Why College Students Make Better Decisions Than Intelligence Agents

By Brian Resnick

July 9, 2013

Who would you trust with the lives of hundreds of people: federal intelligence agents or a bunch of college students?

At Cornell University, psychologist Valerie Reyna wanted to test whether intelligence agents were susceptible to a type of decision-making bias people accrue as they get older. It's called fuzzy thinking. As our life experience grows more robust, we tend to make decisions off of gists, rather than analytical lines of thought.

It's the paradox of real-world experience: "FTT [Fuzzy-trace theory] makes the counterintuitive prediction that reliance on gist-based thinking increases with development. That is, with increasing experience and expertise, people are less likely to engage in literal, verbatim-based analysis and more likely to use simple semantic gist in memory, judgment, and decision-making."

In simple terms, the older we get, the more likely we are to go with our gut. And, ironically, the more experience we have, the more we're prone to "to effects of meaning and context, and, hence, to gist-based illusions or biases."

But going with the gut isn't always the best way to make decisions, and we would hope that those who make the most consequential decisions—members of our intelligence community being some of them—would not be biased by their life experience and treat every decision with a hard-lined analytical thought. Right?

To test the theory, Reyna presented the intelligence agents, the college students, and a group of non-intelligence adults with a series of dilemmas to solve, involving the saving of lives. But she did something tricky—some of the questions were actually identical, but just framed in different ways.

The dilemma: There is a disease threatening 600 lives, and you have to act.

Here's an example of a question framed in the terms of saving lives.

Do you: Save 200 people for sure, or choose the option with 1/3 probability that 600 will be saved and a 2/3 probability that none will be saved?

And this is the same dilemma framed in terms of people dying.

Do you pick the option where 400 will surely die, or instead a 2/3 probability that all 600 will die and a 1/3 probability that nobody dies?

If you strip the semantics away, these two questions are identical. And a good field agent should make the same choice both times, we hope?

Nope. The college students made the less risky, less biased decisions. The study found that the intelligence officials "exhibited larger decision biases than college students, treating equivalent outcome differently based on superficial wording. In particular, they were more willing to take risks with human lives when the outcomes were framed as losses rather than as gains." So, they were more likely to take the risky route on that second question posted above. But more than that, they were more confident when they made those risky choices. "Indeed, agents 'doubled down' on their choices by expressing higher confidence in them relative to either students or other adults." The plain adults in the study landed in the middle of the college students and spies in terms of rational decision-making.

To be sure, these results don't mean that intelligence officers are bad at decision-making. It just means that they are human, and are susceptible to the same changes in thought patterns that we all experience as we get older.

By Brian Resnick

July 9, 2013