Your Patient's Irrational Decisions Explained by Quantum Physics?

It's a little odd to think that patients in your clinc are making decisons based on quantum physics? File this one under good-to-know.

“Whenever something comes up that isn’t consistent with classical theories, we often label it as ‘irrational.’ But from the perspective of quantum cognition, some findings aren’t irrational anymore. They’re consistent with quantum theory—and with how people really behave.”

This is according to researcher Zheng Joyce Wang who, together with her colleagues, explained their new theoretical approach to psychology. Researchers are using quantum physics to help explain the paradoxical thinking of humans. This allows researchers to delve into certain contradictions in the results of various psychological studies.

Wang says that the classical models of rationality does not compute some aspects of human behavior, and in the classical point of view, this is seen to be an irrational behavior. In fact, in a previous study published by the University College London, it was revealed that irrationality of decisions are consequences of biasing influences.

Wang and her colleagues research revealed that:

Thinking in a quantum-like way­—essentially not following a conventional approach based on classical probability theory—enables humans to make important decisions in the face of uncertainty, and lets us confront complex questions despite our limited mental resources.

The equations and axioms that most closely match human behavior may be ones that are rooted in quantum physics. Quantum cognition is what happens when humans have to deal with ambiguity mentally.

Sometimes we aren’t certain about how we feel, or we feel ambiguous about which option to choose, or we have to make decisions based on limited information. 

Wang adds that:

I think the mathematical formalism provided by quantum theory is consistent with what we feel intuitively as psychologists. Quantum theory may not be intuitive at all when it is used to describe the behaviors of a particle, but actually is quite intuitive when it is used to describe our typically uncertain and ambiguous minds.

Superposition happens when we think of our options and in our mind's eye and all of the options co-exist at varying degrees of potential to be chosen. Then, we choose a preferred option and then other options will cease to exist. With the classical approach to psychology, the answers might not make sense, and researchers have to construct new mathematical axioms to explain behavior in that particular instance.

The result: There are many classical psychological models, some of which are in conflict, and none of which apply to every situation. With the quantum approach, Wang and her colleagues argued, many different and complex aspects of behavior can be explained with the same limited set of axioms.

The same quantum model that explains how question order changes people’s survey answers also explains violations of rationality in theprisoner’s dilemma paradigm, an effect in which people cooperate even when it’s in their best interest not to do so.

So, the next time someone says that you are making irrational decisions, just tell them that you are following the laws of quantum physics. =)


Wang is an associate professor of communication and director of theCommunication and Psychophysiology Lab at The Ohio State University. Co-authors on the papers included Peter Bruza of the Queensland University of Technology in Australia and Jerome Busemeyer of Indiana University, and the research was funded by the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

In two new review papers in academic journals, Wang and her colleagues spell out their new theoretical approach to psychology. One paper appears inCurrent Directions in Psychological Science, and the other in Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

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