Automatic Decision Making

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 making and a new field of science called "cognitive engineering." These are both just complicated terms for how people compare their alternatives when making choices. 

Sun Tzu's system of comparing positions was designed to give us control over the chaos and confusion of competition. The idea is now known as "recognition-primed decisions making." In other words, how situations must be recognizes to they can be compared to previous situations. The research explaining this concept is interesting.

Real World Decisions

The brain is a neural network designed for adaptive behavior. In real life, we don't react in a linear way because we aren't wired for it. We are wired to compare, choose, and respond. 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, decision-making in the life and death decisions in the military. Much of this new research explains why Sun Tzu's The Art of War has been so successful for 2,500 years.

No Time for Logic?

One of the first discoveries is that the theoretical linear models for decision-making such as Pareto analysis, paired comparisons, decision trees, and even weighing pros against cons are not used in real life. They are impractical because in the real world, we have neither the time nor information required by these methods. Studies show that up to 96% of front-line people's decisions are made without any formal, linear analysis at all.2

How do people act in the real world? They respond to situations with the first action they think of. It doesn't matter how well people are trained in decision-making tools. Instead of making a decision by comparing a variety of options, people simply do whatever pops into their minds. 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.

Situational Response

What the research shows is that the mind works runs through a network of simultaneous "if/then" statements in a networked computer. It instantly networks together many "If this situation then this response" knowledge nodes. What happens if the situation isn't recognized by the network? Then we must deal with the unknown (an if ??? situation), which provokes an emotional response rather than providing the appropriate action. When a situation is recognized but the appropriate response unknown (the if this then ???), we use mental simulations 7 to work out a appropriate course of action, but that works only if we have useful mental models of how the situation works8

Even the casual reader of Sun Tzu's work would recognize a huge number of these networked if this situation then this response constructions. What we call this situation response section of his work deals with little else. The number is so large that you cannot go through them sequentially. Especially since they are interconnected in a matrix. Almost all of the rest of his work offers various forms of mental models that describe how his network of interconnections is constructed. You use his mental models and if/then constructions to generate the responses you need. The difference between an expert and a novice is simply the sophistication of their mental models. Sun Tzu's models were refined in the most deadly testing ground of all: the crucible of war.

Training in Analysis

Looking at this research and how people are taught to make decisions by the linear thinking that we are taught to think of as "rational analysis: rather than from if/then choices or mental models, 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 analytical, linear decision-making9 found the results of that training consistently disappointing in terms of changing people's decision-making behavior. This is because our brains are not wired for this kind of adaptive behavior. We can use it to design buildings or plan factories, but it is not how we make decisions when faced with unexpected situations. This linear approach has long been part of our entire education system.

What Pops into Your Head

Studies show that while both novices and experts do whatever pops into their head, experts are even more likely than novices to use this method of decision making10. In experts, this type of decision-making is called "recognition-primed" because it is driven by the experts recognition of the situation.

One way to tell an expert from a novice is that when posed a problem the novice will try to think his way through it, as he was taught in school. An expert will know instantly what his response is.

Recognition-Primed Decisions

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."

Mental Models

What research also shows is that people are better at learning when taught how to make decisions without relying on the traditional models for identifying and comparing alternative choices11. They do better when taught if/then decision-making and mental models for simplifying complex situations into if/then decisions. At the Science of Strategy Institute, we have compiled these mental models in our Sun Tzu's Play Book.

From this research, we discover why Sun Tzu's Rules have been so successful in generating changes in people's thinking. His system "primes" the recognition that making the right decisions requires. His system combines mental models for position recognition and for advancing positions with specific situational responses. While you can use his system for rational analysis, it is geared to training recognition-primed decisions.

To read more about what cognitive research says about the way we teach Sun Tzu's methods, read about the science of gut decisions, using mental situations, and about how this training allows you to see what is invisible to untrained people.

1 Todd & Gigerenzer Putting Naturalistic Decision Making into the Adaptive Toolbox, Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, Vol. 14, 353-384, 2001
2 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.
4 Flin, Salven, & Stewart, 1996, Emergency decision making in the offshore oil and gas industry, Human Factors.
5 Pascual & Henderson, 1997, Evidence of naturalistic decision making in C2. Naturalistic Decision Making.
6 Randel, Pugh, & Reed, 1996, Methods for analyzing cognitive skills for a technical task, International Journal for Human-Computer Studies.
7 De Groot, 1946, Thought and Choice in Chess.
8 Klein & Crandell, 1995, Recognition-primed decision strategies, U.S. Army Research Institute
9 Means, Salas, Crandall, & Jacobs, 1993, Training decision-making in the real world, Decision-Making In Action.
10 Klein, Calderwood, Thordsen, Crandel, Army Research Institute 1995
11 Johnson, Driskell, and Salas, 1999, Vigilant and hypervigilant decision making. Journal of Applied Psychology.