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Feedback makes us more certain of what we know

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Feedback, rather than hard evidence, boosts people’s sense of certainty when learning new things or trying to tell right from wrong, according to new research.

Developmental psychologists have found that the positive or negative reactions people receive in response to an opinion, task, or interaction are more likely to reinforce their beliefs than are logic, reasoning, and scientific data.

Their findings, which appear the journal Open Mind, shed new light on how people handle information that challenges their worldview, and how certain learning habits can limit one’s intellectual horizons.

“If you use a crazy theory to make a correct prediction a couple of times, you can get stuck in that belief…”

“If you think you know a lot about something, even though you don’t, you’re less likely to be curious enough to explore the topic further, and will fail to learn how little you know,” says study lead author Louis Marti, a PhD student in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.

This cognitive dynamic can play out in all walks of actual and virtual life, including social media and cable-news echo chambers, and may explain why charlatans dupe some people so easily.

“If you use a crazy theory to make a correct prediction a couple of times, you can get stuck in that belief and may not be as interested in gathering more information,” says study senior author Celeste Kidd, an assistant professor of psychology.

Specifically, the study examines what influences people’s certainty while learning. It found that study participants’ confidence was based on their most recent performance rather than long-term cumulative results.

For the study, more than 500 adults that researchers recruited online through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing platform looked at different combinations of colored shapes on their computer screens. Researchers asked them to identify which colored shapes qualified as a “Daxxy,” a make-believe object the researchers invented for the purpose of the experiment.

“If your goal is to arrive at the truth, the strategy of using your most recent feedback… is not a great tactic.”

With no clues about the defining characteristics of a Daxxy, study participants had to guess blindly which items constituted a Daxxy as they viewed 24 different colored shapes and received feedback on whether they had guessed right or wrong. After each guess, they reported on whether or not they were certain of their answer.

The final results showed that participants consistently based their certainty on whether they had correctly identified a Daxxy during the last four or five guesses instead of all the information they had gathered throughout.

“What we found interesting is that they could get the first 19 guesses in a row wrong, but if they got the last five right, they felt very confident,” Marti says. “It’s not that they weren’t paying attention, they were learning what a Daxxy was, but they weren’t using most of what they learned to inform their certainty.”

An ideal learner’s certainty would be based on the observations amassed over time as well as the feedback, Marti says.

“If your goal is to arrive at the truth, the strategy of using your most recent feedback, rather than all of the data you’ve accumulated, is not a great tactic,” he says.

The researchers conducted the experiments at the University of Rochester.

Source: UC Berkeley