Decisions based on instinct can have surprisingly positive outcomes, according to new research.
In a recent behavioral experiment, Marius Usher, Ph.D., of Tel Aviv University’s School of Psychological Sciences and his fellow researchers found that intuition was a powerful and accurate tool.
When asked to choose between two options based on instinct alone, volunteers made the right call up to 90 percent of the time, the researchers report.
An important part of the decision-making process is the “integration of value” — that is, taking into account the positive and negative factors of each option to come up with an overall picture, explains Usher.
For example, you weigh the strengths and weaknesses of different apartments for rent or applicants for a job. Various criteria contribute to the decision-making process.
“The study demonstrates that humans have a remarkable ability to integrate value when they do so intuitively, pointing to the possibility that the brain has a system that specializes in averaging value,” he said.
To better understand this system, Usher designed an experiment that put volunteers through a carefully controlled decision-making process. On a computer screen, they were shown sequences of pairs of numbers in quick succession. All numbers that appeared on the right of the screen and all on the left were considered a group, with each group representing returns on the stock market.
The participants were asked to choose which of the two groups of numbers had the highest average.
Because the numbers changed so quickly — two to four pairs were shown every second — they were unable to memorize the numbers or do proper mathematical calculations, Usher noted. To determine the highest average of either group, they had to rely on “intuitive arithmetic.”
The researchers found that the participants were able to calculate the different values accurately at exceptional speed.
They also were able to process large amounts of data — in fact, their accuracy increased in relation to the amount of data they were presented, according to the researchers.
When shown six pairs of numbers, for example, the participants chose accurately 65 percent of the time. But when they were shown 24 pairs, the accuracy rate grew to about 90 percent.
Intuitively, the human brain has the capacity to take in many pieces of information and decide on an overall value, Usher said.
He notes that intuition is also subject to certain biases and leads to more risks — risks that people are willing to take. That was shown when the researchers tested participants on their risk-taking tendencies, and discovered that the majority didn’t play it safe.
When faced with a choice between two sets of numbers with the same average — one with a narrow distribution, such as 45 and 55, and another with a broad distribution, such as 70 and 30 — people were swayed by the large numbers and took a chance on the broadly distributed numbers rather than making the “safe” choice.
The study was recently published in the journal PNAS.
Source: Tel Aviv University