Comments on “Meaningful perception”

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Routine activity is easy

Routine activity is easy because most of the time we can see what to do. We see affordances—cues as to what actions are possible, and what their effects will be. When it’s time for a snack, looking around inside the refrigerator reveals what you feel like eating. Noticing a coffin-lid twisting is inseparable from recognizing the danger and the need to get a spell ready. We can, in effect, see into the future.

I know that I’ve linked this excerpt to you earlier on Twitter. But regardless I feel like mentioning again that Gary Klein’s excellent Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions had an amusing illustration of this. His research team went around interviewing experts such as firefighters to find out how they decide what to do, expecting them to do some kind of rational analysis; instead, the experts reported just seeing what they should do and then doing it.

Soelberg’s course on decision making at the MIT Sloan School of Management taught students how to perform the classical decision analysis method we can call the rational choice strategy. The decision maker:

  1. Identifies the set of options.
  2. Identifies the ways of evaluating these options.
  3. Weights each evaluation dimension.
  4. Does the rating.
  5. Picks the option with the highest score.

For his Ph.D. dissertation, Soelberg studied the decision strategies his students used to perform a natural task: selecting their jobs as they finished their degrees. He assumed that they would rely on the rational choice strategy.

He was wrong. His students showed little inclination toward systematic thinking. Instead they would make a gut choice. By interviewing his students, Soelberg found he could identify their favorite job choice and predict their ultimate choice with 87 percent accuracy-up to three weeks before the students.

Soelberg had trained his students to use rational methods, yet when it was time for them to make a rational and important choice, they would not do it. Soelberg was also a good observer, and he tried to capture the students’ actual decision strategies.

What did the students do during this time? If asked, they would deny that they had made a decision yet. For them, a decision was just what Soelberg had taught: a deliberated choice between two or more options. To feel that they had made such a decision, they had to go through a systematic process of evaluation. They selected one other candidate as a comparison, and then tried to show that their favorite was as good as or better than the comparison candidate on each evaluation dimension. Once they had shown this to their satisfaction (even if it meant fudging a little or finding ways to beef up their favorite), then they would announce as their decision the gut favorite that Soelberg had identified much earlier. They were not actually making a decision; they were constructing a justification.

We hypothesized that the fireground commanders would behave in the same way. We thought this hypothesis-that instead of considering lots of options they would consider only two-was daring. Actually, it was conservative. The commanders did not consider two. In fact, they did not seem to be comparing any options at all. This was disconcerting, and we discovered it at the first background discussion we had with a fireground commander, even before the real interviews. We asked the commander to tell us about some difficult decisions he had made.

“I don’t make decisions,” he announced to his startled listeners. “I don’t remember when I’ve ever made a decision.”

For researchers starting a study of decision making, this was unhappy news. Even worse, he insisted that fireground commanders never make decisions. We pressed him further. Surely there are decisions during a fire-decisions about whether to call a second alarm, where to send his crews, how to contain the fire.

He agreed that there were options, yet it was usually obvious what to do in any given situation. We soon realized that he was defining the making of a decision in the same way as Soelberg’s students-generating a set of options and evaluating them to find the best one. We call this strategy of examining two or more options at the same time, usually by comparing the strengths and weaknesses of each, comparative evaluatiotion. He insisted that he never did it. There just was no time. The structure would burn down by the time he finished listing all the options, let alone evaluating them.

Because Soelberg’s theory was one of my favorites, we kept asking questions about the two-option hypothesis for much of this study. We never found any evidence for it.

Klein’s team developed a model that he called “recognition-primed decision-making” to describe what was going on, and the way that seeing (recognizing) something immediately caused the experts to know what they should do next. I’d recommend his book to people who want to read more about the kind of a perspective described on this page (in addition to the references in your footnotes, which I’ve saved but not yet read). This book chapter has a short summary. This excerpt from it sounds quite similar to the content on this page:

The fireground commanders’ accounts of their decision making do not fit into a decision-tree framework. The fireground commanders argued that they were not “making choices,” “considering alternatives,” or “assessing probabilities.” They saw themselves as acting and reacting on the basis of prior experience; they were generating, monitoring, and modifying plans to meet the needs of the situations. We found no evidence for extensive option generation. Rarely did the fireground commanders contrast even two options. We could see no way in which the concept of optimal choice might be applied. Moreover, it appeared that a search for an optimal choice could stall the fireground commanders long enough to lose control of the operation altogether. The fireground commanders were more interested in finding actions that were workable, timely, and cost effective.

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      which is in In the Cells of the Eggplant.

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