Instinctive responses out of place in modern world

August 7th, 2008 - 12:03 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Aug 7 (IANS) Taking risks instinctively might have had its advantages in the caveman era, but it is potentially dangerous and out of place in the existing technology-driven world. These responses are not likely to help mankind face modern uncertainties - like crossing the street, accepting a high-risk mortgage, or driving on the freeway - according to a study.

“People make decisions based on what option ‘appears’ to be better most of the time. Under conditions in the natural world this would be the best strategy, but in modern life it has nothing do with the real inherent risks,” said Arnon Lotem, a behavioural ecologist at Tel Aviv University (TAU).

For instance, people are aware of the actual risks when driving through a light at an intersection, but unless they’ve already had a brush-with-death or a brush-with-a-traffic-cop, the perceived risk remains low, said Lotem.

Lotem’s study found that, presented with simple decision-making stimuli, people are not analysing the complete situation based on logic or statistics. Instead, they appear to be making decisions based on simple strategies for coping in nature, based on personal experience.

During many years of evolution and under natural conditions, people made decisions like other animals. This tactic worked fine for survival, but did not evolve to survive in the modern world. “We’ve evolved to be afraid of snakes, but not traffic lights,” he said.

The results of Lotem’s research may also be used by economists, politicians and psychologists, who need to know when people will take risks. A wider understanding of this phenomenon can affect business decisions, the economy and, hopefully, the number of road accidents each year.

The more complex the risk, the more difficult to predict how people will react. Lotem cautioned that in complicated decision-making, scenarios such as gambling, addiction and excitement are new variables that come into play.

A team of scientists from Technion Israel Institute of Technology and Hebrew University of Jerusalem also collaborated on the project.

The findings have been published in Nature.

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