planning is deliberative, working through a problem one step at a time. But
we usually make our decisions in normal
More importantly, how to we make the best decisions? The
answer is now known as "recognition-primed decisions making." The research
explaining this concept is interesting.
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
naturalistic decision making1 and a new field of science called
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 wire for it. We are wired
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
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.
One of the first discoveries is that t
he 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.
What the research shows is that the mind works runs through a network of
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
to work out a appropriate course of action, but that works only if we have
useful mental models of how the situation works
Even the casual reader of
Sun Tzu's work would recognize a
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 the 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 hone in the deadly testing ground of all.
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 building or plan
factories, but it is not how we make decisions when faced with unexpected
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
10. 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 and expert from a no
vice 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 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 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.
For this research, we discover why Sun Tzu's system has 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. While others can implement elements of Sun
Tzu's system into strategic planning systems, the Science of Strategy
Institutes focuses teaching the type of strategic reflexes that the research
shows is the difference between experts and novices.
To read more about what cognitive research says about the 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
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
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
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
Johnson, Driskell, and Salas, 1999, Vigilant and
hypervigilant decision making. Journal of Applied Psychology.