Human decision-making is prone to cognitive biases, the shortcuts people take because their brains are wired to make decisions quickly with limited information. However, a game developed by a research team that includes a School of Information Studies (iSchool) faculty member is training people to overcome biases when making decisions, and it has just won an award for its effectiveness.

CYCLES Carnivale, created by a team that includes the iSchool Associate Professor Jennifer Stromer-Galley, received a gold medal at the International Serious Play conference in July. The competition recognizes outstanding works that offer high quality engagement and learning opportunities for education. Judging criteria includes the functionality and playability of the game, its educational effectiveness, and the element of fun it exhibits. CYCLES Carnivale won the gold medal in the competition’s Government/Military category.

The game is the outgrowth of a multi-year research project funded by the SIRIUS Program of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), via the U.S. Air Force Research Lab. The project’s goal was to design an educational game that teaches players how to recognize certain cognitive biases that people use when making decisions, and to learn to avoid committing those biases in the future. 

Awareness Training

According to Professor Stromer-Galley, the game provides training exercises that get people to recognize when they are in a situation where cognitive biases are likely, then shows them how they can mitigate the situation. The game play consists of a flash-based, point-and-click puzzle in which characters must complete challenges that require them to avoid biased decision-making. Both educational and entertaining, it presents real-world scenarios where people often fall into cognitive biases, yet is applicable to everyday life.

Biases Are Resistant

Previous research has found cognitive biases to be resistant to training, the professor noted, but results from rigorous experiments demonstrate that participants who played the CYCLES game successfully increased their awareness of cognitive biases and reduced their dependence on them during decision-making. The training that occurs as people go through the game has “significantly reduced the likelihood that someone makes a decision based on cognitive biases after playing our game,” Stromer-Galley said.

“Our brains are really bad at calculating odds or probabilities. We take the most recent information we’re given and generalize that out,” explained the professor. “Cognitive biases are something our brains are hard-wired to do, but you can teach people about them so they’re more aware of that situation when they need to make decisions,” she noted.

Real-World Impacts

Reducing cognitive biases is an effort that can have far-reaching and significant impacts in many aspects of life, Stromer-Galley explained, since biased thinking plays into major life and organizational decisions as well as personal choices. Instances where such biases have been part of the decision-making include well-known situations such as the Trayvon Martin shooting (where assumptions were made about possession of a weapon) to the U.S. government’s decision to enter the War in Iraq (based on a belief that weapons of mass destruction were present), the professor said. Biased decision-making is not limited to government, the intelligence community, or law enforcement either, according to Stomer-Galley; it frequently impacts people in the medical field. That’s because medicine “is an area where there is constant decision-making, and cognitive biases are at play in diagnosis, identifying causes of illness, and what solutions might be.”

The professor noted that the group is working to move the game into practical implementation, including talking with NYS first responder trainers “to see if we can start to move this game out into the world, so it’s not only helping intelligence agencies but also other organizations such as the medical field and law enforcement.”

Presentation Wednesday

Professor Stromer-Galley is presenting an informational discussion and demonstration of the CYCLES game on Wednesday (August 5) at the Syracuse University-Newhouse School of Public Communications M.I.N.D. (Media, Interface and Network Design) Lab. It takes place at the lab’s space in the AXA Equitable Tower building in downtown Syracuse at 10 a.m. It is open to the Syracuse University community.

CYCLES Carnivale is currently available on Google Play. The research team also is in the process of commercializing it. The project’s research findings have been published in Computers in Human Behavior and a forthcoming issue of Journal of Media Psychology.

Comprising the research team are: Stromer-Galley; University at Albany’s Tomek Strzalkowski, Brian McKernan, and Samira Shaikh; Colorado State University’s Rosa Mikeal Martey, Ben Clegg, Jim Folkestad, and Matt Rhodes; University of Arizona’s Kate Kenski; Temple University’s Adrienne Shaw. Also: Sarah Taylor, of Sarah M. Taylor Consulting LLC; and Tobi Saulnier; Elizabeth McLaren; and Danielle Cerniglia, from 1st Playable.