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Dr Aidan Feeney studies how people think. “One thing we know for sure” he says “is that it’s very hard to understand how we think by simply reflecting on our own thought processes. 

William James used the memorable phrase ‘blooming, buzzing confusion’ to describe babies’ initial impressions of the world, and that phrase applies just as well to what we often perceive when we think about our own thinking”.

To get beyond the blooming buzzing confusion, Aidan and his students run experiments under carefully controlled conditions. Experiments of this kind have given them insight into questions as diverse as how we use what we already know when trying to draw new conclusions, and how people might come to make better decisions.

How we generalise

“I was very lucky to do my PhD at the University of Plymouth, just as they were setting up their Centre for Thinking and Language” he says. “At that time it was the best place in Europe to study human thinking and there I came into contact with lots of the people who have driven our field forward over the last 20 years. One of the ideas that was important at Plymouth is that the answer we give to a reasoning problem is often the result of competitive processes in the brain. In other words, to think well we often have to resolve internal conflict”.  This interest in conflict and thinking pervades his recent work with former PhD students, Dr Aimee Bright, and Dr Eoin Travers, on how people generalise on the basis of what they already know in order to draw new conclusions about the world. “Because our experience of the world is actually quite limited, much of what we know is based on generalisation. It turns out that good generalisations often require us to resolve conflict between different types of knowledge. For example, seeing a fire might make us automatically think of water, but if it was a chip pan that was on fire, using water would be a bad idea. Instead we have to inhibit action based on the automatically available association and retrieve other, more structured knowledge about relations between fire and oxygen”.  Recent findings from Aidan’s lab demonstrate that both types of knowledge are involved when we decide how good a generalisation is, that people differ in their ability to successfully resolve conflict between these types of knowledge, and that the interplay between them can happen very quickly, in just over a second. “Without careful experimentation” he says, “we’d never get beyond the buzzing confusion”.

Improving decision making

“The other question that really interests me is how we go about improving people’s decision making. The emotional consequence of bad decisions is regret, and I’m very interested in what people regret and in how regret might help us, and children particularly, to make better decisions. Regret is a temporal emotion. It involves remembering what we did and how we felt in the past, but we can also anticipate regret over future decisions that don’t turn out well.” This link between learning from past emotional outcomes so that we can make better decisions now in order to avoid future regret is particularly compelling and Aidan has studied how what older people regret might be explained by the structure of their memory for the events of their lives. With former PhD student Dr Simon McNair, he is also studying what people with problem debts regret. “Some economists have argued that a central goal when we make decisions is the avoidance of regret. People with problem debts have, by definition, made bad decisions so, from a scientific point of view, it is extremely interesting to consider what they regret. To the extent that we might all learn from considering other people’s mistakes, studying such regrets might also be of practical use.”

In an attempt to explore links between regret and good decision making, Aidan has studied how children learn to make better decisions from outcomes that they regret. With Professor Teresa McCormack here in the School of Psychology, Aidan has shown how children’s developing abilities to experience regret related to bad decision outcomes is associated with good decision making. “Six year old children who are capable of experiencing regret make better decisions next time, they are better able to defer reward when it is sensible to do so, and they learn from the missed opportunities that gave rise to the regret in the first place. These associations suggest that certain kinds of emotion can be very conducive to good decision making, particularly when we are learning how to decide.”

Ongoing projects in Aidan’s lab with current PhD students Robyn McCue and Nicole Andelic concern topics as seemingly diverse as how best to encourage chronically ill children to take their medicines and how to deliver advice to people with problem debts. “These are very different projects, but they share a common aim: To help people to improve their decision making. With our partners, the School of Pharmacy here at Queen’s and a local debt resolution company ApertureIVA, we aim to carry out work that will be of practical, as well as scientific, importance. A very sobering thought that often occurs to me is how close lots of people are to health or financial problems. It’s very important to identify how best to help people with such problems to make the best decisions for their future.”

Find out about other research happening within the School of Psychology