Jonah Lehrer’s “How We Decide” provides a very interesting take on the nature of designing interactions, interfaces and general usability. He provides a story about a weapons operator on the USS Misouri during the first Gulf war. The operator was faced with the challenge of determining, with very very little time and *no* margin of error, whether a radar signal was a threat to the ship or a friendly aircraft. A wrong decision in either direction would result in loss of lives. The operator made the right decision without any immediate indication of how the decision was reached. Only after a lengthy post-mortem were the clues that the operator had relied on discovered. To simplify Lehrer’s analysis, the brain formed patterns and associations of “right” and “wrong” actions at a chemical and consequently emotional level. A missile felt “wrong” to the operator, in a way that he could not articulate, especially given that he had never been exposed to the “messages” before. However, he had seen friendly planes before which, having not been a threat, were eventually associated with being “right”. The operator did not have time to identify and analyze all of the factors necessary to make an informed decision, but, instead, relied on those essentially “sub-concious” feelings. Similarly, we often talk about “intutive” decision making.
I wondered how this related to the notion of “your first choice typically being the correct one”, at least on multiple-choice exams. A fast good search reveals that most teachers and test preparation advisors recommend *not* changing your choice (intuition / emotional decisions win). However, at least one study I found indicates that the opposite is actually trued. “Counter-factual” thinking leads people to believe that their first choice is usually better, but in fact, based on the studies, most test-takers are better off changing their answers. This surprised me and appears to be contrary to Lehrer’s premise. You could argue that the decision to fire a missile is not comparable to a multiple-choice exam, but in fact, it is still a time-pressured decision making. It does make me wonder whether Lehrer’s premise (at least with respect to emotional decision making) has some shortcomings. It is, in many respects, similar to Gladwell’s hypothesis in Blink.
It’s my sense that there is a definite bias, at least in our culture to “rely on intuition.” Popular psychology regularly talk about human beings having unique decision making talents that operate at a subconcious or “pre-cognitive” level as a result of evolutionary forces (the fastest, best decision maker was most likely to survive ). And there is certainly an enormous amount of evidence associated with neural pathways developing for decision making. However, I do wonder if instinct, intuition and “emotional decision making” were really as effective as people like Lehrer and Gladwell suggest, why logic and decision making tools (game theory, occams razor, etc.) evolved. In fact, the whole unique frontal cortext that human beings possess is an argument that while emotional decision making can be valuable, it is not a deciding factor in species survival.