Home Concepts Decison Making & Problem Solving In Over Our Heads: Living and Learning in the Cave

In Over Our Heads: Living and Learning in the Cave

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Beyond the Allegory: Leaving the Real-Life Cave

Briefly, I will leave Plato’s Greece and return to the present 21st Century world. I propose that there are three levels at which we leave the cave in the real world. These three levels have been articulated by keen observers of human behavior—especially the formation of theories and attempts to solve problems (the domains in which many experts reside). These observers include Daniel Kahneman, Chris Argyris, Donald Schon and Thomas Kuhn. I briefly visit each level.

Level One: Distinguishing between Biases and Noise.

In a recent book, Daniel Kahneman and his two colleagues, Olivier Sibony and Cass Sustein (2021) write about the distinction between bias and noise. They begin with a story about assessing the success of someone shooting arrows into a target. One desirable outcome would be for all the arrows to hit the target in the same area. When this occurs we can applaud the consistency of the archer. Another outcome would be for the arrows to arrive all over the target. Typically, we devalue this outcome. The archer has not been consistent in directing arrows toward the target.

Kahneman, Sibony and Sustein suggest that these assessments of success must be questioned. The first outcome indicates only that there is consistency—not that the arrows have arrived at or near the bullseye. The arrows could cluster at some point at quite a distance from the bullseye. This placement would reveal a BIAS. Conversely, arrows arriving at many places on the target reveal NOISE. Our authors suggest that these are quite different flaws in the performance of the archer—and that both Noise and Bias are to be found frequently in the judgements made by most of us. As behavioral economists and professors of strategy, Kahneman and his colleagues (Kahneman, Sibony and Sustein, 2021, pp. 5-6) propose that:

. . .  noise is [sometimes] the more important problem. But in public conversations about human error and in organizations all over the world, noise is rarely recognized. Bias is the star of the show. Noise is a bit player, usually offstage. . . . In real world decisions, the amount of noise is often scandalously high.

I find that their observation about noise is valid In my own field of psychology. Typically, noise is considered to be statistical variance in the results obtained from a psychological experiment. The focus of most studies typically is on the mean (average) of the scores obtained. Variance is an unwanted visitor to the experiment and does nothing more than reduce the level of significance found in the comparison between experimental groups. As psychologists, we focus on the bullseye (mean) not the distribution of results.

I would suggest that the pattern of variation in results obtained are often much more interesting than the mean. I am in the minority, for those with a more behavioral bent (and an alliance with the scientific culture) tend to view “error variance” as nothing more than evidence of sloppy research, given that everything is determined by invariant external stimulus properties (situations/settings) and rewards rather by messy internal determinants such as personality or moment-to-moment chaotic judgements. These variances in human behavior (and the human psyche) are much more often a focus in the humanities—being portrayed in novels, portrait renderings and ballets.

I would further propose that any comprehensive view of a human experience or any attempt to engage in systemic thinking will produce noise. As Miller and Page (2007) note, complex systems contain many interconnected parts. They are not just made up of many parts, as are complicated systems. The interconnectivity produces noise and unpredictability (outcomes that traditional scientists hate). We only get simplicity and consistency when we erect a silo—and in doing so we are vulnerable to the bias identified by Kahneman, Sibony and Sustein. I assume that Scott Page (2011) would suggest that we reduce bias with a diversity of perspectives—and this diversity inevitably produces noise. It is global diversity that has helped to challenge the biases inherent in the grand narrative offered by Western societies.

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