We normally think of physics and psychology inhabiting two very distinct places in science, but when you realize they exist in the same universe, you start to see connections and find out how they can learn from one-another. Case in point: a pair of new studies by researchers at Ohio State University that argue how quantum physics can explain human irrationality and paradoxical thinking — and how this way of thinking can actually be of great benefit.
Conventional problem-solving and decision-making processes often lead on classical probability theory, which outlines how humans make their best choices based on evaluating the probability of good outcomes. But according to Zheng Joyce Wang, a communications researcher who led both studies, choices that don’t line up with classical probability theory are often labeled “irrational.” Yet, “they’re consistent with quantum theory — and with how people really behave,” she says.
The two new papers suggest that seemingly-irrational thinking mimics much of what we observe in quantum physics, which we normally think of as extremely chaotic and almost hopelessly random. Quantum-like behavior and choices don’t follow standard, logical processes and outcomes. But like quantum physics, quantum-like behavior and thinking, Wang argues, can help us to understand complex questions better.
For example, it’s been long known how the order in which questions are asked on a survey can affect how people respond. It’s why those groups that design surveys will change the order of questions randomly between respondents, to cancel out those “noisy” effects on the data. But a previous study conducted by Wang and her colleagues showed how that effect can be predicted and — more importantly — explained by quantum-like behavior in people.
In other words, the ambiguity that plagues our understanding of the quantum world also plagues our better understanding of human behavior. And if you try to understand human behavior in quantum levels, you start to have a better grasp of how human decision-making works.
“Our brain can’t store everything,” says Wang. “We don’t always have clear attitudes about things. But when you ask me a question, like ‘What do you want for dinner?’ I have to think about it and come up with or construct a clear answer right there. That’s quantum cognition.
One example she gives for why quantum theory is actually an intuitive way to think about the mind is Schrödinger’s cat — the thought experiment that describes the paradox of a cat inside a box possibly being alive or dead. Before we open the box, both are possible and the cat is potentially alive and dead at the same time, an effect called quantum superposition. It’s not until we open the box that those possibilities are no longer superpositioned, and we know the final outcome.
Wang argues that our minds work the same way. Before we make a choice, our options are all superpositioned. Each possibility adds a whole new layer of dimensions, making the decision process even more complicated. Under conventional approaches to psychology, the process makes no sense, but under a quantum approach, Wang argues that the decision-making process suddenly becomes clear. It’s why people might make choices they know are against their own best interests.
So the next time someone tells you you’re an irrational person, you have the laws of quantum physics to blame.Photos via Rice University