People Often Rely on 'Blind Insight' to Make Decisions

New research shows that when people have to guess the answer to an unknown question, they tend to feel greater confidence about decisions that would later turn out correct and less confidence about those that turned out incorrect.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Sussex, shows that when we don’t have the conscious knowledge to answer a question, there is an unconscious form of insight that we use in our decision-making. The researchers refer to this as “blind insight.”

“The existence of blind insight tells us that our knowledge of the likely accuracy of our decisions — our ‘metacognition’ — does not always derive directly from the same information used to make those decisions. It appears our confidence can confound logic,” said psychologist Dr. Ryan Scott, lead author of the study.

Metacognition is the ability to think about and assess our own mental processes; it plays a vital role in memory, learning, self-regulation, and social interaction.

Consciousness research has shown many instances in which people are able to make accurate decisions without knowing it, that is, in the absence of metacognition. A prime example of this is “blindsight,” in which people are able to discriminate visual stimuli even when they can’t see the stimuli, or when their discrimination judgments are only guesses.

Scott and colleagues at the University’s Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science wanted to know whether the opposite of blindsight (blind insight) could occur.  “We wondered: Can a person lack accuracy in their decisions but still be more confident when their decision is right than when it’s wrong?” said Scott.

For the study, 450 participants performed a simple decision task. They first looked at a set of letter strings which, unknown to the participants, followed a complex set of rules that dictated the order of the letters.

They were then told of the existence of these rules and were asked to classify a new set of strings according to whether or not they followed the rules, answering yes or no.  After each decision they had to say whether or not they had any confidence in their answer.

Although the majority of participants were able to classify the strings with some accuracy, many volunteers performed no better than if they had selected yes or no at random.  However, the confidence ratings for this group of “random responders” showed that they were more likely to feel confident in their correct decisions than in their incorrect ones.

“An everyday example might be trying to decide which of two routes to take on the Tube,” said Scott, referring to the London subway. “You pick what you think is the quickest route but the moment you get on the train you are sure you’ve made a wrong decision. How could that happen?

“Perhaps your original decision was largely influenced by the number of stops along the different routes, with fewer stops being favored. But without you being aware, your subsequent confidence draws on something more, perhaps a forgotten previous experience with stoppages on one of those lines. That additional unconscious knowledge could mean that your confidence is often right despite your original decision being no better than chance.”

The findings are published in the journal Psychological Science.

Source: University of Sussex

 
 
Abstract of human insight photo by shutterstock.