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Study: We Plan Ahead in Uncertain Social Situations

man looking uncomfortable around people

Nov. 29, 2021 -- Forward thinking -- a kind of rapid-fire contingency planning in the brain -- seems like an obvious skill to deploy in games against an opponent with predictable moves. But a new study suggests that people do this just as much when they face an unpredictable adversary.

Plenty of previous research has documented how people use forward thinking for non-social tasks like navigating unfamiliar terrain or planning family vacations. The new study, published in eLife, offers fresh evidence of how people can also use forward thinking in an effort to exert control over social situations.

For the new study, researchers asked 48 people to sit in brain scanners while playing different versions of a classic bargaining exercise known as the ultimatum game that requires people to fight over how to share $20. Games always started with one player offering $5 to their opponent.

In the predictable scenarios, rejection of this offer would be met with a $2 increase and acceptance of this offer would be met with a $2 decrease. But in the unpredictable scenarios, there was no logic to how much the offer might increase or decrease in response to acceptance or rejection. Contestants played 40 rounds, alternating between these scenarios.

Scientists noticed that people played differently when they thought they could control the game. With predictable scenarios, people took longer to decide each move and ultimately received higher offers.

Interestingly, players told investigators they felt in control about 40% of the time when playing the unpredictable scenario. And when players played another round of games against a computer, they felt in control of the outcomes more than half of the time regardless of whether they were playing a predictable or unpredictable scenario.

Researchers then ran a computer simulation of these games to predict how many moves ahead players would think before accepting or rejecting each offer. In both the predictable and unpredictable versions of the game, computer models more closely matched outcomes from games between human players when the machines assumed people would think at least two moves ahead.

While this social experiment didn’t involve real money changing hands, the outcomes do suggest two fascinating things about human nature: We may think we’re in control even when that’s not true, and we will try to think ahead to outsmart an adversary whether or not this strategizing can actually influence the outcome.