A Little Note on Decision Making

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When I tell people about my degrees and what I do, or even when I was interviewing for jobs after my MSc, I am/was often asked how I decided to go from psychology to HCI and UX, as if I was crossing this massive gap between fields. What’s often blatantly – but surprisingly – overlooked amongst UX specialists who aren’t really UX specialists, is the amount of psychology involved in human-centred design. Surely knowing about cognition and behaviour is quite an essential aspect when you design products and technology that, well, humans are to use?

During my BSc at UCL, I specialised in cognitive psychology/neuroscience, and a decent chunk of that specialisation involved statistics, judgement and decision making. My interest in decision making was sparked early in my first year when I was lectured by the brilliant Professor Nigel Harvey and Dr Dave Lagnado, who spearhead Cognitive and Decision Sciences at UCL. They introduced me to groundbreaking work of scholars like Richard Thaler, Paul Slovic, Sarah Lichtenstein, Gerd Gigerenzer – and of course the Nobel laureate, Herbert Simon.

Of these people, however, none were more interesting and influential to me than Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman – both of whom remain my favourite psychologists of all time. Kahneman in particular has experienced increased exposure in the general population this past year following the publication of his book, Thinking Fast & Slow, which I see as a popular science aggregation of his and Tversky’s body of work. This is the work that earned Kahneman his Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics in 2002 – and, of course, it’s commonly accepted that Tversky would have been jointly awarded this, had he not passed away six years prior.

Kahneman and Tversky turned the rational, expected utility-centred world of economics on its head by introducing concepts of human irrationality such as heuristics, biases, prospect theory. Using simple psychological experiments, a large part of which was asking their participants what gambles of different probabilities they would choose under various circumstances, they challenged the traditional notion in economics that people are rational decision makers and that financial matters can be forecast objectively and probabilistically. Rather, people are biased by how dilemmas are framed and presented, by how readily certain instances and categories are elicited in associative memory, by their asset starting point relative to others, by loss versus gain, by neglecting base rates they already know, and so much more.

Of course, it’s not necessarily always a bad thing that people use heuristics (simple rules of thumb) to make decisions. Indeed, it would be counter productive if we were to spend effort deliberating every dilemma we face in order to make a properly considered decision, and Gigerenzer makes a point out of this, examining the usefulness of ‘fast and frugal heuristics’. Another issue is that most of the research that Kahneman and Tversky did were simple, isolated gambles and dilemmas presented to U.S. college students, when it is apparent that in situ decision making is affected by complex interactions in the environment. Nevertheless, their work does strongly highlight the imperfections of human judgement and decision making. We are not machines, after all. Fortunately.

Other behavioural economists and decision science scholars whose work I really admire, are Dan Ariely and Nicholas Nassim Taleb. Admittedly, I haven’t read any of Ariely’s books – however, he is known to be a fantastic public speaker, which I had the pleasure of experiencing myself when he visited the LSE a couple of years back for a public lecture. He was promoting his new book at the time, The Upside of Irrationality, and explored how irrational and illogical people are when they make decisions in everyday life. I also saw Taleb speak at the LSE on another occasion, where I got my copy of his infamous The Black Swan signed and my choice of degree praised as he bashed the discipline that is the very essence of LSE as rubbish and pseudo. It was quite amusing and arrogance-inducing.

To get back to my initial point and why I decided to write this little blurb (that turned into a not blurb due to my inability to forecast blog post length): psychology is important. More specifically, cognitive and decision sciences are tremendously essential if we are to understand the world around us, as the world is driven by people who constantly make decisions.

How do medical practitioners diagnose patients? How do jurors judge eyewitness accounts? How do financial forecasters decide what stocks to buy and sell?

Importantly (for me, at least), what does this all mean for interaction design and UX? What information should be presented in the interface to ensure people make the right and most optimal decisions? How should this information be presented? What imagery comes most readily to mind when people evaluate categories, and how should this manifest as buttons, icons and graphics in the interface? How can we utilise the halo effect in order to make users perceive and judge products as attractive? How can we design decision making shortcuts into interfaces to make sure users can get their work done efficiently? How can we design to accommodate users’ limitations of short-term memory and attention? These are just some of the questions that can be asked (and hopefully answered) in order to use cognitive science in interaction design and UX.

If you want a reality check and understand how ridiculous, foolish, illogical and way too overconfident you are in everyday life, have a look at these books:

  • Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland: One of the first popular science books on the subject that was published, I remember reading this in halls during my first year at university. Nothing beats procrastination from lab reports by reading about all the self-deluded and stupid things we tend to do and think.
  • The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb: Many of you have probably read this already. Although heavily in need to step down a notch or ten on the arrogance ladder as well as an actual book editor, Taleb explores people’s and society’s incapability of realising that we cannot and should not try to forecast random, massive, rare events (forecasting the 2007/2008 financial crisis in the process).
  • Thinking Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman: Being a scientist who can actually write popular science (in my view), Kahneman nicely summarises and explores the work he did with Tversky, as well as the other influential research that has been done by their colleagues in the field.

PS: If you want an insight into the absurd hilarity that ensues if you stop deciding for yourself altogether, check out the books by Luke Rhinehart, in particular The Dice Man. Fantastic.

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3 thoughts on “A Little Note on Decision Making

  1. NRK-serien Siffer snakka om noko av det same i ein episode i fjor, om korleis me reknar prosent og er overbevist om at noko er mogleg. Er vel delvis difor lotteri og liknande finst, til dømes.

    1. Den må sjekkes ut. Vi er generelt utrolig dårlige på å tenke og planlegge prosent og sannsynlighet, i forhold til akkurat samme informasjon presentert som frekvenser, for eksempel.

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