Instinct Often Makes For Good Decisions
November 9, 2012

Researchers Believe That Gut Reactions Can Be Trusted When Making Quality Decisions

Alan McStravick for - Your Universe Online

Intuition will tell the thinking mind where to look next — Jonas Salk

We make decisions every day. The number of decisions we must make is innumerable. From when to get up, to which towel to use after the shower, to how much toothpaste to squeeze out of the tube, to coffee or tea, etc., etc. And this previous list that hasn´t even gotten you out the front door on your way to work doesn´t even take into account our subconscious decisions, like placing the left foot forward after the right foot to take you to the paper in the driveway that you decide to pick up. Just because it is routine doesn´t mean you didn´t make a decision, this day, to engage in your routine. But how do we make these decisions? And how do we arrive at a decision in a situation we are patently unfamiliar with? These questions were asked by Professor Marius Usher of Tel Aviv University´s (TAU) School of Psychological Sciences and his fellow researchers.

There has always been an interest on the part of scientists to get to the root cause of how we make our decisions. How did someone choose left instead of right? Why did they pick A and not B? These same scientists have wanted to explore how instinct and intellect figure into the process exactly. And now the research team from TAU has found that decisions that we make based upon intuition have surprisingly positive outcomes. In fact, in their study, when participants were forced to choose between two options based on instinct alone, the participants made the correct decision a shocking 90 percent of the time.

According to Usher, even at the intuitive level, there is an important part of the decision-making process that is the “integration of value”, or one taking into account both the positive and negative factors of each option that arises through an overall picture. Whether you are deciding between the beef or chicken or which house to buy, there are various relevant criteria that contribute to the overall 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," Prof. Usher says. This could be the operational system on which common decision-making processes are built.

To test his theory, Usher designed an experiment in which participants would be put through a carefully controlled decision-making process. Flashing across a computer monitor, in quick succession, were pairs of numbers. All of the numbers that appeared on the right of the screen and all those on the left side of the screen were considered a group. And each group represented returns on the stock market.

Going into the experiment, the test subjects were instructed to choose which of the two groups of numbers had the highest average. However, the speed with which the numbers were shown equated to between 2 and 4 pairs per second. This ensured the participants could not memorize the numbers or do proper mathematical calculations, according to Usher. He goes on, saying that in order to determine the highest average of either group, the participants had to rely upon “intuitive arithmetic.”

What Usher and his team discovered was that the participants were able to calculate the different values accurately at exceptional speed. Also, they were able to process a significant amount of data. The team even noted that the overall accuracy of the group increased in relation to the amount of data they were presented. As an example, when they were shown six pairs of numbers, the subjects chose accurately 65 percent of the time. But with an increase to 24 pairs of numbers being shown, researchers saw the subjects accuracy rate shoot up to an impressive 90 percent.

Usher claims the human brain has a suitable capacity to take in many pieces of information and decide on an overall value intuitively. He contends that a gut reaction can be trusted to make quality decisions. This conclusion is supported by Ushers earlier work that has been published in Frontiers of Cognitive Science and was co-authored by Professor Dan Zakay and Dr. Zohar Rusou.

There are, of course, certain biases to which intuition is subject to. According to Usher these biases may lead to more risks in the decision making process. At least a risk that a person is willing to take. The research team backed up this contention with tests designed specifically to measure a person´s risk taking tendencies. They were surprised when they found that a majority of the participants didn´t play it safe. The test presented the subjects with a choice between two sets of numbers with the same average. One set had a narrower distribution. The other had a broad distribution. So a subject presented with, say, 45 and 55 on the left and 70 and 30 on the right, would, a majority of the time, select the numbers on the right. Researchers determined that the subjects decision-making was swayed by the large numbers and they would take a chance on the broadly distributed number set rather than making the “safe” choice.

Usher states that though this study was based on a behavioral experiment he believes an interesting follow-up study might be to measure the brain activity throughout the task. This could possibly shed light on the physiological aspects of value integration.

The results of their study were recently published in the journal PNAS.