Humans are remarkably resourceful. According to a new study, when people choose between two high-value items, not only do their decisions tend to be fast — they’re also accurate.
Researchers have long suspected that people are more sensitive to changes in value at low stakes, and less sensitive at higher stakes. For instance, you’re much more likely to tell the difference between a $5,000 car and a $10,000 car than between a $50,000 car and a $55,000 car. Similarly, if you’re trying to estimate whether someone weighs 45 kilos or 50 seems easier than between 105 and 110 — at least this was the theory.
Findings from a new study suggest the exact opposite. Not only do people tend to make high-stakes decisions quicker, but they also tend to be more accurate, Ian Krajbich, co-author of the study and professor of psychology and economics at The Ohio State University, tells ZME Science.
“Theories would both predict slower and less accurate/consistent decisions at high values. Instead, we saw the opposite. There is also work coming from researchers who have argued that high-value decisions may be fast because decision-makers are satisfied. In other words, when decision-makers think that the options are both good enough, they choose more quickly to save time and effort. If this theory was right we would expect high-value choices to be less accurate/consistent. Again, we saw the opposite.”
Previous research suggested that high-value decisions were generally faster than low-value ones, and this was indeed observed in the study. In three separate experiments, Krajbich and colleagues measured how long it took people to make decisions, and how accurate these decisions are. In the first one, they asked participants to rate their desire to eat 144 snack foods on a scale of 0 to 10. Then, at the end of this experiment, they offered the participants two food items and asked which one of them they would prefer. Sometimes, the participants were shown high-rated foods (say, an 8 and a 9), while other times, they would be shown comparable low-value options (say a 2 and a 3). The idea was to if and how people would stay true to their original ratings.
Remarkably, participants were slightly more likely to choose the higher-rated food accurately and quickly when it came to two highly-rated foods. The same pattern was noticed in the second experiment, where participants were asked to rate abstract artwork from 0 to 10.
Meanwhile, in the third experiment, participants didn’t rate anything. Instead, they were shown multi-color blocks with colors ranging from blue to pink. The blocks were then assigned values based on their color, ranging from lowest on one side of the spectrum and highest on the other (from $0.20 to $2.5). Yet again, participants were quicker and more accurate when it came to choosing between the high-value blocks.
However, there was a twist to these experiments. In half of the decisions in each experiment, the researchers alerted participants what kind of decision they would make (a choice between two high-value or two low-value items).
“The idea was that if people knew they were going to choose between two high-value options, they might be happy with either one, so they wouldn’t need to spend as much time or effort on the decision. With the low-value decisions, it might matter more that they choose the right one,” Krajbich said.
Researchers aren’t sure exactly why this happens, but it could be that something about being aware of the higher stakes is making people concentrate more.
“One possibility is that the presence of high-value options leads to increased arousal, which we know generally improves performance (up to a point). Another possibility is that people implicitly assume that high-value decisions are also more important to get right, which mirrors how things usually work in real life, and as a result they pay more attention to those decisions,” Krajbich told ZME Science.
“It may be that there is a factor we didn’t know about before, which is unique to value, that leads people to act differently,” Krajbich adds.
The researchers also have some advice for making day-to-day decisions. Krajbich concludes:
“Don’t discount the importance of making small decisions correctly. Your choice of which goods to purchase at the grocery store or where to go for lunch might seem small and unimportant, but those costs can add up to a lot over time!”
The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI10.1073/pnas.2101508119