How Your Snap Decisions Could Reflect Who You Really Are

Photo by Maximilian Guy McNair MacEwan

When we're in an emergency situation and need to act fast, we often make decisions based on instinct. Those instincts, it turns out, can say a lot about who we really are as individuals. Researchers at Ohio State University have found that people who tend to be selfish actually tended to act even more selfishly than usual when in a pinch. People who tend to be more prosocial, meaning they generally give more to others and seek to minimize inequality, tended to act even more prosocially in crunch mode.

The new study, published in the journal Nature Communications, looked at how 102 students made decisions throughout 200 rounds of a game designed to test people's intuition—that is, their predisposition toward either self-oriented behavior or other-oriented behavior—and how time pressure affected those decisions. Each round of the game asked players to choose between two different ways of splitting a sum of money between themselves and an unknown person. Both options favored the player, but one would distribute the money a little more fairly between themselves and the other person. Some rounds gave them ample time to choose; others gave them just a few seconds to make a snap decision.

The results showed people who tended toward the self-serving choices in the time-free rounds were even more likely to pick self-serving choices in the time-bound rounds. The same relationship played out for the more giving of the group: People who were more likely to go for the fair split when they had time to think were even more likely to do so when racing against the clock.

"Under time pressure, when you have very little time to decide, you're going to lean more heavily than usual on your predisposition or bias of how to act," Ian Krajbich, Ph.D., an OSU psychology and economics professor and a co-author of the study, said in a press release.

In other words, the way you act in a pinch is often a window into your true self. Sure, this was a pretty small study. But it seems worth it to pay attention to how you behave in stressful situations—it might give you a better understanding of yourself, your motivations, your strengths, and the areas in which you still have room to grow.

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