Yesterday, I posed the following question on Twitter:
You wake up the morning of a scheduled flight from a vivid nightmare that the flight on which you’re booked crashes. You’ve never had a dream that vivid and it is terrifying, but you put it aside and drive to the airport. Once you arrive, you’re walking in the terminal when a woman you’ve never met walks up to you and says, “I’m sorry to bother you but I just feel I have to tell you this: ‘Don’t get on that plane.'” She then hurries away before you can ask her anything. Do you get on your flight?
Jeff Lowder asked about the consequences of missing the flight, an important factor, no doubt. I replied that one can assume the cost is negligible. You can reschedule a flight several hours or perhaps a day later, maybe for a nominal service fee. With that in mind, do you get on the flight or not?
And here are the results:
It would be interesting to plot the responses of people onto a continuum where there are fewer or more data-points than I outlined in the original scenario to see what difference it makes. For example,
Scenario 1: (i) the nightmare.
Scenario 2 (original scenario): (i) the nightmare; (ii) the stranger warning.
Scenario 3: (i) the nightmare; (ii) the stranger warning; (iii) your child also inexplicably begins weeping and pleading “Don’t go” despite the fact that she has never reacted this way before when you’ve gone on trips.
I suspect the significant majority would get on the flight in scenario 1. But as you can see, approximately two-thirds would not get on or are not sure with just one additional factor. I would anticipate a further drop if we added (iii).
This case is interesting for several reasons. First, it makes clear that everyone is apt to identify significant patterns and that we may reasonably act in response to those patterns, even if we are unaware of any cause/explanation of them. And just to be clear, I do indeed believe it would be reasonable not to get on the plane in scenario 2 or 3.
Second, there is a tacit reliance on the kind of decision making pioneered in Pascal’s wager and its seminal contribution to decision theory. In short, one of the reasons it is reasonable not to get on the plane is because the cost of not getting on is negligible whereas the cost of getting on should the plane crash is enormous.
Third, people can rationally form beliefs that an intelligence is at work or a cognitive process (e.g. clairvoyance) even if one has no further information about that cognitive process or how it functions.
Finally, it would be interesting to run the whole test on people with different worldviews: Christians, naturalists, and so on. Because obviously your background set of beliefs will affect your interpretation of this kind of data.
So how about you? Would you get on the plane in scenario 2 or scenario 3? What about scenario 2 or 3 when the stakes were significant (e.g. you were flying to a wedding or a job interview)?