Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Anchoring! and other psychological trivia

So as it happens, making decisions involves, well, people. And people are complicated in the most bizarre ways you can imagine (myself included). I'm probably a rarity in that I never, not once, took a class in Psychology at university. Like many other things I dodged as an undergrad (inorganic chemistry comes to mind), I've recently wished I had perhaps done a little more.

For instance, it turns out that human decisions can be profoundly influenced by subtle non-linguistic signals such as the tone of voice, the posture of the speaker among others. There was a great summary of some of the "secret signals" in the Jan 29 edition of Nature (pg 528) through an interview with one of the scientists working on documenting these effects, Alex Pentland at MIT. Pentland is actually a computer scientist who has built small wearable devices to record people's "secret signals" as they go about their daily business. Using these techniques they have discovered ways for call center operators to improve their sales techniques to near 100% success. Now that's frightening. Worse, they also cite a study of faculty members that shows you can predict 70% of the variation in student evaluation scores from a 30 second slice of soundless video (Ambady and Rosenthal, J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 64, 431-444)! Believe me, I grabbed that article right away - my student evaluations need all the help they can get.

So what does that have to do with adaptive management? AM involves people, from stakeholders that worry about the effects of a decision on their livelihoods, to scientists with a stake in getting their project deemed important enough to recieve funding. This means that getting people together to agree on objectives, and later, choosing actions means influencing how they think. At the beginning, I'm often trying to sell, literally sell, the process to a skeptical group of customers. I need Alex Pentland's secret signals big time. Up until now, I'm not sure that we've done a good job of recognising how important these social communication skills are for the people that help others come to good decisions - at least in the Department of Interior related AM community. In many other instances, we arrange for facilitators to be hired to provide the social skills, creating a divide between the technical experts and the social experts. I'm not sure yet what the best solution is, but it bears some careful thinking about.

Along the same lines, one of the phenomena that groups interested in AM encounter is 'Anchoring' - the tendency to interpret new data in light of personal knowledge. This can lead people to interpret new data completely differently, even when they are both looking at exactly the same graph. If this sounds like a recipe for conflict, let me assure you, it is! As it turns out, whether the group members are happy or sad may influence how strongly folks are anchoring - a recent experimental test found that anchoring disappeared for happy non-experts compared to less happy non-experts ( Intriguingly, experts were relatively unaffected by mood - they were affected by anchoring regardless of how they felt. Experts in this case were people who had alot of background knowledge of the decision being made - law graduates choosing a sentence for a crime. While that doesn't give me much hope - mostly my workshops involve teams of experts - it might help the next time I want to work with a larger group of non-expert stakeholders.

One last thought - figuring out how to use science effectively in decision making is hard enough - but what if you don't even have the scientists to turn to? Larkin Powell had some sobering thoughts on this from Namibia, as well as a good anecdote that makes me glad our restrooms have deadbolts and not keys ...

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Stimulating Ecosystem Services?

Last week's edition of the journal Nature (Vol 457(12):764) had an editorial titled "Natural Value" - the topic: how this might be a great time to build ecosystem services into the mainstream economy. There might be something to this - after all, the value of mainstream economic activity is shrinking, making entry into the market easier. I wish that politicians the world over read this quote:
Destroying ecosystems for short-term economic benefit is like killing the cow for its meat, when one might keep from starving by drinking its milk for years to come. Now is not the time to slaughter the cow.

In addition, the editorial calls for an increase in ecosystem monitoring, research, analysis, and (bravo!) simulation. I couldn't agree more, but as ecologists we are ill equipped to meet the immediate analytical demand that would be required to "fold ecosystem services into the budget".

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Out of the blocks!

What better way to spend a sick day than kicking off a new Web 2.0 adventure. I've been enjoying exploring FaceBook and thinking about how to integrate that technology into my teaching. What I'd like to do here is explore how a Blog can be used to communicate science - or more accurately - using science in management and policy. For the past year or so I've been heavily involved in helping federal agencies and NGO's develop "Adaptive Management" for restoration activities on the Platte and Missouri Rivers. There is a huge history of material on the idea of Adaptive Management (AM), starting with Buzz Holling's original work in the 1970's. The group of scientists at UBC that included Holling, Carl Walters, and others started putting those ideas into practice throughout the next two decades. That fine start lead to many converts to the idea of using management activity to improve understanding.

My goal here is to start blogging about papers, books, tv programs, and whatever else strikes me as related to AM and the practice of AM. I'd like this to be like a running review. Hey, its an experiment. Maybe it won't be useful, but at least it will give me something to do, and a place to put thoughts when they occur to me.