Nav: Home

On eve of Super Tuesday, study sheds light on how people make choices

March 02, 2020

On Super Tuesday, Democratic voters from Colorado and across the United States will face a serious decision: Sanders or Warren? Biden, Klobuchar or Bloomberg? Then, afterward, what kind of wine to drink.

Now, a new study taps into mathematics to probe how people make those kinds of fraught choices--in particular, how hypothetical, and completely rational, individuals might select between two options as they navigate through a noisy social environment.

It turns out that not making a choice can sometimes be as revealing as picking a side, report researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Houston. When the people around you are indecisive, for example, that can have a big influence on your own choices.

"Say you have a friend who has been a staunch Sanders supporter in the past," said Zachary Kilpatrick, a coauthor of the new study and an assistant professor in the Department of Applied Mathematics at CU Boulder. "It's the night before the primary, and they still have not made a decision about who they're going to vote for. That suggests that they have received some evidence that's in conflict with voting for Sanders."

Kilpatrick will present his team's results remotely at a meeting of the American Physical Society. (The physical conference has been canceled due to public health concerns).

The group's findings, while theoretical, could still inform how we should address real-world problems--for example, the spread of misinformation on the internet, he said.

"If we want to combat the hijacking of our social information networks, we need to understand in a quantitative way how peoples' beliefs are swayed by their social connections."

Dreaded decisions

His team's research zeroes in on a major question in a field of study called decision-making theory: How people make choices based both on their own, private research--such as watching televised debates--and through their social interactions--say, checking out their friends' posts on social media.

Kilpatrick compared that goal to the classic battle of wits between Vizzini and the Dread Pirate Roberts in the 1987 film The Princess Bride. In that scene, the pirate claims to have poisoned one of two glasses of wine. Vizzini, a scofflaw of supposedly vast intellect, must choose the one he thinks is safe to drink.

It gets complicated.

"What Vizzini says is that he knows what the Dread Pirate Roberts knows that he knows," Kilpatrick said. "But he takes multiple loops through what we call a 'common knowledge' exchange before he makes the decision on the wine glasses."

In other words, when you make such an exchange, you need to not only consider what you know about your opponents, but what they know you know about them--and on and on.

To explore similar kinds of intellectual spirals, Kilpatrick and his colleagues used a series of equations, or mathematical models, to simulate social interactions of varying complexity. Their models didn't revolve around real-life voters, or even pirates, but "rational agents"--theoretical deciders who always make the right choices based on the evidence available to them.

The researchers discovered that, when time is of the essence, two fictional voters might go through mental loops akin to Vizzini's thought process.

"We're both watching the same news show, for example, and I look over to you to see if you've made a decision or not," Kilpatrick said. "We have to account for our common knowledge multiple times until we've adequately squeezed all of the information that we can out of the fact that you haven't made a decision yet, and I haven't made a decision yet."

Eventually, it stops. One voter or group of voters in a network might finally receive enough information to feel confident about their choice. And when that happens, other voters might get the impetus they need to quite dithering, too.

The researchers report their findings in a preprint publication online.

Messy humans

Kilpatrick is quick to note that, of course, no voter is perfectly rational. But scientists can still learn a lot by studying where real-life humans fall in line with what theory suggests they should do--and where they don't.

People should also always try to be aware of the baggage that others in their social networks carry, he added.

"When we're determining how political leaders or people in our networks make decisions," Kilpatrick said, "we should think hard about how those individuals are biased in order to figure out what we should take away from their decisions."

As for your Super Tuesday decision, learn from Vizzini's example and steer clear of the wine.

University of Colorado at Boulder

Related Mathematics Articles:

A new method for boosting the learning of mathematics
How can mathematics learning in primary school be facilitated? UNIGE has developed an intervention to promote the learning of math in school.
Could mathematics help to better treat cancer?
Impaired information processing may prevent cells from perceiving their environment correctly; they then start acting in an uncontrolled way and this can lead to the development of cancer.
People can see beauty in complex mathematics, study shows
Ordinary people see beauty in complex mathematical arguments in the same way they can appreciate a beautiful landscape painting or a piano sonata.
Improving geothermal HVAC systems with mathematics
Sustainable heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems, such as those that harness low-enthalpy geothermal energy, are needed to reduce collective energy use and mitigate the continued effects of a warming climate.
How the power of mathematics can help assess lung function
Researchers at the University of Southampton have developed a new computational way of analyzing X-ray images of lungs, which could herald a breakthrough in the diagnosis and assessment of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other lung diseases.
Mathematics pushes innovation in 4-D printing
New mathematical results will provide a potential breakthrough in the design and the fabrication of the next generation of morphable materials.
More democracy through mathematics
For democratic elections to be fair, voting districts must have similar sizes.
How to color a lizard: From biology to mathematics
Skin color patterns in animals arise from microscopic interactions among colored cells that obey equations discovered by Alan Turing.
US educators awarded for exemplary teaching in mathematics
Janet Heine Barnett, Caren Diefenderfer, and Tevian Dray were named the 2017 Deborah and Franklin Tepper Haimo Award winners by the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) for their teaching effectiveness and influence beyond their institutions.
Authors of year's best books in mathematics honored
Prizes for the year's best books in mathematics were awarded to Ian Stewart and Tim Chartier by the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) on Jan.
More Mathematics News and Mathematics Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: The Power Of Spaces
How do spaces shape the human experience? In what ways do our rooms, homes, and buildings give us meaning and purpose? This hour, TED speakers explore the power of the spaces we make and inhabit. Guests include architect Michael Murphy, musician David Byrne, artist Es Devlin, and architect Siamak Hariri.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#576 Science Communication in Creative Places
When you think of science communication, you might think of TED talks or museum talks or video talks, or... people giving lectures. It's a lot of people talking. But there's more to sci comm than that. This week host Bethany Brookshire talks to three people who have looked at science communication in places you might not expect it. We'll speak with Mauna Dasari, a graduate student at Notre Dame, about making mammals into a March Madness match. We'll talk with Sarah Garner, director of the Pathologists Assistant Program at Tulane University School of Medicine, who takes pathology instruction out of...
Now Playing: Radiolab

What If?
There's plenty of speculation about what Donald Trump might do in the wake of the election. Would he dispute the results if he loses? Would he simply refuse to leave office, or even try to use the military to maintain control? Last summer, Rosa Brooks got together a team of experts and political operatives from both sides of the aisle to ask a slightly different question. Rather than arguing about whether he'd do those things, they dug into what exactly would happen if he did. Part war game part choose your own adventure, Rosa's Transition Integrity Project doesn't give us any predictions, and it isn't a referendum on Trump. Instead, it's a deeply illuminating stress test on our laws, our institutions, and on the commitment to democracy written into the constitution. This episode was reported by Bethel Habte, with help from Tracie Hunte, and produced by Bethel Habte. Jeremy Bloom provided original music. Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at     You can read The Transition Integrity Project's report here.