Contextual Effects of Goals, Stimuli, Performance, and Complexity on Cognitive Decision Biases
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Existing research investigating human judgment and decision making describes patterns of systematic biases in the way people process information and make decisions. Framing effects, for example, demonstrate that logically equivalent alternatives presented in divergent linguistic frames can lead to systematically different choice outcomes; in general, people demonstrate a preference for risk-averse behaviour when information is framed positively and risk-seeking behaviour when information is framed negatively. Similarly, the status quo bias describes a tendency for decision makers to maintain current or previous decisions when confronted with the availability of new options, demonstrating that people possess a predisposition to continue with established behaviour. This research proposes that the goals a decision maker adopts and the hedonic tone of the stimulus being evaluated influence whether framing effects are observed; similarly, the past performance of the status quo and complexity of available options influence whether participants exhibit a preference for the status quo. Using a survey-based experimental methodology, the aforementioned propositions are investigated by systematically manipulating characteristics of decision problems in order to reveal the mechanisms which influence the emergence of framing effects and the status quo bias. The results demonstrate that when positive goals or stimuli are emphasized, usual framing effects are observed; that is, participants demonstrate a preference for risk-averse behaviour in the positive frame and risk-seeking behaviour in the negative frame. Conversely, when negative goals or stimuli are emphasized, participants fail to demonstrate the expected shift in risk-preference. Past performance and complexity of the available alternatives are also shown to influence preference for the status quo; specifically, participants demonstrate greater preference for the status quo when past performance is strong compared to when it is weak, and when the number of available options is low compared to when it is high. The findings of this research improve our understanding of how contextual factors influence shifts in preference and the emergence of decision making biases; moreover, the current research demonstrates the need for future research to consider the influence of situational and contextual factors when investigating decision making in particular and human behaviour in general.