All Life Is Problem Solving

Joe Firestone’s Blog on Knowledge and Knowledge Management

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The Problem Solving Pattern Matters: Part Nine, Enhancing Developing Solutions: Evaluating and Selecting Among New Ideas

February 20th, 2009 · 2 Comments


(Co-Authored with Steven A. Cavaleri)

Alternative solutions, as we create them, are, in the end, alternative beliefs. The process of belief selection is ultimately Darwinian in character, and the final context of that selection is performing a solution and experiencing post-action outcomes. That is, when we act on the basis of our ideas or psychological predispositions, then reality will influence, and sometimes even determine, whether the expectations resulting from these ideas or predispositions fit our experience. If not, these will, sooner or later, change, until our reality-influenced (subjective) experience selects those of our ideas and predispositions whose associated expectations “match” our interpretations of the consequences of our actions.

This ultimate, post-action context of selection is not part of the PSP, however. Instead, it is part of the Operational Pattern (OP), because it actually follows, rather than precedes a decision to accept a belief as a solution and a basis for action. So, the questions arise, how do pre-action evaluations and selections of belief, which are part of the PSP, occur? What are they based on? And how may pre-action processes of evaluation and selection be enhanced?

We think there are three primary types of processes that people frequently follow in evaluating and selecting beliefs in the pre-action context. The first type is selecting a solution based on the authority of its source. The second, is selecting a belief or a solution based on intuition, including pattern recognition. And the third is selecting one with the aid of a comparative analysis of alternative solutions relative to a set of perspectives or criteria the decision maker thinks can discriminate among alternative solutions according to the likelihood of their validity or invalidity. The first of these types we’ll call Authoritarian Decision Making (ADM), the second, Recognition-Primed Decision Making (RPD), and the third, Comparative Decision Making (CDM).

In ADM, we evaluate competing alternative solutions based on the authority of the source. Then we select the alternative solution suggested by the source with the greatest authority. Variations of ADM occur depending on the basis of authority involved. Selections can be based on political authority, intellectual authority, religious authority, or charismatic authority, as the case may be.

The basic notion of RPD is that humans prefer to “first-pattern-match” in decision making, and then proceed by what is, essentially, sequential trial and error — if the first pattern doesn’t match either their mental simulation of the likely consequences of their decision, or the actual consequences perceived in their post-decision experience. This is a bit different than animal decision making, since humans can mentally simulate the results of their contemplated decisions in much more complex and detailed ways than animals, who appear to be limited to relatively simple expectations about consequences. At bottom, RPD is intuitive decision making, though RPDs based on careful mental simulation are certainly different than RPDs based on an inchoate “gut feel.” This is so because an evaluation based on a mental simulation can provide a basis for deciding that there is likely to be a mismatch between the contemplated solution and reality, and therefore that it should not be implemented and a new one should be sought instead. This means that mental simulations accompanying RPD, can lead to the refutation of solutions in a pre-action context, perhaps saving the costs of undesirable consequences that may result from implementing an invalid solution to a problem.

In CDM, humans create a number of decision alternatives, and then, in the same pre-action context, comparatively evaluate them, and select the best option, or according to some notions “the optimal decision.” In the past 30 years, much research has shown that decision makers rarely use CDM (which is most-often and we think, erroneously, referred to as “Rational Decision Making” (RDM)), but prefer RPD, and sometimes other forms of “Naturalistic Decision Making” (NDM). The most well-known research of this kind has been performed by Gary Klein and his collaborators at Gary Klein Associates. This research has shown that RPD is functional in situations where CDM is either not, or is impractical to carry out, and also, raises the possibility that RPD is the kind of decision making we ought to employ in most situations, restricting CDM to relatively rare cases where the time, resources, and possible high benefit/cost ratio from a CDM procedure outweigh its far greater costs to implement.

Leaving aside the question of whether one ought to employ RPD rather than CDM in most situations or not, we’ll summarize by saying that ADM selection is based on authority, RPD is based on intuition and mental simulation, and CDM uses whatever perspectives and criteria a decision maker or group of decision makers develop to perform their comparative evaluations. In addition, both RPD and CDM forms of selection can also benefit from “safe-fail experiments” that test solutions developed using RPD, or CDM. The two central characteristics of safe-fail experiments are (a) that their failure risks little and (b) illuminates what is wrong with solutions, enabling “learning from error.” However, safe-fail experiments take time to perform and complete. Decision situations in which only an RPD approach is practical, may preclude both safe-fail experiments and CDM approaches, and leave only RPD supported by mental simulation as the basis for accepting a solution.

Saying as we just did, that CDM selection employs various perspectives and criteria, as well as multiple alternative solutions, barely touches the issue of variation in the ways CDM selection may be done. There is great variation in the perspectives and criteria people use to compare alternative solutions, and even in the guiding regulative ideal and necessary conditions underlying CDM comparisons. In our next blog in this series we’ll discuss some of these variations

To Be Continued

Tags: Epistemology/Ontology/Value Theory · Knowledge Making

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