J. Frank Yates, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Psychology, Cognition and Cognitive Neuroscience

What questions have you been tackling in your research?
From childhood, I have always been curious about how and why people decide as they do.  I have been especially drawn to real-life instances when people decide badly and suffer accordingly.  That is why many of our Decision Lab projects seek more than understanding, although that is indeed our typical immediate objective. Those studies also pursue ways to enhance decision quality in the kinds of challenging situations people encounter all the time. 

What are some of the most important findings from your work?

One illustrative line of work in our lab these days focuses on people’s ability to predict other people’s future behaviors.  Consider, for instance, trying to judge whether a new friend should be expected to repay the $50 she wants to borrow from you.  It turns out that people’s intuitions about how to make such judgments (e.g., using prototype matching) are surprisingly good.  Or consider the situation in which a new co-worker agonizes for days over which of several high-price apartments he should lease.  Initially, your colleague says that all the apartments are more or less equally appealing; hence his “agony.”  You leave your colleague at his hotel in his miserable, confused state.  However, first thing the next morning, he tells you that he is firmly settled on Apartment 8.  In fact, he sees just about everything about Apartment 8 as significantly better than the corresponding features of the competing apartments.  The kind of “coherence shifting” experienced by your co-worker is common.  Our data indicate that it occurs partly to regulate the unpleasant emotions we suffer in highly conflicted “hard” decision situations.

How can we use this knowledge in our everyday lives?
Part of the “use” story is to constantly try to exploit our new knowledge about how people decide naturally.  Take the case of driving without a seatbelt, which is most common among young males.  For a long time, I mistakenly assumed that some drivers neglected their seatbelts because their risk perceptions were too low.  To identify alternative potential explanations, we used a broad theoretical perspective on decision making that decomposes complex decision making tasks (such as those involved in driving a car) into their components.  We learned that the young males in our field study who drove without seatbelts made their seatbelt use decisions qualitatively differently than did those who used their seatbelts virtually all the time.  The frequent non-belt users were significantly more likely to make distinct, case-by-case belt use decisions every time they got into their cars.  The drivers who applied their seatbelts on nearly every drive did something different.  When they were younger, they established non-conscious habits of using their seatbelts all the time.  In effect, when they were novice drivers, each of them made a single (often non-deliberate) policy decision to buckle up automatically as part of the ritual of going for a drive.  We therefore now recommend that all parents of new drivers assist their sons and daughters in making similar automatized policy decisions.

Can you tell us about your involvement with the Psychonomic Society and your recent honor?
The Psychonomic Society is an association for scientific experimental psychologists, including large numbers who study cognition.  Since the early 1980s, I have participated in its activities often, mainly the ones focusing on decision making.  As suggested here, our lab emphasizes the roles of fundamental processes underlying readily observable decisions.  Part of the Society’s hope in attaching my name to the travel award is that it might encourage undergraduates from cultural backgrounds similar to mine to take a close look at psychonomic science as a career choice. Perhaps they will get excited the way I did.