Small Grants 2020-21

The Cognitive Operations of Predictive Agents: How Mental Simulation Generates Cognitive Biases (S49)

Project Approved 2020-21

Dr. Gerald Haeubl (Principal Investigator)
Alberta School of Business, University of Alberta
Google Scholar Profile | ORCID

Mr. Rory M. Waisman, PhD Student (Co-Investigator)
Alberta School of Business, University of Alberta


The current work concerns the basic cognitive processes behind the illusion of control and biased probability estimation and offers an analysis of how games of chance instigate those processes.

People often experience situations in which they have no control over the outcome, such as in connection with games, betting, or other chance events, yet they experience an illusion of control that biases their optimism about the favorability of the outcome (e.g., Langer, 1975). We conducted a series of highly-powered (i.e., large-sample) behavioral studies and adapted a model of memory and judgment (Minerva-DM; Dougherty et al., 1999) to investigate the memory mechanisms implicated in the outcome-generating process and to understand how the role a gambler plays in a game influences these mechanisms.

Even when the outcome of a game is determined entirely by chance, the person who will experience the consequences of that outcome might still be engaged in the outcome-generating process. For instance, consider a coin-toss game where one wins a prize if the coin lands on a particular side. One could be engaged by tossing the coin into the air. Alternatively, one could be engaged by calling which side of the coin is the winning side. These two roles can be, and often are, performed by different individuals. This research contrasts the physical role (such as tossing a coin) and the mental role (such as calling the winning side) in activities where the outcome is determined by chance.

We theorize that these roles differ markedly in the cognitive operations that underlie engagement in the outcome-generating process, with implications for the cognitive bias that is thereby inspired. The cognitive operations necessary to perform a physical role relate to the planning, production, and control of bodily movements. This mental simulation of the process by which an outcome arises may generate an illusion of control over the outcome. By contrast, the cognitive operations necessary to perform a mental role are focused on the outcome of interest – i.e., the favorable outcome itself is mentally simulated. Our cognitive model predicts that mental simulation of the favorable outcome produces greater optimism about obtaining that outcome compared to the illusion of control associated with the physical role. Empirical evidence from our studies (N = 12,752; including five pre-registered studies) provides strong support for this theorizing.

Our studies show that people are more optimistic about obtaining a favorable outcome in a mental role than in a physical role and will prefer the mental role when given a choice between them. In our first three studies (1A, 1B, 1C), participants were introduced to two versions of a game of chance (1A: coin toss; 1B: wheel of fortune; 1C: air-mix lotto machine). In one version, they perform the physical role (tossing the coin, spinning the wheel, or operating the air pump). In the other version, they perform the mental role (calling the winning side, letter, or color). When asked to report which version of the game they would prefer to play for a chance to win $10, the vast majority preferred the mental role over the physical role (1A = 74%; 1B = 60%; 1C = 70%). In Study 2, we ruled out the potential alternative account that temporal distance to the outcome might be responsible for this
3 of 6 preference by manipulating the order in which the mental and physical roles are initiated in a coin toss game. Again, the majority of participants chose the mental role, both when it comes first (66%) and when it comes second (69%).

Study 3 provides further support for our theorizing by illustrating that the preference for the mental role persists irrespective of whether the probability distribution of possible outcomes is known. Using the air-mix lotto game from Study 1B, we manipulated knowledge of the probability of winning by either informing participants that there was an equal number blue and red balls in the machine or informing them that the number of balls of each color was unknown. Replicating our earlier results, the majority of participants chose the mental role regardless of whether the probability of a favorable outcome was known (72%) or unknown (81%).

Study 4 sheds light on the underlying mechanism by examining the role of optimism. Participants rated their optimism about achieving the favorable outcome for each version of the air-mix lotto game, and then chose which of two versions of the game they preferred to play – one involving a mental role vs. one involving a physical role. In support of our theorizing, optimism was higher in the mental role (Mmental = 54.76, SDmental = 17.29 vs. Mphysical = 45.11, SDphysical = 24.49; t(503) = 7.62, p < .001), and the majority of participants chose the mental role (63%). Moreover, choice of the mental role was significantly predicted by the difference in optimism scores (Mental – Physical; b = .08, χ2(1) = 71.31, p < .001).

This AGRI-funded research advances our understanding of the cognitive operations involved in generating optimism about, and preferences for, games of chance. While prior research on the illusion of control has shown that playing either a physical role or a mental role in a random event results in unrealistic optimism, the distinction between these roles has largely been ignored. Our cognitive model and empirical studies suggest that these roles differ markedly in the cognitive operations that underlie engagement in the outcome-generating process, with implications for the cognitive bias that is thereby inspired and the influence of that bias on gambling behavior. Understanding how the illusion of control is generated, and the influence that a gambler’s role in a game has on that illusion, is important to advancing evidence-based interventions and treatments.

One manuscript in preparation.

“Mind Over Body in Illusory Control: A Mental (vs. Physical) Role in Chance Events Generates Greater Optimism,” submitted for presentation at the Society for Consumer Psychology 2022 Annual Conference (awaiting decision).