A study conducted at Cornell University reveals that U.S. intelligence agents are more likely to make irrational decision-making biases compared to college students.

The finding was published in the journal Psychological Science.

When people get older they start to make changes in their decision-making; decisions are made less analytically and are more based on gists (according to the Fuzzy-trace theory.)

“FTT [Fuzzy-trace theory] makes the counterintuitive prediction that reliance on gist-based thinking increases with development.

That is, with increasing experience and expertise, people are less likely to engage in literal, verbatim-based analysis and more likely to use simple semantic gist in memory, judgment, and decision-making.”

This pretty much means that as we get older we tend to make decisions based on what “seems” right without fully analyzing it.

Valerie Reyna, Cornell professor of human development and psychology, and lead author of the study, wanted to see whether the theory holds any truth.

She set out to determine what differences in gain-loss framing decisions there would be between intelligence agents and college students.

In her study, she asked college students and the agents to solve the following two dilemmas. These dilemmas are identical but just framed in different ways:

  • Framed in terms of people surviving: – “The U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual disease, which is expected to kill 600 people.

    Do you save 200 people for sure, or choose the option with 1/3 probability that 600 will be saved and a 2/3 probability no one will be saved?”

  • Framed in terms of people dying: – “The U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual disease, which is expected to kill 600 people.

    Do you pick the option where 400 will surely die, or instead a 2/3 probability that all 600 will die and a 1/3 probability no one dies?

The results revealed that the thirty-six agents “exhibited larger decision biases than college students, treating equivalent outcomes differently, based on superficial wording. In particular, they were more willing to take risks with human lives when the outcomes were framed as losses rather than as gains.”

Agents were more likely to choose the risky option in the second dilemma.

Professor Reyna said that the study provides insight into the decision-making mechanisms of agents and how gain-loss framing can have such a substantial effect.

Empathy plays a key role in moral decision-making – researchers from Boston College, the Institute of Cognitive Neurology and Favaloro University in Argentina, wrote in the journal PLoS ONE that people who tend to say that it is permissible to harm one to save many are more likely to be deficient in a specific kind of empathy.

Written by Joseph Nordqvist