Your Gut Beats Your Brains in Shady Transactions

If you've ever felt uneasy about making a financial transaction that seemed somehow unfair, you'll know that it's not just your brain telling you something's bad. Instead, if you have a shred of compassion, you'll have a racing heart, queasy stomach and sweating palms. Turns out, though, those factors can override rational thought in the decision making process.

New research, conducted at the University of Exeter and University of Cambridge, both in the UK, suggests that what people commonly refer to as "gut feelings" really do have a dramatic impact on our actions when it comes to dubious financial transactions. Dr Barney Dunn, of the University of Exeter, explains to EurekAlert:

"This research supports the idea that what happens in our bodies can sometimes shape how we think and feel in our minds. Everyday phrases like 'following your heart' and 'trusting your gut' can often, it seems, be accurate... Humans are highly attuned to unfairness and we are sometimes required to weigh up the demands of maintaining justice with preserving our own economic self-interest."

To establish their findings, the team used a psychological test called the Ultimatum Game in which participants are presented with numerous ways to split, say, $20. Players frequently reject offers that are somehow unfair to one of the parties in the transaction—even when doing so is an irrational choice in economic terms.

This time round, though, the team measured how much participants sweated through the fingertips and how much their heart rate changed. Participants also had their ability to "listen" to their bodies—such as being able to accurately count their own heartbeat—tested.

Those participants with more pronounced physical responses during the Ultimatum Game rejected more unfair transactions—but only if they were attuned with their bodies. The finding appears in Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioural Neuroscience.

The finding suggests that many of us are susceptible to reacting to our body over and above our brains in certain circumstances. It also probably adds some weight to the notion that bankers are cold, unfeeling reptiles. [Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioural Neuroscience via EurekAlert]

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