A team of psychology professors at WSU has set out to find the answer to the age-old question of why smart people sometimes make bonehead decisions.
During the course of the next couple years, the professors will run a series of experiments to study why people make risky choices in uncertain situations, said professor John Hinson, the lead researcher on the project.
“Our interest is in understanding when people stick with the sure thing and when they take the risk of going with an option that is uncertain,” Hinson said. “We are especially interested in how sleep loss affects this balance in decision making between the risk and the sure thing.”
The National Institutes of Health provided the
professors with a two-year grant of $377,460 to purchase supplies, hire staff and get anything else they need to uncover the answer.
“Specifically, we hope to better understand when bad, risky decisions occur because of a lack of good, rational information, and when bad decisions are due to a failure to use good information that you have available,” Hinson said.
The study will consist of three experiments, Hinson said. The professors intend to keep most of the details of the first two experiments under wraps in order to prevent potential participants from learning what to expect.
However, he said those two parts of the study will put participants in decision-making situations during gambling game scenarios. Then, they will make choices involving hypothetical monetary gains and losses.
“Participants are given choices between either accepting a sure outcome (which could be a gain or a loss) or taking a risk on an uncertain outcome (which could also be a gain or a loss),” Hinson said.
Hinson and his group of assistants will observe which of the participants’ decisions rely upon what psychologists call “hot cognition” – emotion – or “cold cognition” – rational deliberation. Though, he would like to point out that emotional decisions are not always irrational.
“For example, your fear of skin cancer may lead you to use sunscreen even though you haven’t rationally assessed the likelihood that your sun exposure will cause cancer,” Hinson said. “In this example, an emotion-based decision is actually a good one in protecting your health.”
For the third part of the study, participants will go to the Sleep and Performance Research Center at WSU Spokane for a weeklong test on how sleep deprivation factors into their decision-making process.
The participants will stay in the research center 24 hours a day during that period, said research professor Hans Van Dongen, who will run this portion of the study.
They will stay awake for two days straight during a portion of that week and then participate in a series of decision-making scenarios, Van Dongen said. Meanwhile, a control group will have to make the same decisions but without the pressures of sleep deprivation.
“We believe that sleep deprivation will somehow distort their ability to make the best choice,” he said. “Our goal is to figure out why that happens.”
If the researchers can identify the reasons behind the
participant's decisions, they may be able to mitigate the problem, Van Dongen said. He also said the study could play an important role for people who work in high stress situations on little sleep.
Hinson said he is thankful to the National Institutes of Health for the support he received to fund the study.
“Basic research is essential to all scientific progress, but it often does not have the popular or political support it deserves,” he said.
Hinson and the other professors are still looking for people to volunteer for the experiments. The volunteers will receive pay, he said. He expects about 200 people to participate in the three experiments, which are set to begin in the next couple months.
“Everything should be in full operation when students return after New Year's break,” he said.