Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Simulation Heuristic

I finished another RAND monograph recently (Implications of Modern Decision Science for Military Decision-Support Systems), which is too long and too dense and too useful to sum up in a single post. It's available for free online, but I wound up buying a copy from Amazon after realizing how relevant it was for me (Amazon was cheaper than buying it through RAND this time).

The first section deals with the history and development of decision science. It's a great, concise summary of the psychological aspects of decision-making theory, including a description of the split between what the authors refer to as the Heuristics and Biases Paradigm and the Naturalistic School of decision science. More on this in the future, but something that struck me was the description of what some call the simulation heuristic, and which the monograph refers to as "imaginability" (as a subset of memory biases) or the "availability heuristic". The basic idea is that people see things as more likely if they can visualize them more easily. That echoes Robert Levine's criticism (referred to here) that a game could lead participants to believe that the events depicted were probable, as opposed to merely plausible. In the simulation heuristic formulation, it is the very act of making it easier to imagine an event that increases the perception of its probability.

In a sense, that might not be a bad thing, in that one of the benefits to simulation and gaming can be to make a given circumstance seem more real, for the purposes of spurring people to action, or taking a threat seriously, or provoking more thoughtful analysis. But Levine's point stands to a certain extent; what about the other, unsimulated, ungamed possibilities that are accorded less priority because the simulated case is assigned a higher probability than is warranted? The simplest answer I can see right now is that rather than doing less gaming, perhaps the simulation heuristic should in fact lead to doing more gaming, as a tool of exploratory analysis, with an eye towards keeping in mind the vast multitudes of possible futures (more on this sometime soon, I hope). Another answer might just be that gaming is not necessarily by itself a good indicator of the likelihood of a given set of events. That seems like a no-brainer, but perhaps it's difficult to keep that in mind when presented with a realistic game. How do the pros deal with this issue?

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