Tag Archives: Stanford University

Choice Architecture: Even in “Heads or Tails,” It Matters What’s Presented First

If you’re familiar with behavioural economics, then the results of this study will be right up your alley.

The researchers set out to determine whether there was a “first-toss Heads bias.” Meaning, when flipping a coin and the choices are presented “Heads or Tails,” there would be a bias towards people guessing “Heads” (because it was presented first). Through running their tests, they found something else that surprised them [Emphasis Added]:

Because of stable linguistic conventions, we expected Heads to be a more popular first toss than Tails regardless of superficial task particulars, which are transient and probably not even long retained. We were wrong: Those very particulars carried the day. Once the response format or verbal instructions put Tails before Heads, a first-toss Tails bias ensued.

Even in something as simple as flipping a coin, something where the script “Heads or Tails” is firmly engrained in our heads, researchers discovered that by simply switching the order of the choices, the frequency with which people chose one option or the other changed. That’s rather incredible and possibly has implications from policy to polling. However:

There is, of course, no reason to expect that, in normal binary choices, biases would be as large as those we found. In choosing whether to start a sequence of coin tosses with Heads or Tails, people ostensibly attach no importance to the choice and therefore supposedly do not monitor or control it. Since System 1 mental processes (that are intuitive and automatic) bring Heads to mind before Tails, and since there is no reason for System 2 processes (which are deliberative and thoughtful; see, e.g., Kahneman & Frederick, 2002) to interfere with whatever first comes to mind, many respondents start their mental sequence with Heads. However, in real-life questions people often have preferences, even strong ones, for one answer over another; the stronger the preference, the weaker the bias. A direct generalization from Miller and Krosnick (1998) suggests that in choices such as making a first-toss prediction, where there would seem to be no good intrinsic reason to guide the choice, order biases are likely to be more marked than in voting. At the magnitude of bias we found, marked indeed it was. Miller and Krosnick noted with respect to their much smaller bias that “the magnitude of name-order effects observed here suggests that they have probably done little to undermine the democratic process in contemporary America” (pp. 291–292). However, in some contexts, even small biases can sometimes matter, and in less important contexts, sheer bias magnitude may endow it with importance.

OK, so maybe these results don’t add too much to “government nudges,” but it can — at a minimum — give you a slight advantage (over the long haul) when deciding things by flipping coins with your friends. How?

Well, assuming that you are the one doing the flipping, you can say to your friend: “Tails or Heads?” (or “Heads or Tails?”) and then be sure to start the coin with the opposite side of what your friend said, facing up. A few years ago, Stanford math professor Persi Diaconis showed that the side facing up before being flipped is slightly more likely to be the side that lands facing up.

ResearchBlogging.orgBar-Hillel M, Peer E, & Acquisti A (2014). “Heads or tails?”–a reachability bias in binary choice. Journal of experimental psychology. Learning, memory, and cognition, 40 (6), 1656-63 PMID: 24773285

More Scientific Evidence That Beliefs Affect Biology

If you’ve been following me since I started writing on the internet a couple of years ago, you know that I have a certain soft spot for the power of belief (sampling: here, here, here, and here). I understand that many folks are still leery of that phrase, but when you couch it in the context of the “placebo effect,” it’s amazing how many people begin to accept it as a thing.

Depending upon your philosophical bent, you may believe that willpower is a depletable resource. You certainly wouldn’t be alone in that thought, as President Obama seems to subscribe to this point of view. There are also those who believe that willpower is not a limited resource. So, which one is it? A simple question without a simple answer. It’s important to remember that depending upon from which point we begin, we may be less inclined to believe the other side of the story (remember the confirmation bias?) As much as possible, it’s important to try to take in new information with an open mind. With that being said, (regardless of where you stand), try to examine the following study with an objective and critical eye.

…following a demanding task, only people who view willpower as limited and easily depleted (a limited resource theory) exhibited improved self-control after sugar consumption. In contrast, people who view willpower as plentiful (a nonlimited resource theory) showed no benefits from glucose—they exhibited high levels of self-control performance with or without sugar boosts. Additionally, creating beliefs about glucose ingestion (experiment 3) did not have the same effect as ingesting glucose for those with a limited resource theory.

When I read this, my first thought was, as the title suggests, more evidence that our beliefs can affect our biology (see: Biology of Belief). Of course, I understand if some folks have a hard time jumping on board with this, so, like I said, couching it in the language of the “placebo effect” seems to make it more palatable.

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After reading this, I’d encourage you to follow-through with application. That is, now that you have this knowledge, apply it to your own life. Test it out. See what works for you. Maybe you used to believe that willpower was a limited resource, but after reading this, think the opposite. It’s certainly worth taking a chance, right?