Study Explains Why – and When – People Rely on Intuitions to Make Choices
New Haven, Conn., August 1, 2006 -- People often rely on their intuitions when making choices – whether they are deciding which sports team to bet on, politician to vote for, or job candidate to hire. A new study published in the August issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General explains why people are predisposed to trusting their intuitions even when presented with information that suggests that their intuition may be wrong.
The study, conducted by Joseph Simmons of the Yale School of Management and Leif Nelson of New York University, shows that people frequently choose an intuitive option over an equally good nonintuitive alternative because their intuitions are so often very confidently held. This intuitive confidence signals that their intuitions are accurate and that they should therefore be followed.
“People are typically very confident in their intuitions,” said Simmons, who conducted the research at Princeton University before joining the Yale School of Management faculty and its Center for Customer Insights last month. “Intuitions are easy to generate, and that ease makes people think, ‘My intuition feels right so I’ll go with it, even though I know that other information opposes it.’ However, when it is hard to generate an intuition, people will often decide to give more consideration to the alternatives.”
To investigate their theory, Simmons and Nelson studied sports gamblers’ predictions against point spreads, focusing on whether people pick the intuitive choice (the team favored to win) or the nonintuitive choice (the underdog). Because the point spread equalizes the teams by giving points to the underdog, one might expect gamblers to be equally likely to bet on favorites and underdogs. However, in an investigation of predictions made on Yahoo.com’s Fantasy Sports website, the authors found that the vast majority of predictions were on favorites. Moreover, in follow-up studies, Simmons and Nelson showed that this tendency remained strong even when investigating experts’ predictions and when point spreads were increased – a move that makes wagers on favorites more likely to lose.
But people don’t always follow their intuitions. The authors found that people were less likely to bet on favorites when they felt less certain that the favorite would simply win the game. This finding arose in real-world prediction settings as well as in experiments where people were asked to make predictions against point spreads that they generated themselves. In fact, through manipulations that had nothing to do with the game itself, the authors decreased people’s confidence in their intuitions and found that predictions of underdogs increased. For example, people were more likely to predict underdogs when the questionnaire on which they made their predictions was printed in a difficult-to-read font. The increased effort provoked by reading the difficult font made people feel less confident in their intuitions, and they were more likely to predict underdogs as a result.
The study’s findings can be applied to any situation where people make choices between intuitive and nonintuitive alternatives, including the upcoming political elections.
“The more confidently people’s intuitions favor one candidate over another, the more likely they will be to remain true to that candidate when presented with information that suggests that their candidate has flaws,” said Simmons. “Decreasing confidence in their preference, though, should make people more susceptible to changing their opinions when confronted with a persuasive message that attempts to do just that.”
The Yale Center for Customer Insights at the Yale School of Management is a research center that studies the behavior of customers and marketplace dynamics. The Center welcomes inquiries from organizations interested in research partnership and sponsorship opportunities. For more information visit: http://www.cci.som.yale.edu or contact Eugenia Hayes at 203-432-6069.