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How green is the grass on the other side of the European Union?

How do we make decisions in the face of uncertainty and how do they influence our future decisions?

Oxford University
Mar 11 · 5 min read

The UK was confronted with a difficult decision when having to vote between two options: leaving the EU or remaining inside. At the time of the vote, the British people had some information about the consequences of each option, but did they really know what would happen once the UK left the EU? “What does it mean to leave the EU?” was one of the most frequently asked questions on Google — a fact that suggests uncertainty about the future.

Remaining in the EU was a safe option; the conditions were clear. Leaving the EU, on the other hand, posed a large uncertainty. In spite of this uncertainty, the majority voted to leave the EU.

Politics aside, how did British voters make this decision? How did they weight one option over the other in face of the uncertainty of its outcome?

Should I stay or should I go?

Choosing is challenging. That is because there is often a discrepancy between what seems to make us happy according to what we already have and the alternatives that might or might not make us happier. Choosing between the familiar and the new is called the exploration/exploitation dilemma.

Exploration means looking for new things despite uncertainty about the outcome (such as leaving the EU), whereas exploitation means choosing options with a known outcome (such as remaining in the EU).

But what is it that pushes us to leave our comfort zone and try out new things?

Imagine you are in your late 20s and you are in a relationship with your high school sweetheart. Perhaps some doubts start crawling into your mind, and you wonder, “is this it?” Eventually you might arrive at the point where you need to decide: stay with your partner or leave to find someone who might (or might not) be better.

Now, imagine the same scenario but you are in your late 80s. Would you still make the same decision? If not, what is the difference between both scenarios? Age, or more morbidly: the time you have left.

In my PhD project, I asked participants to either exploit options they were certain about or explore uncertain options. Similar to the thought experiment you just did, whether participants explored or exploited was dependent on time they had left: people were only inclined to choose uncertain options in the early part of the experiment, while during later parts they chose options that were certain to deliver a positive outcome.

Time really is the critical factor here: when we have lots of it, we are more curious and are willing to choose uncertain options, but when there is not much time left, we comfort ourselves with the things we know. Why? One reason is that the amount of time we have left determines whether we have the opportunity to learn from the outcome of our choices and make better ones. If we have a lot of time, we can explore between multiple options and ultimately choose those that seem to give us the best outcome.

When we leave our comfort zone, what can we learn?

Time is an important factor when choosing between exploring or exploiting, because the amount of time we have left also determines whether we have the opportunity to learn from the outcomes of our choices. If we have a lot of time, we explore between multiple options and finally chose the option we believe give us the best outcome. If we don’t have much time, we quickly choose our best guess of what will be a good choice.

If we received a bad outcome after a particular choice, we are less likely to make that same choice again. And the reverse is also true, if choosing an option leads to a positive outcome, we’re more likely to choose that option again. This learning process has been described as operant conditioning, in which humans and animals learn from rewards or punishments. Through this type of learning, we form an association between a choice and its outcome (good or bad).

Learning gives us a belief about how good or bad an option is. However, sometimes our beliefs can be wrong, because things in our environment might have changed, or, more importantly in choosing to stay or leave in the EU, they might be based on the wrong information.

I don’t know what to do — what do you think?

We need to choose multiple times the same option to learn from our choices. Unfortunately, British voters did not enjoy the luxury of a test ride in UK leaving-land. Sometimes we cannot make a decision through trial and error, but instead we have to rely on other information. This information often come from people around us. During the campaign we received information from all kinds of sources: BBC, Facebook, … even engaging in conversations with people we have never spoken with before. Everyone starts acting like an advisor, trying to convince us of their opinion — pushing us in one or the other direction. But…

Who can we trust?

In our latest research, we have shown that participants prefer people who give accurate information. That makes sense, I also prefer asking my partner who studied politics and read the news compared to a stranger. Asking my partner, however is not only influenced by the fact that he is accurate about political facts, but also by my own certainty that he will be accurate. Our research has shown that when asking other people for advice, we do not only integrate our belief in how accurate the person will be, but also assess our own uncertainty in how accurate they will be. When we ask participants to judge how confident they are in other people and their advice, participants use insights into their belief in how accurate the ‘advisor’ is as well as their own uncertainty. That sounds like we are not so bad after all at making decisions!

However, we have seen — and we all know — that making a good decision can be difficult. There are many complex processes involved in deciding between options. It is therefore fundamental that we try to understand and study how people arrive at their decisions, particularly when they have such drastic consequences as leaving the EU. Understanding underlying processes helps to provide better circumstances for people to make their decision and only like this, we can actually be aware of what we are choosing.

Written by: Nadescha Trudel, DPhil student at the Department of Experimental Psychology, Wellcome Centre for Integrative Neuroimaging.

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Oxford is one of the oldest universities in the world. We aim to lead the world in research and education. Contact:

Oxford University

Oxford is one of the oldest universities in the world. We aim to lead the world in research and education. Contact:

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