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Analyzing Decision Speed Alone Reveals Social Preferences: Insights from Behavioral and Computational Studies

Researchers, led by Sophie Bavard at the University of Hamburg, Germany, have discovered that hidden social preferences can be inferred by observing how quickly individuals make social decisions. Published on June 20 in the open-access journal PLOS Biology, their study reveals that when individuals know the options under consideration by others and the time it takes them to make decisions, they can predict these individuals’ preferences, even without knowing the actual choices made.

Understanding someone’s social preferences or beliefs is often challenging, as they are frequently concealed and unspoken. While previous studies focused on observing choices, this research delves deeper by examining both decision outcomes and the time taken to reach them.

In the study, participants engaged in the Dictator Game, where they had to choose between two options to determine how much they would keep versus give away. After acting as dictators themselves, participants then observed others playing the game and predicted their preferences regarding giving versus keeping.

Participants were provided varying levels of information: sometimes they knew the decisions made, sometimes the decision times, sometimes both, and sometimes neither.

The researchers hypothesized that even without knowing the decisions, participants could predict preferences if they could observe options and decision times. Computational modeling confirmed this hypothesis, suggesting that dictator behavior could theoretically be predicted solely from decision times using a reinforcement learning model.

The study found that participants indeed learned about dictators’ preferences when they only had access to options and decision times, although their predictions were most accurate when they also knew the actual decisions. This highlights the significance of decision times when decisions themselves are unavailable, providing new insights into decision-making processes within social contexts.

According to the authors, “Our findings challenge the conventional wisdom that choices alone are the sole indicators of others’ social preferences. By integrating response times into models of social learning, we can enhance our ability to predict human behavior, as response times offer a continuous measure that reflects the strength of these preferences, offering a more nuanced perspective.”

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