Quantum Cognition Questions "Irrational" Thinking

By Shawn Radcliffe

image by Enzo Davide

In spite of the 18th century Age of Reason, people can still be very irrational thinkers. A new trend in psychology, though, is using quantum physics to explain our paradoxical thinking. This approach may even work better than classical approaches at explaining how people make decisions when faced with uncertainty and conflict.

“Whenever something comes up that isn’t consistent with classical theories, we often label it as ‘irrational,’” Zheng Joyce Wang, an associate professor of communication at The Ohio State University, said in a press release. “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.”

Wang and her colleagues describe this quantum approach to psychology in two recent review papers in Current Directions in Psychological Science and in Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

Although quantum physics is often used to describe the nature of sub-atomic particles, Wang feels that it is even more appropriate for shedding light on human behavior—mainly because it is well-suited for dealing with ambiguity.

“Quantum theory may not be intuitive at all when it is used to describe the behaviors of a particle,” said Wang, “but actually is quite intuitive when it is used to describe our typically uncertain and ambiguous minds.”

Unlike quantum cognition, earlier models of human behavior were based on classical probability. These, however, often fell short in explaining why people make certain decisions.

One example of this occurs when changing the order of questions on a survey also changes a person’s responses, even if those questions do not depend on each other. In an earlier paper, Wang and her colleagues showed that a quantum approach to modeling human behavior explains this type of question order effects.

Quantum cognition may work well for understanding how people think when faced with ambiguity because this model deals with probabilities in a way that is a more accurate representation of the real world. Wang used the example of Schrödinger’s cat, the thought experiment in which a cat inside a box exists in two states (dead and alive) at once, until the box is opened.

This type of quantum superposition, says Wang, occurs every time we are faced with a decision. At first, all options exist in our mind, with each having a different likelihood of being chosen. As soon as we make a decision, though, the superposition collapses and the other options cease to exist (except perhaps in another universe).

Modeling these types of processes mathematically is challenging, because every possible outcome increases the complexity of the problem. However, Wang and her colleagues have found that with a quantum approach, the same limited set of axioms can explain complex human behavior in different situations—where several classical models might have been needed before.

“The prisoner’s dilemma and question order are two completely different effects in classical psychology, but they both can be explained by the same quantum model,” Wang said. “The same quantum model has been used to explain many other seemingly unrelated, puzzling findings in psychology. That’s elegant.” Yes perhaps we can use some of the notions of quantum theory in psychology says Hameed Ali (A. H. Almaas), “but it is a mistake to say that our mind follows quantum rules. Remember that Consciousness is not computable.”

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