The Science: Automatic Decision-Making

How to people make the best decisions? How do people make their decisions in normal settings?

Since the early 1990s, scientists have realized that people behave differently in the real world than they do in the classroom or in the laboratory. This lead to a field of study called "naturalistic decision making1 and a new field of science called "cognitive engineering."

Though this area of study is very new, its principles are being applied to computer design to redesigning training in decision-intensive professions such as medicine, aviation, and, of course, the military.

What does cognitive engineering have to to with Sun Tzu?

Much of this new research explains why using Sun Tzu's methods for decision-making work so well in competitive situation.

One of the first things studies in this area uncovered is that, in the real world, people don’t make the “rational choices” that people are all taught in business school and company training classes. Studies show that up to 96% of front-line people’s decisions are made without planning2.

How do people respond? They respond to situations with the first action they think of. It doesn’t matter how well people are trained in making rational choices. Instead of making by decision by comparing a variety of options, people making decisions in the real world simply do whatever pops into their mind. This has been proven again and again in studies of front-line decision-making in variety of areas including aviation3, the off-shore drilling business4, the British Army5 and electronic technicians6.

What the research shows is that the mind works like an "if/then" statement in a computer program. If this situation then this response. What happens if the situation isn't recognized?

Then we must deal with the unknown (if ??? ), which provokes a primitive emotional response rather than providing the appropriate action. When a situation is recognized but the appropriate response unknown (if/then???), we use mental simulations7 to work out a appropriate course of action, but that works only if we have a simplified model of how the situation works8.

Even the casual reader of

Sun Tzu's work would recognize a large number of if this situation then this response constructions. What we call this situation response section of his work, chapters nine through eleven, deals with little else. However, even his more complicated models can be reduced to simple if/then statements using his concept of emptiness and fullness. For example judging the ground, if emptiness then move toward and if fullness then move away.

Looking at this research, Gary Klein, in his book

The Sources of Power, concludes:

“In one form or another, this paradigm [rational choice model] finds its way into training programs the world over. Again and again, the message is repeated careful analysis is good, incomplete analysis is bad. And again and again, the message is ignored; trainees listen dutifully, then go out of the class and act on the first option they think of.”

Studies into training courses that teach more "powerful" forms of decision-making9 found the results of that training consistently disappointing in terms of changing people's decision-making behavior.

While studies show that both novices and experts do whatever pops into their head, experts are even more likely than novices to use this method of decision making

10. In experts, this type of decision-making is called "recognition-primed" because it is driven by the experts recognition of the situation.

Recognition-primed decisions are not only more practical than the "rational choice" model but more powerful as well. Again, from Klein in Sources of Power:

“The reasons are clear. First, the rigorous, analytical approach cannot be used in most natural settings. Second, the cognition strategies that take advantage of experience are generally successful, not as a substitute for the analytical method, but as an improvement on them. The analytical methods are not the ideal; they are fallbacks for those without enough experience to know what to do.”

What research also shows is that people do better learning when taught how to make decisions without relying on the traditional models for identifying and comparing alternative choices11.

This is where Sun Tzu's system comes in. His system "primes" the recognition that making the right decisions requires. His system combines position recognition with

situational responses and mental simulations for advancing positions.

1 Todd & Gigerenzer Putting Naturalistic Decision Making into the Adaptive Toolbox, Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, Vol. 14, 353-384, 2001

Kaemf, Thordsen, Wolf & Klein, Decision-making in the AEGIS combat information center, Office of Naval Research, Naval Command.

Mosier, 1991, Expert decision making strategies, Proceeding of the Sixth International Symposium  on Aviation Psychology.


Flin, Salven, & Stewart, 1996, Emergency decision making in the offshore oil and gas industry, Human Factors.


Pascual & Henderson, 1997, Evidence of naturalistic decision making in C2. Naturalistic Decision Making.


Randel, Pugh, & Reed, 1996, Methods for analyzing cognitive skills for a technical task, International Journal for Human-Computer Studies.


De Groot, 1946, Thought and Choice in Chess.


Klein & Crandell, 1995, Recognition-primed decision strategies, U.S. Army Research Institute


Means, Salas, Crandall, & Jacobs, 1993, Training decision-making in the real world, Decision-Making In Action.


Klein, Calderwood, Thordsen, Crandel, Army Research Institute 1995


Johnson, Driskell, and Salas, 1999, Vigilant and hypervigilant decision making. Journal of Applied Psychology.

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