Traditional psychological theory describes the decision-making process as an action often based on intuition rather than logic. That is, people will ignore facts and go with the gut.
A new research hypothesis blends the objective and subjective as Wim De Neys, Ph.D., a psychological scientist at the University of Toulouse in France, suggests thinking about logic is also intuitive.
His views on this subject are found in the January issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science.
Psychologists have partly based their conclusions about reasoning and decision-making by analyzing the decisions people make — a process that requires psychologists to make assumptions that may oversimplify the decision.
For example, psychologists study reasoning and decision-making based on responses to questions like this one:
“Bill is 34. He is intelligent, punctual but unimaginative and somewhat lifeless. In school, he was strong in mathematics but weak in social studies and humanities.
Which one of the following statements is most likely?
(a) Bill plays in a rock band for a hobby.
(b) Bill is an accountant and plays in a rock band for a hobby.”
Most people will let their stereotypes about accountants rule and pick (b). But, in fact, we have no idea what Bill does for a living—he could be a politician, a concert pianist, or a drug dealer—so it’s more likely that only one random possibility, the rock band, is true, than that both (a) and (b) would happen to be true.
This line of research has suggested that people don’t use logic when making decisions about the world. But the truth is more complicated, De Neys said.
When most people read a question like the one above, there’s a sense that something isn’t quite right.
“That feeling you have, that there’s something fishy about the problem—we have a wide range of ways to measure that conflict,” De Neys said. For example, he has shown with brain imaging that when people are thinking about this kind of problem, a part of their brain that deals with conflict is active.
“They stick to their gut feeling and don’t do the logical thing, but they do sense that what they are doing is wrong,” De Neys said.
De Neys believes the internal dissonance with the decision comes from an intuitive sense of logic. Indeed, scientists have discovered that the ability to think logically begins at a very young age.
In one study, 8-month-old babies were surprised if someone pulled mostly red balls out of a box that contained mostly white balls, proof that babies have an innate sense of probability before they can even talk. It makes sense, De Neys said, that this intuitive sense of logic would stick around in adults.
De Neys believes the research moves beyond a simple view of how we think as the premise can explain complex decision-making.
If you want to teach people to make better decisions, he said, “It’s important to know which component of the process is faulty.”
For example, if you want to understand why people are smoking, and you think it’s because they don’t understand the logic—that smoking kills—you might put a lot of energy into explaining how smoking is bad for them, when the actual problem is addiction.