Weighing the Risks

No one can know everything; in our daily lives, we make do with the best information we can get. Psychological scientists are working to understand how people choose to learn facts about the world when the options available to them are limited. In a 2012 study published in the Journal of Cognitive Psychology, a team of researchers led by Toshihiro Wakebe of the University of Tokyo investigated the role of risk aversion in information-gathering behavior.

Wakebe and his coauthors noted that, according to the information gain model, when presented with alternatives, people tend to choose the course of action that produces the largest expected information gain, as demonstrated by a mathematical model that calculates the extent to which pursuing each alternative reduces uncertainty. However, they suspected that risk aversion — a factor that has been shown to influence other types of decisions — might also play a role in decisions related to learning.

The team designed an experiment to test risk aversion’s influence on information-seeking behavior. Participants were asked to consider a hypothetical scenario that required them to guess which of 10 identical-looking coins was underweight.

Experimenters told the participants that they could either (A) place two coins on one side of the balance, place two coins on the other side of the balance, and leave the remaining six coins off of the balance (2-2-6); or (B) place five coins on one side of the balance and five coins on the other side of the balance (5-5-0).

Only 10 of Wakebe’s participants chose method A, the 2-2-6 option; a large majority majority — 28 participants — chose method B, the 5-5-0 option.

According to the researchers, these results show that information-seeking behavior is influenced by risk aversion as well as expected information gain. Participants preferred the less risky 5-5-0 method of weighing the coins, even though “its expected information gain was smaller than that of the 2-2-6 method” (p. 127).

Wakebe and his coauthors hope that future studies will provide an even more nuanced understanding of how risk aversion affects information-seeking. For example, they wonder how their experiment might have turned out differently if participants had been required to take a hands-on approach to the scale and coin activity rather than just listening to verbal instructions.

ResearchBlogging.org Wakebe, T., Sato, T., Watamura, E., & Takano, Y. (2012). Risk aversion in information seeking Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 24 (2), 125-133 DOI: 10.1080/20445911.2011.596825

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