Understanding cognitive biases through virtual role-playing

‘Do Warriors, Villagers and Scientists Decide Differently? The Impact of Role on Message Framing’ by J. Siebelink, P. van der Putten (Media Technology, Leiden University), and M. C. Kaptein (Tilburg University)
Best Paper Award at Intetain 2016, 8th International Conference on Intelligent Technologies for Interactive Entertainment

The ‘framing effect’, one of the more well-researched cognitive biases, is one of the central phenomena in the fields of decision-making and behavioral economics. It assumes that choices between logically equivalent alternatives can be influenced by framing the problem in different ways, and it is often used as evidence for irrational or impulsive decision-making.

There are two treatments for a hypothetical outbreak of an Asian disease that infected 600 patients. Treatment A will save 200 patients, while with treatment B, there is a 1/3 probability that everyone will be saved, and a 2/3 chance that nobody will be saved. Alternatively, you can describe, or ‘frame’, the same problem as follows – with treatment A, 400 people will die, while with treatment B, there is a 1/3 probability that nobody will die, and a 2/3 chance that everyone will die.

The ‘Asian Disease Problem’ is a classic example of the risky-choice framing effect. Science tells us that most people will be influenced by whether the problem is described to them as a gain (positive frame – 200 patients will be saved), or a loss (negative frame – 400 patients will die), even if it is the same thing logically.

Although we have a decent understanding of how the framing effect works in everyday life, there are still avenues to be explored when it comes role-playing a virtual character. Authors of this paper set out to investigate how the framing effect changes when a person plays a distinct role with characteristics different from themselves. In a wider perspective, it is an investigation of changes in cognitive processes and decision-making when put into the shoes of a digital persona, the research question being “Does playing an analytic or impulsive character, respectively, influence the susceptibility to the framing effect?” It is an exercise in not only advancing our understanding of cognitive processes, but also exploring new methods of  learning about behavioral psychology.

Researchers had three groups of people play Skyrim – a well-known roleplaying video game, with modifications made to it to create experimental conditions. 86 participants have played as ‘warriors‘, ‘scientists‘, or ‘neutrals‘ (effectively a control group), progressing through a set of tasks in a positive or a negative framing with multiple solutions. Each group had a set of abilities that allowed them to manipulate the world in a certain way, and an expectation was set that the warriors would be more more susceptible to the framing effect and therefore more likely to react impulsively, while the scientists would approach problems analytically, and would therefore be less susceptible to the framing effect.
A fascinating method, certainly. If you would like to learn more and see the results of the study, you can download the full paper for free here.