Freakonomics Study Investigates Decision-Making and Estimated Prior Probabilities

post by telms · 2013-07-30T04:08:01.527Z · score: 3 (4 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 2 comments

The Freakonomics web site is currently conducting online research that appears, to this properly hypothesis-blinded participant, to be investigating decision-making and estimated prior probability of success. You can participate yourself at  http://www.freakonomics.com/experiments/.

The study asks the participant to choose a yes/no decision that they would be willing to commit to making on the basis of a random coin toss. (Well, actually, the random decay of an atomic nucleus, but they use coin flip graphics.) In my case, the only decision I was willing to make on such a random basis is something with very low risks: namely, the decision whether or not to quit twisting my hair. I accepted the obligation to change my behavior based on a coin toss, and the coin toss says I gotta change.

Breaking a habit of such long standing will be difficult. Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, and all that, so when they asked how LIKELY I thought it would be that my hair-twisting habit would stick despite my best efforts to get rid of it, I estimated 90%. Yet I also claimed that I WILL PROBABLY (not certainly, but probably) conquer the habit.

Yes, I recognize the dissonance between these two statements. It intrigues me. Is it perhaps the intent of the experiment to create explicit, conscious, cognitive dissonance like this in some participants, and see what difference it makes to outcomes?

They could easily have phrased the odds question in the inverse form. They COULD have asked how likely I thought it was that I would SUCCEED in achieving my goal. That would align neatly with my statement of commitment and yield no dissonance. I could make the usual biased assumptions that strength of willpower is the same as odds of success, and over-estimate those success odds accordingly.

I don't actually know that the study cares about this, but this is what I would care about if I were the researchers.

The Freakonomics people will be following up over time by email. They're also checking on me through a friend, so there is every possibility that they expect to see an interaction between social involvement in the decision's outcome and the presence of cognitive dissonance, which is believed to drive SOCIAL behavior more strongly than it drives personal decisions kept to oneself.

I'm posting this to increase my social commitment, of course. I also posted on Facebook. It's terrible to have a psychologically trained participant make assumptions about your research project and leverage those assumptions to the max for imaginary ends. But that's life in social science. :)

2 comments

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comment by CronoDAS · 2013-07-30T09:24:25.365Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I chose which of three colleges to attend by rolling a die...

comment by telms · 2013-07-31T03:15:37.461Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Let's see if I can take your college example and fit it to what Freakonics is investigating.

Before you roll the dice, you are asked how confident you are that if the dice roll 6, you will in fact enroll and pay the first semester's tuition at school X and still be attending classes there two months from now. You can choose from:

(a) Very likely

(b) Somewhat likely

(c) Somewhat unlikely

(d) Very unlikely

Then you're asked to give a probability estimate that you will not show up, pay up, and stick it out for two months.

Let's say you're highly motivated to do school and all three school choices are equally wonderful to you. But you don't have the tuition money and all three schools have turned you down for a scholarship. You are determined to work your way through school, but you know that the odds are against you being able to work full time and go to school full time at the same time.

So you estimate the odds against paying the first chunk of tuition and carrying a full load of classes and performing well enough to keep your job at 75%. You know it's going to be pretty damned hard.

All the same, you are confident that you are more likely than not to succeed anyway. You pick "somewhat likely" as your confidence of success.

These two estimates are logically incongruent. What interested me about the Freakonomics study is that the software challenged me on the mismatch. It popped up a dialog that said, in effect, you said you're more likely to succeed than not, but you estimated a 75% chance of failure. It sounds like you've already decided to quit. Are you sure you want to roll the dice?

You can end it there or go on with the roll.

Now doesn't that challenge change the whole feel of the decision for you? It sure does for me.