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Decision Research Sampler

by Judy Purdy


Decisions, Delusions, & Debacles

Adam Goodie wants to find out how your confidence in what you know affects the quality of the decisions you make. So the UGA psychology professor gives volunteers trivia tests and asks them to bet on how sure they are of getting the answers right. So far, his results show that good decision making can fall prey to overconfidence.

The following questions — taken from one of Goodie’s experiments — illustrate how trivia questions can be deceptive. They are easy if you happen to know the answer, but difficult (necessitating a pure guess) if you don’t. Yet test takers too often assume that all are easy, and rate their confidence accordingly.

  • What is the name of the project that developed the atomic bomb during World War II? (Manhattan, Brooklyn)
  • What is the last name of the first man to run the mile in under four minutes? (Bannister, Maris)
  • What is the last name of the man who created the comic strip “Woody Woodpecker”? (Lantz, Woodson)

Goodie also studies how personality traits — specifically, narcissism and gambling— affect decision making. In one study, he and fellow UGA psychology professor Keith Campbell gave research participants the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. Volunteers didn’t know they were being assessed for narcissism, or self-aggrandizement, when they responded to questions like these:

  • If I ruled the world it would be a better place.
  • I think I am a special person.
  • I know that I am a good person because everybody keeps telling me so.

Answers to the 40-question inventory provide a continuous range of normal narcissism levels, from low to high, Campbell said. While the average scores for narcissism net 16 or 17 “yes” answers, some people come out in the 38 to 39 range, he said.

“We’ve found that the more narcissistic you are the more overconfident you are in your decision making,” Campbell said. “Not only do narcissists think they’re smarter than the rest of us but they actually perform more poorly on knowledge-based decision-making tests.”

To explore decision making among non-gamblers, problem gamblers and pathological gamblers, Goodie asks study participants to answer 25 questions from the South Oaks Gambling Screen1, such as these:

  • Have you ever felt like you would like to stop gambling but didn’t think you could?
  • Have you ever hidden betting slips, lottery tickets, gambling money or other signs of gambling from your spouse, children or other important people in your life?

The answers help him classify gambling behaviors among study participants. Participants do not know that answering “yes” to three or four of the 25-question screen puts them in the problem-gambler category and that five or more “yes” answers qualifies them for the probable pathological gamblers group.

“Pathological gambling is not defined by how much money people are gambling but how serious the problems are,” Goodie said.

Like narcissists, gamblers turn out to be overconfident, which causes them to lose more points on the trivia-question bets. Last August, Goodie added a touch of realism to his gambling research, offering participants a chance to win money — up to $20 — instead of points. While findings from this new round of experiments won’t be available any time soon, Goodie does offer a take-home message consistently derived from his decision- making studies so far.

“Most people are overconfident most of the time, he said. “Be aware of the extreme risks you take in every day life, whether it’s crossing the street against the light or investing in your brother’s new company.”

1. Adapted from Nelson, T. O., and Narens, L. (1980), Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 19, 338-368 and from Lesieur, H. R., and Blume, S. B. (1987), American Journal of Psychiatry, 144, 1184-1188.


Research Communications, Office of the VP for Research, UGA
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