Category: Decision making

Teaching People The Value Of Scientific Consensus Can Help To Correct False Beliefs

By Emma Young

How do we change beliefs that are contrary to the scientific consensus? Given that such misperceptions can be harmful to the believers, their families, and even to broader society, research in this area is vital. Now Aart van Stekelenburg at Radboud University and colleagues report preliminary but promising work finding that a brief training exercise on the value of scientific consensus, and how to look for it, can help. Their paper in Psychological Science suggests that this could be a more effective approach than just communicating what the scientific consensus is — at least, for some false beliefs.

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Older People Are More Likely To Avoid Finding Out Information Like Genetic Disease Risk Or Spousal Infidelity

By Emma Young

If proof of the existence or otherwise of a god-like deity was available, would you want to see it? What if you had access to a file that revealed whether your partner had ever been unfaithful? And would you take a new genetic test that would indicate whether you have a mutation linked to an incurable disease?

“All men, by nature, desire to know,” wrote Aristotle, more than 2,000 years ago. In fact, as the authors of a new paper in Psychology and Aging point out, philosophers have long viewed people as having a thirst for knowledge, and a drive to resolve uncertainty. However, as Ralph Hertwig at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Germany and his colleagues also note, there are times when we prefer not to know the truth, and even bury our heads in the sand. Older people are often seen as being more prone to doing this. And the team’s research now suggests that this is indeed the case: people aged over 51 were more likely than younger people to choose to remain ignorant of information that would have an emotional impact on them — perhaps a positive impact, but perhaps a negative one.

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People Prefer More Attractive Financial Partners — Even Ones Who Lose Them Money

By Emma Young

Physically attractive people are routinely judged to be “superior” in other ways — to be more trustworthy, for example, and honest, and intelligent. However, evidence for the unwarranted “attractiveness halo” effect has tended to come from studies that have involved snap-judgements with no feedback or repercussions for the people doing the judging. Gayathri Pandey and Vivian Zayas at Cornell University, US, wanted to explore how this bias plays out in the longer term, when contradicted by actual data. If, say, we’re given information that an attractive investor is actually losing us money, while an unattractive investor is securing profits, surely we’ll quickly drop that bias in relation to these individual people at least? Alarmingly, the pair’s new paper in the British Journal of Psychology suggests not.

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In Times Of Anxiety and Low Mood, Focusing On Past Successes Could Improve Decision-Making

By Emily Reynolds

When you’re going through a period of anxiety or depression it can be difficult to make decisions, whether those are significant life changes or more mundane, everyday choices about prioritising tasks or time management. And those with generalised anxiety disorder or mood disorders often report feeling uncomfortable with or distressed by feelings of uncertainty — which doesn’t help when you need to make a decision, big or small.

Now in a new study in the journal eLife, Christopher Gagne from UC Berkeley and colleagues find that people with higher levels of anxiety and depression are less able to adapt to fast-changing situations. But the authors suggest that with the right intervention there may be ways to not only mitigate this distress, but to help those with anxiety or depression make better decisions in the moment.

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Having Hope For the Future Could Protect Against Risky Behaviours

By Emily Reynolds

At the start of a new year it’s customary to look forward, imagining what we might want to achieve in the months to come. It’s what lies at the heart of New Year’s resolutions: they may be maligned for their persistent failure to stick, but do at least represent a great degree of hope for the future — a hope to become fitter or more productive, or to learn something new. 

In the current circumstances hope is certainly in short supply. But if you can manage to stay hopeful you might be able to avoid risk-taking behaviours like drinking, taking drugs, gambling or overeating, argues a new study in the Journal of Gambling Studies from Shahriar Keshavarz and team at the University of East Anglia.

The study focuses specifically on “relative deprivation” — the belief that your lot in life is somehow worse than other people’s. Previous research has suggested that those who score highly on feelings of relative deprivation are more likely to engage in “maladaptive escape behaviours” including risk-taking. But hope could ameliorate such behaviour, the team argues, protecting people from potential harm.

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Here’s How The Experience Of Regret Develops Through Childhood

By Emma Young

Edith Piaf famously regretted nothing. But regret is an important emotion, because it can lead us to avoid repeating mistakes, or to heal damaged relationships. It’s also an emotion that many of us feel on a regular basis. “Regret is ubiquitous and powerful,” write Teresa McCormack at Queen’s University Belfast and colleagues in a new paper published in Current Directions in Psychological Science. “It is one of the most frequently mentioned emotions in conversation and affects a huge variety of everyday choices.”

Though there’s been plenty of work on regret in adults, much less is known about how it develops in children. In this new review, McCormack and her colleagues consider what we do know about its development, and outline the major gaps still left to fill. There are implications not just for the basic understanding of regret but also for informing educators in nurseries and schools. After all, even young children are expected to feel bad about harming others — but, depending on their age, there are limits to just what they can feel in such a scenario.

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Cognitive Control Helps Cheaters To Stay Honest — And Honest People To Cheat

By Emma Young

Many of us are faced with daily temptations to cheat. You might be offered the chance to download pirated music, perhaps. Or you might wonder about passing your child off as younger than they are, to avoid buying them a ticket on public transport.

As the authors of a new paper, published in PNAS, point out, several lines of research propose that cognitive control is needed for us to resolve the conflict between wanting to cheat and wanting to be honest. We need, in other words, to make an effort to rein in our impulses. However, the new work, led by Sebastian Speer at Erasmus University in the Netherlands, shows that this means different things for different people. If you’re typically honest, cognitive control can turn you into a cheat.

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When Causing Harm Is Unavoidable, We Prefer To Cause More Harm For More Benefits Rather Than Less Harm For Fewer

By Matthew Warren

Imagine that you’re an official faced with an unenviable decision: you must choose whether to establish a farm on existing land which can produce enough to feed 100 hungry families, or cut down an acre of rainforest to create a larger farm able to feed 500 hungry families. What choice would you make?

If you chose not to cut down the rainforest, you’re in the majority. In a new paper in Psychological Science, participants tended to avoid choosing to harm the rainforest, despite the benefits it would bring. This isn’t surprising: time and again, researchers have found that we will avoid causing harm if possible.

Now imagine that your choice is made harder. There’s no free land left; you have to cut down some of the rainforest. Would you cut down one acre to feed 100 families, or two acres to feed 500?

It’s an interesting question, because although researchers believe we’re generally averse to causing harm, they hadn’t really studied how we make decisions when some amount of harm is unavoidable.  And, perhaps surprisingly, in this second scenario almost 80% of people chose to do more damage, cutting down two acres of forest rather than one. In fact, across five other studies as well, Jonathan Berma from London Business School and Daniella Kupor from Boston University find that in situations where harm is unavoidable, people consistently try to maximise the social benefit, rather than minimise the amount of harm caused.

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Reminders Of God Don’t Actually Encourage Us To Take Risks, Replication Study Finds

 By guest blogger Sofia Deleniv

“…Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you.”

This passage, pulled from Isaiah 41.10, is just one example of the Bible’s many references to God’s power to protect. And this protective persona might affect you much more than you think. At least that’s what emerged in 2015, when researchers from Stanford University published a string of studies finding that people prompted to think of God made significantly riskier decisions — whether or not they were religious.

The scientists’ explanation, promptly picked up by the media, was that thinking of God makes risk-taking less intimidating because it primes us to expect divine protection. As of recently, however, this narrative has not stood up to scrutiny. The first pre-registered replication of this study, published in the journal Psychological Science, suggests that the effect was probably no more than an exciting false positive.

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People’s Desire To Reciprocate Acts Of Kindness Is Surprisingly Robust

By Emily Reynolds

Prosocial behaviour can sometimes feel pretty paradoxical: you’re doing something to benefit somebody else, but it can come at a cost to yourself. That cost could be small — getting up to make a cup of tea, for example — or could be more significant in terms of time, money, or energy.

Research has already established that there are four main forms of “reciprocity” that drive people to behave prosocially: wanting to do something nice for somebody who had been kind to you (direct reciprocity); doing good in the presence of people who might reward your generosity (reputational giving); paying it forward after experiencing kindness yourself (generalised reciprocity); or doing something for someone you’d seen be generous (rewarding reputation).

But most of these motivations have been studied individually: what happens when — as in real life — they all occur at once? In a new study published in Science Advances, David Melamed and colleagues find that people intrinsically want to help each other — even when those drivers seem like they are competing with one another.

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