Fractal structure of decision making

The managerial process is far too complicated for one person to perform.

Ichak Kalderon Adizes “The Ideal Executive: Why You Cannot Be One and What to Do About It”

The modern world is becoming more and more complicated and dynamic every day. On the one hand, we are swimming in the ocean of information, and on the other – this information is not always truthful, complete and relevant. As a human invented a lever to lift a load that he couldn’t lift by himself a long time ago, today computers and software allows “to lift” data volumes that the human brain cannot handle. However, this process only aggravates the situation, because the data is getting bigger and bigger by itself, it appears and changes with astonishing speed. The world is becoming so complex that a person loses sight of cause-and-effect relationships (due to this process the “big data” technology and machine learning owe the popularity). One person’s capabilities are not enough to make the best decision. So the ability to make effective group decisions and interacting with other people becomes especially important.

A hunter cautiously sneaks through the woods. Somewhere on the side, he hears the rustling of foliage and notices a bird soaring. A quick throw and… The bird which was hit with the boomerang falls to the ground.

The crash of the space shuttle “Challenger”. Shares of the main contractors involved in the launch of the shuttle fell in a few minutes after the accident. And shares of the company that produced the solid-fuel accelerator fell more than others, because its accelerator had a problem and led to the tragedy.

What is common for these stories? In both cases, the decision was made on the basis of limited data, but it was accurate. Let us try to understand the mechanisms to achieve such an amazing result.

The hunter did not know the weight of the boomerang, the bird’s flight speed, the distance, the force of the wind, but nevertheless he hit the target. Speculators did not know the details of the accident and the design of the shuttle, but they “determined” the reason which took several months for the experts to investigate.

Every second we are making decisions. They can be conscious or unconscious. However, as a result, billions of cells of the human body act as one. This process seems to be a miracle. Our brain consists of approximately 100 billion neurons. They are a completely decentralized system: there is no main neuron that decides to run or fight, which route is better to choose, what to order in a restaurant etc. But still specific decisions are made quickly.

Mentioned tasks are quite simple. Animals are solving the same problems. We always have information for making a decision, and usually there are not many variants. However these tasks are at the level of the whole organism. But what if we look into the level of nerve cells? Has a single neuron all the information? Is a single nerve cell in our brain able to determine where to turn at the crossroads?

If we start considering a price on a single share that is placed on the market as a consensus of participants’ opinions, the situation will stay the same – thousands of people making their decisions based on their previous knowledge and experience. Although in Challenger’s case the market indicated a perpetrator of a catastrophe immediately.

An association that immediately comes to my mind is a screen image, which consists of numerous dots. Every dot does not mean a thing when displayed alone. However, dots form a picture when united into a special pattern.

Nevertheless, to deliver a thoughtful meaning through a picture or to make the right decision, all the system members need to follow the rules that allow using information possessed by every member, like if they were elements of a complete piece of mosaic.

It is well known that information inside our brains is transported with neuronal impulses from one nerve cell to another. Neuronal cells form structures that allow a cell to generalize signals received from other cells [6]. The output signal is further transferred by neuronal network. Generally, the decision making process in a living organism reminds a never-ending ‘poll’ or ‘voting’ performed by our nerve cells. Every neuron that receives such signals may be considered a local ‘voting station’ by a group of other neurons.

A human brain is way more flexible structure than other parts of our bodies. The connections inside a brain and its nerve cells are being constantly altered by local environment. That feature of ours is the basis of studying process. If one meets something new he or she would seldom act effectively. For example, if you first try to ride a bicycle you will probably end up falling. However, if you keep trying, your brain will start ‘getting educated’ by forming brand-new neuronal connections, which will allow your body to act properly in this situation (or otherwise, to make right decisions).

However, sometimes we face problems that are more complex than riding a bicycle. These problems are usually too hard to be solved by a single person. In this case, human beings tend to form a group in order to solve such a problem using collective experience and knowledge.

In a fact, there are many examples of unbelievably accurate decisions made by groups of people who were in lack of source data [1]. An experiment of evaluating the number of balls in a jar may serve as the most common one. A total average value suggested by a group of participants was just slightly different from the real number. These results are not a coincidence as they were proved many times in different researches.

Does not this remind you processes going on in human brain? Every neuron possesses its own limited data (can be referenced to a participant’s life-experience); it receives some imprecise input data (a jar with balls inside it) and generates a neuronal impulse (a suggestion) that is then generalized by a neuronal network cell (an average total).

There is one important feature to make a good collective decision: diversity of the group. The more different viewpoints the members have, the better result the group would be able to produce.

As outlined above, the decision is a combination of knowledge and experience, as well as incoming data, even if this data is not clear. The more extensive the experience, the better the incoming data can be supplemented by decision makers.

Returning to the work of the brain, many studies show that when insight comes to a person, at this moment separate and isolated areas of the brain are activated [2, 3]. A creative solution is a non-standard combination of the diverse knowledge that the person has.

A fairly popular brainstorming technique works in the same way. At the first stage, we are gathering various, even the most insane ideas. The next stage is criticism, combination, improvement of these ideas.

In this process, each of the stages involves the processing of information obtained in the previous stage.

An important point to make a decision is expert knowledge. We live in a world of cause-and-effect relationships. If a person has much knowledge in a field in which a decision is made, it is more likely that this decision will be correct. It is possible that the expert has repeatedly solved a similar problem.

In daily life we often use intuition or just mention this word when we cannot explain why we made a decision. However, intuition is not magic. Intuition is the knowledge and experience subconsciously accumulated in the brain [4,5]. In response to external information the brain gives the answer in the form of emotions or physical reactions. A high level expert can not only give the right answer, but also interpret this reaction. But intuition regarding a question in a certain field can only work if a person has experience.

Turning back to collective decision making, I have to say that a practical value of an expert opinion should be higher than that of a less skilled member, when a choice needs to be made. Moreover, when a specific problem that cannot be reflected in everyday life needs to be solved an opinion of a non-professional member should not be considered valid due to the lack of cause-and-effect connections knowledge in this particular field. A simple logic and life routine skills cannot be of use when tackling a problem that is beyond commoner’s life.

Human brain is a highly efficient tool for processing information. The mechanics that brains employs have been developing for thousands of years. Therefore, we need to study and practically use them well in order to be able to solve issues and make right decisions. Once that is said, I must specify that I do not speak about complicated processes such as machinery assembly, neural networks or machine education. In this case, I was writing about using the brain mechanics for human interaction.

Decisions made collectively can prove to be quite successful, but to achieve them it is necessary to build communication within group in a certain way. Solution exchanges can serve as an example here.

Voting is another solution that is widely implemented but is ineffective on the other hand. This tool is used for resolving a wide variety of problems for lack of anything better. Direct voting, for example, has the following disadvantages:  direct cause-and-effect connection and rather low value of the participant’s opinion.

A person voting often understands the consequences of his or her choice. If the choice can be connected with a material gain or loss then this choice is obvious.

Let us fantasize a little. Imagine, that a neuron ‘understands’ what will a signal that it transfers result into. In example, it can result in a person’s running fast and lacking of oxygen and nutrition as well. Here it takes some step-ahead thinking to understand that if that imaginary person had not run immediately, than he or she would die. However, is a neuron capable of planning? People often think in simple categories (i.e., If A then B) which gives us limitless opportunities to alter collective decisions. To avoid this, it is necessary to give up a subjective position towards the problem or an obvious connection between an individual and an outcome.

Conclusions

The main principle of brain’s functioning is very similar to effective decision-making process within a group of people. This is reflected in the fractality of the decision making process. Nowadays, human brain is the most sophisticated and effective tool for information processing. Implementing the principle of brain mechanics to solve complex problems can give great results. Furthermore, organizing a process of decision making by an expert group based on these principles can boost efficiency and accuracy of the decisions made by this group.

The following factors should be concerned:

-group’s diversity

-presence/absence of expert skills among group members

-opinion aggregation mechanics

-avoidance of vested interest

The opinion aggregation can be achieved using statistical approach or implementing additional limitations to make sure that a member’s opinion cannot undercut the others’. To avoid vested interests among group members, special algorithms that exclude cause-and-effect connections between an opinion and an outcome can be developed.

Literature

  1.  The Wisdom of Crowds. James Surowiecki.
  2. The Agile Mind. Estanislao Bachrach.
  3. Your Brain at Work. David Rock.
  4. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Malcolm Gladwell.
  5. How We Decide. Jonah Lehrer.
  6. On Intelligence. Jeff Hawkins.