Grasping for goals, reaching for the straws

Surprise, surprise, evidence is emerging to show that people (i.e. us humans) have evolved higher cognitive abilities in our pursuit of goal driven outcomes. Neurophysiological, neurobiological, neuroimaging, and computational studies march on but this turns out to be old news – a 2001 paper entitled An Integrative Theory of Prefrontal Cortex Function offers some evidence which supports the hypothesis that ‘goals’ are an integrative concept that can bring together a range of cognitive mechanisms. In the author’s words “The PFC is critical in situations when the mappings between sensory inputs, thoughts, and actions either are weakly established relative to other existing ones or are rapidly changing.” This sounds a lot to me like a crisis situation or one where the situation awareness is weak and the decisions are critical.

If you know your goals, then presumably, you’re well placed to maximise your mental efforts towards a clear mission in life – right? Well, as usual, the thorny issue arises as to whether you know what you think you know. Some researches in 2008 reported in Nature that in some situations, your brain makes up its mind up to ten seconds before you realize it. More and more studies are highlighting the fact that, in order to keep us sane, our conscious view of the world is inherently flawed – by design. Even the PFC command centre is highly dependent on the synthesis of inputs which the subconscious is offering up, complete with bias and unexplored assumptions.

Which leads me back to my current favourite subject of risk assessments. An interesting book which came out in July this year called Risk Intelligence: How to Live with Uncertainty helps the cause by promoting a useful definition for a measure of risk awareness.

At the heart of risk intelligence lies the ability to gauge the limits of your own knowledge — to be cautious when you don’t know much, and to be confident when, by contrast, you know a lot.

The author, Dylan Evans, has a deep pedigree in the psychology of estimation and he has applied this to the psychology of risk estimation (building on Kahneman and Tversky). He has commercialised his research and is spreading the word out on the hustings. You can even do a free test on his web site to find out your own ‘risk quotient’. I’m only offering this up as I apparently have a ‘high’ RQ of 78.85 which puts me in the upper quartile of the 28,677 people who have taken the test.

I think it’s important to get the Evans message out because a lot of risk management today is based on the fundamental notion that you can plot risks according some qualitative scale of likelihood and consequence. This is fine for controlled environments with high stability (until they fail catastrophically – more of that later), but it is often applied to the wrong environment. The more we can show people how naive most of this is, the better.

I do however wonder whether the RQ rating might lose it’s subtlety and be seen as an ability to predict – it’s more of an ability to restrain yourself from being wrong so often.

Putting these threads together, we have an amazing goal seeking brain which is directing you through your subconscious and allowing your conscious mind to imagine it is in control and knows what these goals are. Occasionally, as a reminder of your naivety, the subconscious allows the conscious to make a fool of itself all in the interest of the underlying complex resolution towards strategic goals. Sounds a lot like most of the tiered organisational management models I’ve seen.

I’ve been holding back in what would otherwise be a continuous reference to the work of Dave Snowden. Suffice to say that risk management techniques designed for complicated contexts don’t make sense in complex contexts. Risk intelligence is an interesting look into the complicated, maybe even as it approaches the complex – but it is itself a false comfort in the real complex world where events emerge truly unexpectedly and potentially with a very high consequence.

At least that’s what my handicapped and uninformed conscious mind is telling me….

One thought on “Grasping for goals, reaching for the straws

  1. Pingback: Resilience – Synchronisation, Synthesis and Memory | Extreme Impacts

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