feelings to a peripheral situation that will needlessly suck up your attention. For ambivalence to be cognitively advantageous, the state must be tied to its source.

The researchers conducted four experiments to test their explanation, with the final one combining all the clever bits of design into one setup. For this final study, the researchers first prompted their two hundred participants (all were employees from a range of organizations, on average 45 years old and two thirds were women) to experience feelings of ambivalence by asking them to write a short passage on a personal experience that involved either indifference or ambivalence. Next, the researchers warned half of the participants that the upcoming task could produce mixed reactions, priming them to recognise it as a source of ambivalence. The idea was that these participants would see the upcoming task as the source of their ambivalent feelings.

The main task involved participants reading a scenario about a fraudulent drug trial in which the researcher added made-up data points so he could release the drug to market. The participants then had to judge based on this limited information what happened next: whether they thought it was more likely that the drug was (a) withdrawn from the market, or (b) that it was withdrawn from the market after killing and injuring patients.

This is a classic decision-making conjunction problem: the conjunction of two events is never more likely than either alone, but superficial thinking can lead us to assume the more specific is more likely. In fact, the participants gave the wrong answer more often than right – unless they had been primed to see the test as a source of their ambivalent feelings, in which case they made the correct choice in two out of three instances.

Results from a supplementary task showed how participants thought about the scenario differently when they had been primed to see it as a source of their ambivalent feelings. After responding to the scenario, participants completed word fragments, e.g. DIS___, by writing in the end of words. Some of these fragments could potentially form words related to the drug-trial scenario (e.g. DISEASE). When participants completed the word fragments in this way, this was taken as a sign that they were more sensitive to the concepts in the scenario.

Participants in the priming condition produced more scenario-related words, and the more that they did this, the more likely it was that they also reached the correct solution. This is consistent with the idea that the primed participants tied their ambivalent feelings to the drug trial scenario, and that this encouraged them to pay more attention to it. Interestingly, Guarana and Hernandez showed this only applied to participants scoring low on a measure of self-control: people inclined to skirt difficult issues are the ones to benefit from recognising their ambivalence about a situation.

The message is clear: when you’re feeling a muss of conflicted feelings, take a step back and identify where that message is coming from. Do so, and you authorise your mind to attend to it in the best possible way.


Identified Ambivalence: When Cognitive Conflicts Can Help Individuals Overcome Cognitive Traps. Guarana, Cristiano L.; Hernandez, Morela Journal of Applied Psychology, Mar 10 , 2016.

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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New review prompts a re-think on what low sugar levels do to our thinking

Glucose. Fuel for our cells, vital for life. But how fundamental is it to how we think?

According to dual-systems theory (best known from Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s work), low blood glucose favours the use of fast and dirty System One thinking over the deliberative, effortful System Two. Similarly, the ego depletion theory of Roy Baumeister sees glucose as a resource that gets used up whenever we resist a temptation.

But the authors of a new meta-analysis published in Psychological Bulletin find these claims hard to swallow. Their review suggests that glucose levels may change our decisions about food, but little else.

Jacob Orquin at Aarhus University and Robert Kurzban at the University of Pennsylvania searched the decision-making literature, finding 36 articles that directly investigated glucose by measuring blood concentration, providing participants with sugar solution, or via interventions such as wafting food smells, which triggers some amount of glucose production.

The authors pored through the articles and tabulated every effect, its direction as well as its size. They found the effects were very variable, often operating in different directions from study to study. But when the data was organised according to a key factor, a consistent pattern began to emerge. That factor? Food.

In payment tasks – involving hypothetical purchases (“how much would you pay for …”) and actual purchases while shopping – low blood glucose did increase people’s willingness to overspend … on food. But it actually made them less willing to spend money on non-food products. When it came to persistence on tasks (such as time spent trying to complete a puzzle), low glucose decreased willingness to work for non-food rewards, but led to more tenacious work towards food-related goals. And when people were given the choice between receiving a small amount now or a large one later, low glucose led to a large bias towards immediate gratification when food was the payoff, compared to a much smaller bias for non-food.

This pattern of results doesn’t fit the notion of glucose as willpower-fuel. It suggests instead that low glucose is a signal that, to ensure future wellbeing, food should be prioritised – by paying more for it, working harder for it, and grabbing a little now rather than taking the promise of more in the future. This signaling account also explains the recent discovery that you don’t need to consume glucose to produce some cognitive effects, simply tasting it is enough (by swishing around the mouth); no fuel has been received, but presumably the signaling system is temporarily fooled by the taste receptors.

Kahneman can sleep easy – the findings from this meta-analysis aren’t a blow to his dual process theory as a whole, merely the specific claim that glucose has a role in switching between thinking smart and slow. The meta-analysis is a more substantial problem for the claims of ego depletion, which are intimately related to the idea that willpower is a finite resource that depends on glucose.

Based on the prior glucose research and theory, some publications have recommended strategies like eating chocolate before tense marital discussions or stacking emergency Jelly Belly’s in the office desk drawer. But according to this meta-analysis, these strategies will yield little benefit; the main implication of being low on glucose is a greater preoccupation with finding something to eat. There’s a lot of strong psychological science out there to help with building everyday habits and making better decisions, so if you’re looking for a dose of something, we recommend you check those out instead.


Orquin, J., & Kurzban, R. (2015). A Meta-Analysis of Blood Glucose Effects on Human Decision Making. Psychological Bulletin DOI: 10.1037/bul0000035

further reading
Labs worldwide report converging evidence that undermines the low-sugar theory of depleted willpower
New research challenges the idea that willpower is a “limited resource”

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Our shifting motivations: The inherent pleasure of a task is more important to us once we get started

When anticipating a task, we focus on its tangible benefits, underestimating how much the experience itself matters

You’re going for a run – well, you’re going to, once you get off the sofa. One glance at the crisp autumn sky outside reminds you how nice it is to get a bit of fresh air, but somehow it’s not enough, and you stay glued to your seat. Finally you do rouse yourself to action, but only by picturing your future self: lean and fit from managing to keep to your exercise schedule. Mid-way through the run, you have a chuckle – what a beautiful day, what an exhilarating experience! Of course this run would be worthwhile on its own terms! Later on, you settle back into the sofa and your perspective flips yet again. Why is running so important? For the purpose of getting fit, of course.

This dramatised pattern is the topic of a new article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which investigates how differently we appreciate the yields of an activity when we’re actually in its midst. Then, we see the intrinsic features of an activity as more important than we do either beforehand or afterwards.

Let’s start with a joke – jokes, in fact, as this paper includes several experiments involving joke reviews. In the first one, 102 participants were told to evaluate jokes of variable quality (for instance, fairly tired Englishman, Irishman, and Scotsman routines) at five cents a joke. Participants had to say how important it was that the jokes were funny, as well considering the level of pay on offer. Half were asked before beginning the task, and half during the task. Those asked during the task placed a greater value on the jokes being funny than those asked before the task, consistent with the idea that our priorities change once we actually begin an experience.

The second experiment with 401 participants involved them evaluating the clarity of computer manual excerpts or jokes. Here, some participants got five cents per item, others 10 cents. In one condition, participants didn’t actually perform the task, instead they were asked to predict how long they would be willing to spend on it (given the rate of pay and the content to be judged): those promised more money estimated they would persist longer and would complete most of the items (the average estimate was 24/30 items) regardless of whether the task was likely to be fun (judging jokes) or dull (computer manuals).

But looking at the behaviour of the participants who actually did the tasks, the researchers found the opposite was true – participants only spent an average of 13 rounds on the dull task, compared with 20 on the fun one, and the amount of cash on offer had no effect on staying power. As the researchers Kaitlin Woolley and Ayelet Fishbach of the University of Chicago describe it, outside the “pursuit” of an activity, we find the importance of its experiential features harder to grasp.

Additional studies generalised the effect, to gym bunnies who rated workout enjoyability as more important to them when they were at the gym than when surveyed a week later, and science museum visitors who considered intrinsic rewards like “feeling my horizons broadened” more important during their museum visit, compared to when they recalled or anticipated their next visit. Extrinsic benefits – health in the first case, interesting conversation topics in the second – held the same importance whether looked at from inside or outside pursuit.

When we’re experiencing something, we are in a different, “hotter” state than when we are planning or reviewing it. We already know that people underestimate the experiential woosh that a hot state provides, and discount the pain of being bullied and the erotic power of touch alike. As well as leading to unrealistic expectations of how far we can persist in deadening activities, a final experiment showed how this effect influences how we feel about our choices with hindsight. Given the option between two tasks (dull and better paid versus fun and less well paid), most participants chose the dull option, suggesting it seems a more desirable prospect. Yet later on, when other participants were encouraged to choose either the dull or fun options, those nudged to pick the dull, well-compensated task experienced more regret afterwards about their “choice”, wishing that they had insisted on taking the fun, worse-paid option.

Choosing the means to a good end may seem wise, but don’t forget that participating in fulfilling activities is a good end in itself – an insight that can seem elusive from a distance, but which becomes self-evident in the moment.


Woolley, K., & Fishbach, A. (2015). The Experience Matters More Than You Think: People Value Intrinsic Incentives More Inside Than Outside an Activity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/pspa0000035

further reading
We’re useless at predicting how what happens will affect us emotionally
Want to know how you’ll feel? Ask a friend
Researchers say: Don’t worry what other people think, going out on your own can be fun

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Slot machines are more addictive when we see them as having human-like intentions

Slot machines are the great cash cow of the gambling industry, generating the bulk of income in casinos, and today they are also a feature of everyday life, found in high street pubs and bars and online. Slots are exquisitely designed with one purpose in mind, to encourage gamblers to “play to extinction” – that is, until they are penniless – as described at length in Natasha Dow Schüll’s Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas.

Much has been written about the human weaknesses, such as the gambler’s fallacy (believing that a win is more likely after a run of losses), that lead people to fall prey to these machines. Now new research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied has investigated a hitherto unexplored factor that makes it so tempting for people to just keep playing: “anthropomorphism” – it turns out we squander more on the slots when think of them as intentional adversaries.

The research led by Paulo Riva from the University of Milano-Bicocca asked student participants to play online slot machines for at least one spin, but longer if they wished, supposedly as market research on their design. In one condition participants first read a general description of how the machine is guided by a payout algorithm that produces successes and failures. But crucially, those in the anthropomorphic condition got a different message:

“The slot machine can decide whether you will win or lose a series of bets any time she wants. Sometimes, she may choose to make fun of you, leaving you empty-handed for several bets; other times, she might want to reward you with a win. In any case, the slot machine will always choose what will happen.”

Participants in this condition played for significantly longer, often a third or more extra spins (although there was a lot of variability between players within each of the conditions).

Further studies established that even with real incentives not to play – i.e. when any remaining points were converted to sweets or cash prizes – the personified machines still encouraged longer play. One clue as to why this happens is that play with personified machines was associated with stronger positive emotions – fun, excitement and stimulation. Riva’s team argue that feeling socially connected to an object (more likely when the object seems human-like) amplifies related emotions, giving a bigger kick to wins and losses. (Note that a larger final study complicated this story: positive strong emotions were again associated with playing for longer, but in this instance the anthropomorphism of slots didn’t increase positive strong emotions – this may be due to the different measure of emotion employed, but in any case calls for more research.)

Reflecting on the way slots are typically designed, with icons, characters and fictional tie-ins from Spiderman to Michael Jackson, the researchers suggest that “the gambling industry is selling customers a challenge against a mind rather than just a machine,” introducing a competitive and even intimate element to play that helps clear out bank balances.

Before any strong conclusions are drawn, it would be useful to see this paradigm turned from student participants to regular gamblers. Casual gamblers may be drawn into the illusion of competition, but one of the most striking arguments from Schüll’s book is that the most compulsive gamblers devote themselves to the slots without expecting or even desiring a fair fight. For these people, playing the slots is a retreat from a life that’s hard to control, as the machines give them the opportunity to surrender to a comfortably predictable process: as one interviewee put it, “you accept the certainty of chance: the proof is the zero at the end.”


Riva, P., Sacchi, S., & Brambilla, M. (2015). Humanizing Machines: Anthropomorphization of Slot Machines Increases Gambling. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied DOI: 10.1037/xap0000057

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Sexual arousal has a similar effect on men’s and women’s risk-taking

When it comes to condom use among heterosexual couples, there’s evidence that women are often expected to be the sensible ones, in terms of raising and enforcing the issue. A new study published in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour suggests this isn’t just unfair, it’s unwise too – both men and women show a similarly increased inclination for risk-taking when they are sexually aroused.

The Canadian research team, led by Shayna Skakoon-Sparling, recruited 144 heterosexual undergrads to take part in what they were told was a study of gender differences in preferences for video clips. Half the participants watched 2-minute clips from the 2007 pornographic film Under The Covers – featuring consensual sex and generally considered to be appealing to both men and women – the other participants acted as controls and watched non-sexual video clips, for example from the Pixar film Wall-E.

After each clip the participants answered questions about their mood and sexual arousal, and they said how they’d behave in a number of hypothetical sexual encounters – for example, whether they’d go ahead and have sex even though neither they nor their partner had a condom.

Participants who watched the porn clips but who were not sufficiently aroused (they rated less than 3 on a scale of 1-10) or who watched the control clips and reported too much arousal (a rating above 2) were dropped from the analysis. The final sample involved 80 women and 33 men with an average age of 23.

The main finding was that although men overall reported stronger intentions to engage in un-protected sex (in the hypothetical scenarios), both men and women who watched the porn clips showed a significant increase in their risky intentions, as compared with the controls. This is an important finding because past research using attractive male and female faces had reported that only men’s risk-taking is affected by sexual arousal, not women’s. This new study suggests that that past research had failed to use sufficiently arousing stimuli.

Skakoon-Sparling and her also team tested whether the effect of sexual arousal on men’s and women’s risk-taking extends to non-sexual decisions. Over one hundred more undergrads took part and followed a similar procedure to before, with half of them watching the porn clips and half watching non-sexual clips. This time, after each clip, the participants played rounds of the card game Black Jack. Men and women in the porn condition took more risks in the game than the control participants, and self-reported sexual arousal correlated positively with levels of risk-taking in the game. Women were just as inclined to take risks as men, in both the porn and control conditions.

The researchers said their results suggest both men and women are likely to have difficulty making safer sexual decisions when they are caught up in a passionate encounter. “Educating individuals to become more aware of how easily their decision-making abilities could be affected in sexual situations will be the first step in helping them overcome or account for the effects of sexual arousal,” the researchers concluded.


Skakoon-Sparling, S., Cramer, K., & Shuper, P. (2015). The Impact of Sexual Arousal on Sexual Risk-Taking and Decision-Making in Men and Women Archives of Sexual Behavior DOI: 10.1007/s10508-015-0589-y

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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