Skills and choices

While the exercise of a skill involves the selection of behavior op­ tions, the selection process is highly automatic. This raises the ques­ tion of whether it is at all appropriate to discuss this process in terms of “choice.” In the terminology of the previous chapter, the sort of choice that takes place in the process of exercising a skill is choice without deliberation. To the extent that the conceptual baggage car­ ried by the term “choice” includes a lot of things that are associated w ith deliberation, it may be quite misleading when applied to the automatic choices involved in skills. As we noted, orthodox theoreti­ cal discussion is inconsistent and ambiguous on whether choice in­ volves deliberation, but it is quite clear in maintaining that there is a sharp distinction between capability and choice behavior. The two issues are obviously related: the choice among behavior options that takes place in the exercise of a skill typically involves no deliberation and it is a constituent of the capability that the skill represents. These issues are deep and important ones.

From one point of view, all of the coordinated sequential behavior involved in the exercise of a skill is chosen behavior. A large range of available alternative behaviors is continually being rejected in favor of the behavior sequence called for in the program. When a driver makes the small adjustments of the steering wheel required to keep his car on an approximately straight path down the road, he “chooses” not to let the car drift off the road, and also “chooses” not to tum the wheel abruptly and throw the car into a skid. When he de­ celerates as he catches up to a car in front of him, he “chooses” not to maintain his speed and crash into the rear of that car.

However, any experienced driver can attest on the basis of intro­ spection that these and many other micro-units of driving skill are normally selected and perfonned entirely without attention or awareness. The conscious mind may be devoted to looking for a street sign, planning the d ay’s activity, or carrying on a conversation while these “choices” are being made. That this phenomenon of pro­ grammed choice is of the essence of driving skill becomes apparent when the contrasting case of the student driver is considered: it is the novice who really chooses not to drive off the edge of the road-if “really choosing” means “paying attention to what is desired and deliberately acting to accomplish what is desired.” The skilled dri ver does not (deliberately) choose to keep the vehicle on the road, but merely accomplishes this result incidental to a choice to exercise his driving skill for the purpose of getting from one place to another.

In general, choice plays a larger role in the selection of large units of behavior than of small ones. The action of directing the car onto the northbound on-ramp of a freeway is more likely to involve choice than the multitude of shallow turns involved in negotiating a straight stretch of road. But this generalization must be qualified very signifi­ cantly by reference to the frequency with which the unit of behavior occurs. For example, if the turn onto the northbound on- ramp is part of the regular commuting trip to work, it m ay have a degree of auto­ maticity approaching that involved in the microskills of control of the car. Such automaticity reflects, of course, the fact that the turn onto the ramp is but a component in the macroskill ” driving to work”; it is accomplished in a “programmed” w ay in its normal place in that larger sequence of behavior.

The picture is further complicated by the fact that particular units of behavior, of whatever scale, are not assigned permanently and uniquely to the categories “chosen” and ” automatic .” Rather, circum­ stances affecting the immediate goals and attention allocation of the performer are an i mportant determinant of whether a p articular unit is run off automatically, or as a result of deliberate cho ice . A driver’s selection of the speed of his vehicle may be a choice made in response to posted limits, with conscious reflection on the probabili­ ties of speed traps and on the costs and benefits of alternative times of arrival at his destination. But speed is also subject to automatic ad­ j ustment in response to traffic density, driving conditions, and other influences. The driver may choose to pay attention to his speed­ that is, he may choose to choose his speed- but he may also let speed selection occur automatically, just as he keeps the car on the road automatically. An important possibility, especially for a driver who has recently had a speeding ticket, is that he may choose to try to choose his speed and fa il: his automatic responses may take over in spite of his intentions. Similarly, to revert to our previous example, a driver may find himself going up the on-ramp lion the way to work” when it is actually Saturday morning and he had intended to go to the hardware store.

There are corresponding points to be made about the relation of a skilled performance to its preconditions. We noted above that such a performance takes place in a context set by the values of a large number of variables; the effectiveness of the performance depends on those variables being in appropriate ranges. The performer typi­ cally relies, without conscious thought, on the constraints being satisfied. In some cases, and certainly when the existence of the con­ straints is unknown to the performer, there may be no practical alter­ native to such unconsidered reliance. In other cases, the performer may have occasion to worry about possible difficulties and perhaps be led to consider adjustments in the performance, or to forgo it al­ together. For example, a driver normally relies on the effective func­ tioning of the braking system, but worries about brake failure may sometimes receive conscious attention and there may then be a choice between normal reliance and doing something about the pos­ sible problem. As in the case of selection of behavior options, contin­ gencies of intention and attention will determine where , in the enor­ mous range of preconditions that might conceivably fail, occasional worries rise to consciousness.

We may now take stock of the relations of skills and choice. The picture is complex, but in general it seems to contrast sharply with the emphasis that orthodoxy gives to choice in the explanation of behavior, and also with its insistence on a strict conceptual distinc­ t ion between capability and choice. Skills are deep channels in which behavior normally runs smoothly and effectively. It is far from the case that behavior must take a unique course, but the reconcili­ ation of smoothness and effectiveness with the availability of nu­ merous options is accomplished by making option selection largely automatic. Skillful acts of selection from the available options are constituents of the main skill itself: they are “choices” embedded in a capability.4 Deliberate choice plays a narrowly circumscribed role, limited under normal circumstances to the selection of the large-scale behavior sequence to be initiated. This suppression of choice is certainly associated with, and is probably a condition for, the smoothness and effectiveness that skilled behavior confers . On the other hand, it is possible for choice to intrude into the skilled per­ formance. Option selections that are normally automatic may be made deliberately, or behavior may be diverted entirely from the deep channels of skill. The modification of skilled performance by deliberate choice greatly expands the potential diversity, flexibility, and adaptability of behavior-but always at an opportunity cost in terms of forgone uses of conscious attention, and usually at the cost of introducing some hesitation and awkwardness into an otherwise smooth flow of behavior.

Thus, there is in a sense a tradeoff between capability and deliber­ ate choice, a tradeoff imposed ultimately by the fact that rationality is bounded. The a dvantages of skill are attained by suppressing delib­ erate choice, confining behavior to well-defined channels, and re­ ducing option selection to j ust another part of the program. There are attendant risks that the thing done well may be the wrong thing, or that unnoticed contextual abnormalities may be rendering the per­ formance ineffective or irrelevant. There are, on the other hand, ad­ vantages to being open-minded, deliberate, and wary in the choice of actions at all levels of detail- but there are attendant risks of being tardy, poorly coordinated, and unskillful in action i tself.

Source: Nelson Richard R., Winter Sidney G. (1985), An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change, Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press.

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