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August 21, 2004

Intransitivity Experiments and Irrationality: Bradbury and Ross

Hinton Bradbury and Karen Ross showed square patches of red, blue, and blue to 500 people of various ages in various combinations and sequences and asked them to choose their favorites. This was to test for "intransitive preferences"-- fo whether, for example, someone would say they preferred red to blue, blue to red, and then blue to blue, so blue is better than blue which is better than red which is better than blue.

The result was that 83% of four-year-olds made intransitive choices, 78% of 7- year-olds, 52% of 10-year-olds, 37% of 11-year-olds, and 13% of adults.

I read this in someone else's summary rather than the original. But it seems a silly test for intransitivity. Do the experimental subjects care about their answers? If I personally were asked some dumb questions about which color I preferred, I might well be intransitive. Or, if I were a mildly intelligent adult, I might arbitrarily pick some preference ordering and stick with it for the session. We adults are stodgy, and do feel some qualms about being caught in contradictions. Still, I doubt any of the answers are very reliable indicators of true preferences. The preschoolers might even be more accurate, in the sense that if I give a different answer each time, I will probably give the correct answer at some point, like the stopped clock which is more accurate than the 1-minute slow clock because it is perfectly correct twice a day.

I am subject to this kind of question frequently as a father--"Daddy, do you like horses better, or cows?" "Would you rather be a dragon or a monster?"-- and while they are not bad questions, I am afraid I don't agonize over getting my answers correct.

Posted by erasmuse at August 21, 2004 12:49 PM

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