Saturday, October 13, 2007

Essay on the fetiche with nurses

The other day I was mentioning a case in which a nurse responds incredibly rapidly to a furiously serious situation in a neonatal intensive care unit. Then this guy comes up with this:

"You really have a fetiche with nurses, hã?"

To which I reply: "Only when their name isn´t OLGA."

Why study these cases in a business school? What is the relevance of that? Why should a decision-making course actually start with the case of a radar operator, and also look at, for instance, chess-players or firefighters? (No fetiche here, thanks for asking--but remember: not all firefighters are equal).

What can business students get from studying this?

Superficially, people such as nurses, doctors, firefighters, radar operators, chess players, etcetera, do tasks which are extremely distinct from what a manager does. But look closer, and you´ll start to see deep, deep, similarities, in their cognitive processes.

Most white-collar work is, of course, like this: reading email, downloading attachments and working on them and sending them back, deleting those cheap v!agr@ emails, talking to people over the phone, not falling asleep in meetings and trying to sound intelligent, and making "exciting, enthusiastic", presentations.

What ties managers and chess players together is that their job consists, mostly, of separating what´s important in a situation from what´s irrelevant in it.

Imagine the immense amounts of paper and phone calls trying to reach, for instance, Larry Allison, this coming week. It will be vast. Most of it will be filtered by secretaries and managers with that specific job in mind. But he´ll still have to deal personally with an large load of "incoming" information. Two documents stand in his desk, waiting for a signature. What´s important, and what´s not? How to separate what´s important from what´s irrelevant? It´s extremely tricky, and there´s not a single isolated piece of information that´s up to the task.

Sometimes, a single comma can cost you a million Canadian dollars.

I believe something like 70% of my own email is marked "urgent". Hardly any of it is, of course. So a "high-priority" or " urgent" mark is no good source of information. Neither is the sender. It could be someone extremely important, yet, the message still is rather unimportant. There´s not a single isolated piece of information that will tell us whether something is relevant or not.

It´s in the whole scenario. Importance is spread over the whole chessboard, the whole health history of the baby turning blue, the whole situation about a strange fire that´s just too hot to handle (tough it looks, to the unexperienced, that it should be easy to handle).

It´s all in the struggle between one´s expectations and one´s perception. If you´ve acquired precise expectations about a situation, then you´ll know what to expect. This is one of Jeff Hawkins crucial points. Did you know that the brain is "saturated with feedback connections?" In some parts of the cortex, there seems to be 10 times more information going from the brain to the senses (e.g., from your brain to your eyes), than the connections coming from the senses to the brain. Why is there such a high-bandwidth going on the wrong direction? The answer seems to be that the brain is telling the senses what to expect, "and only report back to me if something is different from what I´m telling you". That´s what Hawkins calls the memory-prediction framework, and close in philosophy to what the folks over at overcoming bias call cached thoughts.

This can only be done through experience, of course. So an international master reconstructs a chess position after a mere 5 seconds presentation, and we can´t do it.

When something departs from expectations, your attention is rapidly grabbed because of this high-bandwidth info the brain is sending your eyes. If you have experience, you know what to expect. Two good questions to ask every time you´re studying decision-making or intuition or judgment are: how could an inexperienced person deal with this situation? And of course the classic: how could a machine do this? What are the information-processing mechanisms going on here?

How do we cache those thoughts? What are the precise cognitive operations involved? FARG theory has, in my opinion, solved the problem of how we classify things into categories in a satisfactory manner. So now the issue is: how do these categories and concepts form in the first place? Harry Foundalis has the best thesis on the subject. If this problem is nailed in the coming years, then we´ll be on rich, rich, unexplored territory.

And the nurses? Aren´t they incredible? These creatures exist for the sole purpose of making you feel better.

Dios mio!;
isn´t that awesome?