Human Behavior In Taking Surveys Identified With Quantum Theory
June 17, 2014

Human Behavior In Taking Surveys Identified With Quantum Theory

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

Quantum theory, much like Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, is mainly used to describe the workings of the Universe. Scientists use quantum theory to describe the actions of subatomic particles, but a new study from The Ohio State University and Indiana University uses quantum theory to identify and describe human behavior. The findings, published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, demonstrate a strange pattern in how people respond to survey questions.

In more than 70 nationally representative studies from Gallup and the Pew Research Center, most of which included in excess of 1,000 US respondents, the scientific team found the exact same surprising pattern.

"Human behavior is very sensitive to context. It may be as context sensitive as the actions of some of the particles that quantum physicists study," said Zheng Wang, associate professor of communication at The Ohio State University.

"By using quantum theory, we were able to predict a surprising regularity in human behavior with unusual accuracy for the social sciences in a large set of different surveys."

Researchers who use survey data or any self-reported data face the issue of question-order effects. It is known that the order that some questions appear in a survey can change the way people respond, which is why most survey organizations typically change the order of questions between different respondents to cancel this effect.

"Researchers have thought of these question-order effects as some kind of unexplainable carry-over effects or noise," Wang said. "But our results suggest that some of these effects may not be mere nuisance, but actually are something more essential to human behavior."

For example, a Gallup poll asked American adults whether Bill Clinton was honest and trustworthy and whether Al Gore was honest and trustworthy, among other questions. In that particular survey, the order of questions was changed between respondents and expected question-order effects were found. Forty-nine percent of respondents asked about Clinton first found both Clinton and Gore trustworthy. When asked if Gore was trustworthy first, 56 percent found both trustworthy.

The quantum theory predicted that the number of people who switch from "yes-yes" to "no-no" when the order of questions is reversed must be offset by the number of people who switch in the opposite direction. The research team found this prediction held true.

In the example Gallup poll, the number of "no-no" respondents (saying that both Gore and Clinton were not trustworthy) changed from 28 percent when the Clinton question was asked first to 21 percent when the Gore question was asked first. The decrease of 7 percent was offset by a 7 percent increase in the number of people who said "yes-yes" when the question order was reversed. A similar offset was seen in the number of people who switched from "yes-no" to "no-yes" by people who switched the other direction.

The research team found this phenomenon, which they called "quantum question equality," in every one of the 70 surveys studied.

"When you think about it from our normal social science perspective, the finding is very bizarre," Wang said. "There's no reason to expect that people would always change their responses in such a systematical way, from survey to survey to create this pattern."

Wang says the findings fit perfectly into a quantum perspective. "It is exactly what we would have predicted from quantum theory. We mathematically derived this precise prediction of quantum question equality from quantum theory before we looked at any data. This had to be true if our theory is right."

The aspect of quantum theory that proved their theory true is called the law of reciprocity, which is complex and difficult for many to understand, like much of quantum theory. Basically, the law of reciprocity deals with the transition from one state of a system to another. Specifically, the transition seen in the sample survey was the state of answering questions about Clinton to a new state of answering questions about Gore.

Only this very specific situation, in which two questions are asked back to back with no other information intervening, is explained by quantum question equality.

A survey separate from the 70 studied can illustrate the difference. This study asked if disgraced former baseball players Pete Rose and "Shoeless" Joe Jackson should be admitted to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Using the idea of question-order effects, the order in which people were asked about the two players varied. However, the survey results did not fit the predicted pattern found in the 70 study surveys.

The team says this is because in between asking each question, the surveyors introduced new information in the form of an explanation of who the players were and why a controversy existed.

"The simple fact that participants were given new information affects how they answer and means that quantum question equality won't hold true for cases like this," she said.

According to Wang, the study was able to attain a level of exactitude that is rarely found when studying human behavior because of quantum theory.

"Usually, in the social sciences we're talking about parameters: If we can predict that one factor is always larger or smaller than another, we consider that a strong finding," she said.

"But here we found a quite precise answer that is always nearly zero – the number of people who switch an answer one way are always offset by the number of people who switch in the opposite direction. That number never changed. In other words, their difference is always nearly zero. And that level of exactness is almost never found in social science research."

This study raises the question of why the number of people who switch from "yes-yes" to "no-no" when question order is reversed must be offset by the number of people who switch in the opposite direction. According to Wang, standard psychological theory contains nothing at this point that would explain this phenomenon.

"People may reason according to different rules other than standard probability that are commonly used in social sciences. Our findings support the idea that people reason according to quantum rules instead."