Study sheds light on decision-making

The University study examined the psychology of gambling.

by Noah Johnson

People who gamble may seem to make confusing and questionable decisions when betting is involved and often take a loss as a result.
However, these choices are often more sound than they seem, according to a study put out by University of Minnesota psychologists. The findings provide some insight into the psychology of gambling and human decision-making in general.
âÄúWeâÄôre interested in the simple kind of decision-making that people do every day,âÄù said Shawn Green, the studyâÄôs lead researcher and a post-doctoral fellow in the UniversityâÄôs Department of Psychology  and the Center for Cognitive Sciences.
The study concluded that âÄúhuman decision making is rational and model basedâÄù even when it doesnâÄôt seem to be.
The researchers presented subjects with two options representing decisions made in games of chance, such as choosing what side a flipped coin would land on, or between two piles of cards. The subjects were made aware that one option was weighted more favorably.
One option had a 70 percent chance of having a favorable outcome, while the other only had a 30 percent chance. With those odds, the rational decision would seem to be to choose the option with the 70 percent chance of winning every time.
âÄúYouâÄôd think that if heads on a coin has that much more a chance to be the winning choice, you should just stick with it and never choose tails,âÄù Green said.
Despite this, the subjects tended to bet on the more favorable choice just 70 percent of the time, and the less favorable choice 30 percent of the time.
This posed an interesting question to the researchers: Is it rational to bet on the option with the lower probability of winning?
It is, according to the researchers.
âÄúIf you have this belief that thereâÄôs structure in the world, your mind makes rational choices based on that,âÄù Green said. He added that this leads to the development of beliefs like the gamblerâÄôs fallacy, in which âÄúpeople think theyâÄôre seeing structure when there really is none.âÄù
When a person successfully bets heads on a real, unbiased coin several times in a row, they start to reason that itâÄôs the better choice. In reality, this doesnâÄôt indicate any dependence.
Regardless, the study indicates that, based upon the information the subjects had, they were still making rational, ordered choices.
Paul Schrater, a University psychology professor, was a principal investigator for the research and worked with Green to develop their theory.
âÄúWhatâÄôs most compelling about the study is itâÄôs a really nice piece of evidence that what looks like irrational behavior is actually rational in the right context,âÄù Schrater said.
âÄúThe problem is,âÄù he added, âÄúhumans take themselves out of this context too often.âÄù
The research was an effort of the Department of Psychology within the UniversityâÄôs College of Liberal Arts. Green was assisted by Schrater and Daniel Kersten, who is also a University psychology professor.
Regardless of the frequent losses involved in gambling, it is âÄúmore of a rational thing to do than we give it credit for,âÄù according to Green.