A psychologist at the University of Georgia has pointed out that people are skilled at strategic reasoning much more than was previously thought.
When we make decisions based on what we think someone else will do, in anything from chess to warfare, we must use reason to infer the other's next move-or next three or more moves-to know what we must do. This so-called recursive reasoning ability in humans has been thought to be somewhat limited.
However, the new study has some fresh information.
When people typically make decisions, especially in competitive situations, they try to choose the path that has the most advantageous outcome, said Goodie. And while sometimes the best path is obvious, often it's less clear, especially in games or military conflict.
"The question we asked was this: What level of reasoning do human beings engage in when they aren't master chess players?" said Adam Goodie, head of the Georgia Decision Lab at UGA.
"Previous findings had been extremely pessimistic, suggesting that people were about equally likely merely to acknowledge the immediate preferences of an opponent as they were to go beyond that to higher levels of reasoning. If they do go to a higher level, it seemed that they only thought one step ahead."
In order to find out how deeply people really go in working out how many "moves ahead" they can make, Goodie and his colleagues set up an experiment in which large samples of student participants "played" against a programmed computer.
Contrary to previous literature, those in the experiment had no trouble with the game, ramping up from what is called "first-level reasoning" to "second-level reasoning" easily and consistently.
"To our surprise, participants had just as little trouble learning the game and playing it at the highest possible level," said Goodie.
The study was just published in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making.