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Trust your head or your gut? How we decide depends on experience


Study examines decision behavior in different areas of daily life: Jeans or trousers? A notebook or a tablet? Conventional or alternative medicine? Do people make these kinds of decisions based on knowledge or on intuition? And is there such a thing as purely rational or purely intuitive decision makers? These questions were addressed by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin and the University of Basel. The study was published in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition.

Whether we make everyday decisions based on our gut or our reason has little to do with what kind of a decision maker we are. Instead, the content of the decision plays a big role, as does whether we are knowledgeable in the particular subject. These were the results of a study by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin and the University of Basel.

As the study shows, we tend to decide on clothing, restaurants, and choice of partners intuitively, whereas our decisions in areas such as medicine, electronics, and holidays are apt to be knowledge-based.

"For that reason it's inaccurate to speak of rational or intuitive decision makers, as is often done", says Thorsten Pachur, first author of the study and researcher at the Center for Adaptive Rationality at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. Instead, people prefer one or the other type of decision based on the topic in question. This is entirely independent of sex; the assumption that women are more likely than men to make gut decisions was not confirmed.

For their study, the researchers questioned 149 students with an average age of 25.8 years, 102 of whom were female. First, the subjects were asked how they generally make decisions, that is, whether they tend to decide intuitively or based on knowledge.

In addition, they were asked to state how they would tackle decisions in specific areas of daily life: partner selection, clothing, restaurants, medicine, electronics, and holidays. Finally, the participants estimated their own expertise in each area on a scale of one to five.

The results make it clear that the extent to which a person prefers to make a gut decision or a rational one depends on the subject at hand. Someone who is a rational decision maker in one area may well be an intuitive decision maker in another. The favored type of decision depends on how one estimates one's own competence in that area. If people do not consider themselves an expert in an area, they prefer to base their choice on knowledge. "But if we have a lot of experience in a certain area, then we tend to rely on gut feelings for such decisions," Thorsten Pachur explains. "This could also mean that older people, as a result of their greater amount of experience, are more likely to make gut decisions than younger people."

Background Information
Pachur, T., & Spaar, M. (2015). Domain-specific preferences for intuition and deliberation in decision making. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition.

Max Planck Institute for Human Development
The Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin was founded in 1963. It is an interdisciplinary research institution dedicated to the study of human development and
education. The Institute belongs to the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science, one
of the leading organizations for basic research in Europe.

Weitere Informationen:

Kerstin Skork | Max-Planck-Institut für Bildungsforschung

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