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Just leap! You don’t have to look first! Usually.

Friday, November 23, 2012
posted by Rita Handrich

We’ve all heard that tired truism urging us to exercise caution: “look before you leap”. Well. New research says “just leap” and it will often work out. Granted, it doesn’t always work out but the researchers also discovered that we are more risk-taking than one might predict. So, go ahead. Leap!

Researchers in Israel found that intuition was just as good as a calculator up to (but certainly not always) 90% of the time. Specifically, they showed research participants fast glimpses of numbers (two to four pairs every second) and asked them to use “intuitive arithmetic” to identify the group having the highest average. Some pairs appeared on the left hand side of the computer screen and some were on the right. Those on the left were considered a group and those on the left were considered a group. They disappeared so quickly there was really no opportunity to memorize or actually mentally calculate the group averages. You simply had to respond and say which group you thought had the highest average.

And the more challenging it got, the more accurate the participants became! When they were asked to arithmetically intuit which group of 6 pairs of numbers had the higher average, they were correct 65% of the time. But when they were asked to assess the higher average of groups with 24 pairs, their accuracy skyrocketed to 90%!

The researchers believe the brain has an innate averaging tendency that doesn’t only function well with mathematical averages but also does well with other decisions. It’s about trusting your intuition. Of course, intuition doesn’t always work accurately and can be risky. So they also asked participants to complete tasks that measured risk-taking–again with a mathematical task.

Participants were shown two groups of numbers that actually had the same average but one group had a narrow distribution (like between 45 and 55) while the comparison group had a broad distribution (like between 30 and 70). When people saw the disparity in distribution of the numbers comprising the two groups–they were fooled [and the researchers were surprised]. Most of the participants (p < .0001) chose the group with the broader distribution as having the higher average. The researchers say this shows we are more willing to take risks than might be predicted.

It reminds me of a colleague who was trying to make a decision about what to do when her internship concluded. Did she stay put and finish her dissertation or did she move to a larger town where she could perhaps find work as a master’s level clinician? The impending decision obsessed her but she was unable to decide. Finally, an older staff member produced a quarter and said “Heads you move, tails you stay” and flipped the coin in the air. The indecisive colleague looked horrified and then when the quarter came up tails she was obviously relieved. The older staff member told her that was the test. Not whether the quarter said you should go or stay but whether you felt relief or distress over the quarter’s pronouncement. It was an intuitive decision already made but not yet consciously accepted.

It’s a struggle to take a risk. Yet, when faced with unknowable puzzles (as were these research participants) we somehow know. So when faced with a tough decision, just leap. And hopefully your choice will become clearly accurate rather than painfully inaccurate.

Tsetsos K, Chater N, & Usher M (2012). Salience driven value integration explains decision biases and preference reversal. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109 (24), 9659-64 PMID: 22635271


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