People tend to trust computers more than their colleagues or business partners when it comes to taking financial decisions.

Computers More Trustworthy than People?

It is not easy to be trusting when financial transactions are at stake. And people are even less inclined to be trusting when transactions are carried out by other people. These are the findings of an experiment carried out by a team of scientists led by Professor Bernd Weber of the Center for Economics and Neuroscience (CENs) at the University of Bonn focusing on the phenomenon of ‘betrayal aversion’. The experiment investigated the reactions of 60 subjects – 30 in the United States and 30 in Germany – during a game which involved dividing up money.

The trustworthy machine?

The researchers asked two groups of subjects, one in the US and one in Germany, to choose between two options at the end of a computer game played with their partners. One option was to receive a flat €1 each, the other to share €6 between them. For the second option, the amount would be divided up either by a computer or by the gaming partners, with no guarantee that the amount would be divvied up equally. However, the subjects were told upfront that, whether the sum was divided equally or not, the computer and the partner player would make the same decision – i.e. in a situation where a player decided to keep €5.50 and leave only €0.50 for the other person, the computer would do exactly the same. All the players had this information. However, when the money was to be divided up by the computer, 63% of the players trusted the machine to give them a fair deal and only 37% chose to take the flat €1. By contrast, when the human partners were tasked to make the share-out, only 49% of the test subjects trusted them and 51% opted for the small but secure amount. “These results show that more people prefer to leave risky decisions in which they may be betrayed to an impersonal device, thus avoiding the negative feeling that comes from having wrongly trusted a human,” underlined Professor Weber.

Results mirrored in brain activity

When the German players were making their decisions based on the known results of the US-based game, their brain activity was measured using MRI scans. As the financial decisions were being taken, the players’ frontal insula of the brain was especially active when it was another player who was making the decision on how to share the money. “This area of the brain is always involved when negative emotions such as pain, disappointment or fear are activated,” points out Professor Weber. In other words, the simple fact that another person was asked to divvy up the money generated negative emotions. However Weber acknowledges that financial decisions are very complex, and that this result actually runs contrary to some other experimental findings involving anonymous business partners, so these decision-making processes for financial transactions will need to be studied in more detail. Nevertheless other experiments have also shown that it is sometimes easier to put your trust in a machine. This is the case, for example, with the virtual psychologists that have started to appear on the market, with whom some patients feel more at ease.

By Eliane HONG