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Exploring the Complex Dynamic Texture of Behavior

Ray W. Cooksey
Armidale, New South Wales, Australia

A major aspect of my current conceptual work focuses on the implications, for psychological theory and method, of a Complex Dynamic Decision Perspective (CDDP) that attempts to situate human decision making within its rich context while maintaining as much of the textural complexity of the decision as possible.

Such a perspective is needed since the literature on human judgment and decision making reveals a markedly divided discipline where strong alliances among researchers adhering to a shared approach dominate the landscape. Skirmishes between different alliances are marked by exclusionary, rather than inclusionary, reasoning. Debate is frequently polarized between the laboratory and the field: quantitative vs. qualitative; normative vs. interpretive; the systematically designed vs. the representatively designed; the prescriptive vs. the descriptive or naturalistic; correspondence vs. coherence emphasis; practical vs. theoretical; and novice/student vs. expert/professional.

As a result, theorizing is closed rather than open and systemic, incremental rather than radical, and subjected to the law of parsimony, which sets up a preference for the simplest accounting of a phenomenon. Such thinking is no longer adaptive nor does it facilitate a cumulative science of decision making; it also falls continually short of meeting both the expectations and the needs of humans making decisions in everyday life.

While the implications of these arguments can easily be extended beyond the specific domain of human decision making (a development I am currently undertaking in a paper titled "Contextual Behavioral Dynamics: Reconceptualizing the Human Science of Psychology" for submission to the American Psychologist later this year), decision research provides a prototypical arena within which to demonstrate the force of the arguments. (I have anchored and illustrated many of these arguments in a very recent paper focusing on managerial decision making-"Mapping the Texture of Managerial Decision Making: A Complex Dynamic Decision Perspective," Emergence: A Journal of Complexity Issues in Organizations and Management, in press.)

The underlying problem in decision research is that each decision theory or approach implicated in the study of human decision making, when juxtaposed with methodological preferences and choices, forces simplifying assumptions to be made and, typically, linear processes to be posited.

This necessarily sterilizes and denudes the complex texture of decision making to the point where unrealistic expectations and linear thinking are inadvertently reinforced; many potentially important factors are excluded by assumption or by the simplistic models employed.

This then spills over into the design of decision support systems and other interventions which become locked into specific approaches forcing users to engage in Procrustean thinking to shape their decision problems to be suitable for a particular package or model, such as the Analytic Hierarchy Process, Multiattribute Utility Theory, or Decision Analysis.

The 'Kuhnian' selectivity aspect of this argument focuses on the problem that many authors bind their discussion of decision processes to research conducted within a restricted range of decision research paradigms and perspectives (e.g., heuristics and biases; decision analysis; lens model research; behavioral decision theory). Recognition of the larger contextual picture (behavior as emergent in context), lessons from various disciplines (e.g., complexity theory, nonlinear systems dynamics, evolutionary theory), and retention of flexibility in perspective are therefore lost.

This division in approach and discourse tends to lead decision researchers down somewhat narrow paths of investigation, fueled by simplified perspectives that stimulate self-reinforcing outcomes. The result in many cases is a split between what decision theories wish to say and what decision makers in situ find they experience in terms of increasing information load and competing demands and values juxtaposed against their own physical and cognitive limitations, needs and task demands (an outcome anticipated by Brunswik over 50 years ago in his 1952 monograph).

Additionally, it is becoming increasingly clear that the social and personal costs of making inappropriate or incorrect decisions are escalating in the context of the complex highly dynamic familial, societal, and work environments within which humans currently operate. This ecological trend seems quite unlikely to reverse itself in the near future.

The Complex Dynamic Decision Perspective (CDDP) is argued to retain one's focus on the complex texture of human decision making by stimulating a systemic focus on major contextual factors that are further decomposed layer by layer to reveal the rich and dynamic tapestry beneath. The CDDP is implicitly Brunswikian in conception but extends his original ideas by marrying them with current knowledge emerging from nonlinear systems dynamics, open systems theory, and a variety of behavioral science disciplines.

By its very construction, the CDDP forces a triangulated perspective and a multifaceted methodological approach to decision research. The complex and messy texture of human decisions is thereby retained for detailed investigation and incorporation rather than boiled away. At the same time, the CDDP perspective can be used to spawn tools and methods that decision makers in situ can utilize to facilitate a priori or a posteriori audits of their own decisions. Finally, the CDDP can be seen to provide a template for investigating other important behavioral phenomena in the human arena.

Anyone wishing to obtain a copy of my recent work, in press or in development, please feel free to contact me. Any comments or observations would be appreciated.

Contact Ray W. Cooksey

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