The latest in a raft of experiments suggests a predicted “train wreck” in social sciences is under way. 

“Fully rational man is a mythical hero,” wrote the late German economist Reinhard Selten, not long after he snared the 1994 Nobel Prize in Economics.

Selten was referring to the idea that when people make decisions they often forgo complex calculations in favour of “fast and frugal” mental shortcuts, sometimes called heuristics. And that can be a good thing.

Novices who predict Wimbledon winners by following the rule “choose the player whose name you recognise”, for instance, do as well as experts who weigh up all the stats on players’ form, seeding and so on.

Relying on heuristics, however, can also get us into trouble.

If media reports of a tennis player’s grand slam win were drowned out by, for example, a terrorism incident, we might not recall his or her name. And fear can be notoriously misplaced – think fear of flying.

Scientists, of course, are supposed to be immune to such cognitive shenanigans, operating in a space of mental clarity that eschews the allure of “quick and dirty” shortcuts in favour of objective statistics.

Sadly, this is not the case for a surprising number of scientists, according to a new study published in the journal eNeuro and authored by Ray Dingledine, from the Department of Pharmacology at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, US.

Dingledine decided to repeat some experiments that were run more than 40 years ago by legendary psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. The experiments pose questions that ingeniously pit our tendency to draw instinctive conclusions against the cold steel of statistical reasoning.

Consider the following possible gender sequences of babies born at a hospital, where “B” stands for boy, and “G” for girl: BBBBGGGG; GGGGGGGG; BGBBGBGB. Do these sequences seem equally likely?

Read the full article in Cosmos magazine here