The Psychology of Administrative Decisions: Purposive behavior in the individual

These remarks concerning the departure of actual behavior from the norm of rationality serve already to indicate some of the characteristics of the psychological process of choice. It is time now to examine these characteristics more systematically.

1. Docility

As was pointed out in Chapter IV, the simplest movement taking a step, focusing the eyes on an object—is purposive in nature, and only gradually develops in the infant from its earliest random undirected movements. In achieving the integration the human being exhibits docil ity; that is, he observes the consequences of his movements and adjusts them to achieve the desired purpose.6

Docility is characterized, then, by a stage of exploration and inquiry followed by a stage of adaptation. It can be observed in the behavior of individuals and in the behavior of organizations. A man learning to operate an overhead crane first obtains information from someone skilled in its operation as to how it is controlled and what the functions are of the various instruments and levers. He then supplements his information by experimenting with the crane, gradually learning from practice what reaction he can expect f rom the equipment when he manipulates it in a particular way. When he has reached this point, he is able to use the crane to accomplish his purposes—to adapt the manipulation to his ends.

Similarly, a new publishing firm must learn, from its own experience or from that of other firms, how many copies of a particular book are likely to be sold, and what kind of advertising is effective in selling it. Having learned what results a particular advertising technique will produce, the organization can intelligently adjust its techniques to the particular objectives it is trying to reach. This last example illustrates also the great part that judgment and estimate play in the adaptive process in most practical situations.

2. Characteristics of Human Docility

Docility is of course, quite as characteristic of the behavior of higher animals as it is of human behavior. There are, however, a number of rather striking differences between animal and human docility. The animal’s learning is primarily of a trial-and-error character. That is, learning does not show itself until he has had an opportunity, by actually experiencing them, to observe the consequences of his behaviors. The human being’s power to observe regularities in nature of a very general sort, and to communicate with other human beings, helps him to shorten materially this learning process.

In the first place, a previous experience with other choices (of the same sort) may enable him to infer something about the character of the particular choice with which he is faced. Likewise, he may experiment ideationally rather than in actual behavior: he may trace in his mind the consequences of each behavior alternative and select one of them without actually trying any of them out. For example, an engineer may explore in his mind or on paper several plans for a sewer, and may be able to determine quite accurately their respective performance without putting any of them to an actual trial.39

In the second place, communication gives the human being a tremendous advantage over the animal in learning. The engineer designing a pavement does not base his attempts entirely upon experimentation, ideational or actual, but uses reference sources, descriptions of the conclusions that other persons have reached on the basis of long experimentation and research in this field—although he may select and modify this accumulated experience on the basis of his own success and failure. Under some circumstances, moreover, learning is dependent entirely on communication, and even the subsequent test of success or failure is not available to the individual. This is true of many professional disciplines. In the field of medicine, for instance, the individual practitioner is seldom able to determine from what happens to his small group of patients the efficacy of particular modes of treatment, especially in the case of diseases he meets only infrequently. He must base his treatment on doctrine developed by medical scientists with special facilities for controlled research. The function of research, and especially experimental research, is to adapt behavior to purpose when the consequences of behavior are not easily evaluated outside the controlled conditions of the laboratory.

The possibility of purposive behavior derives, then, from recognition of the consequences that follow on particular behaviors. The human being’s advantage is that he does not have to determine these consequences separately for each particular decision with which he is faced. By the use of the experimental method, by communication of knowledge, by theoretical prediction of consequences, a relatively little bit of experience can be made to serve as the basis for a wide range of decisions. As a result a remarkable economy of thought and observation is achieved.

3. Memory

The role of memory in rational behavior hardly requires comment. When similar problems recur, it is memory that stores up the information gathered, or even the conclusions reached, in solving the first problem, and makes these available, without new inquiry, when the next problem of the same kind is encountered.

It has often been remarked that memory may be either natural or artificial—information may be stored in the mind, or it may be recorded on paper in such a way as to be accessible. The artificial kind of memory that consists of libraries, files, and records is the kind of most importance in organization.

For any kind of memory, whether natural or artificial, to be useful, there must be mechanisms that permit the memory to be drawn upon when needed. The letter that is lost in the files and the figure that has slipped the mind are equally useless items of memory unless they can be located. Hence human rationality relies heavily upon the psychological and artificial associational and indexing devices that make the store of memory accessible when it is needed f or the making of decisions.

4. Habit

An equally important mechanism that assists in the preservation of useful behavior patterns is habit.40 Habit permits conservation of mental effort by withdrawing from the area of conscious thought those aspects of the situation that are repetitive.

In learning to typewrite, the student tries to pay close attention to each minute movement of his fingers, and to the relation of each mark on the copy to each key on the instrument. Only through a gradual and fumbling adjustment of his movements does he achieve the necessary coordination of eye with hand. When, by practice, a certain point in skill has been reached, it proves no longer necessary to give attention to integrations at this lowest level. The mere desire for the end of the action— the letter to be printed— brings about the act without further will. When this step has been reached, habit or skill takes over the integration which was first achieved by attention and desire to learn.

Habit performs an extremely important task in purposive behavior, for it permits similar stimuli or situations to be met with similar responses or reactions, without the need for a conscious rethinking of the decision to bring about the proper action. Habit permits attention to be devoted to the novel aspects of a situation requiring decision. A large part of the training that goes to make a championship football team, crew, army battalion, or fire company is devoted to developing habitual responses that will permit immediate reactions to rapidly changing situations.41

Habit, like memory, has an artificial organization counterpart, which has been termed by Stene “organization routine.”10 In so far as methods of handling recurring questions become matters of organization practice, perhaps embodied in manuals of practice and procedure, they cease to be objects of reconsideration when these questions arise. The close relation between habit and memory is evident here as it is in the case of the habits of individual persons. If a formal criterion were needed, it might be said that a matter has become part of the organization routine when it is settled by reference to accepted or approved practices rather than by consideration of the alternatives on their merits.

Habit must not be thought of as a purely passive element in behavior (either individual or organizational), for once a habit has been established the mere presence of the stimulus tends to release the habitual behavior without further conscious thought. Under such circumstances, it may actually require conscious attention to prevent the response from occurring even if changed circumstances have made it inappropriate. The automobile driver who is habituated to the application of his brakes on the approach of danger has difficulty restraining himself from this response when he skids on an icy pavement. This is a point that has far-reaching implications for organization, and must be considered at greater length.

5. Role of Positive Stimuli

If rationality is to be achieved, a period of hesitation must precede choice, during which the behavior alternatives, knowledge bearing on environmental conditions and consequences, and the anticipated values must be brought into the focus of attention. Psychologically speaking, such a hesitation marks a relatively sophisticated level of behavior. Simpler behavior patterns may be described as those responses to stimuli that occur upon presentation of the stimulus and with little or no hesitation.

The distinction between the stimulus-response pattern of behavior and the hesitation-choice pattern gives a clue to the respective roles of nonrational and rational in the complete behavior pattern. Considering the limitations, just described, in human capacity to meet the demands of rationality, the hesitation preceding choice could conceivably lengthen into inaction. The individual, realizing his inability to take into consideration all the factors relevant to his choice, and despairing of rationality, might vacillate among the available alternatives until the time for action was past. In fact, choice and action usually take place long before attention has been given even to those elements in the situation that are within grasp. A stimulus, external or internal, directs attention to selected aspects of the situation to the exclusion of competing aspects that might turn choice in another direction. Within the central nervous system are built up channels that permit impulses to be translated into action while leaving large portions of the central system undisturbed.

Conscious attention is not a necessary element in this process. The consciousness that accompanies the “startle pattern” of behavior is not the cause of the response—it merely accompanies, or even succeeds, the response. However, since we are concerned primarily with decision points, and with responses to new situations, we may consider first the role of attention in the selective process—that is, in the channelizing of stimuli.

William James, who was not troubled by behavioristic scruples, described attention as follows:

Every one knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction, and Zerstreutheit in German.11

Tolman, more cautiously, prefers to avoid the term and speaks instead of “selective responsiveness to stimuli.”

Attention, then, refers to the set of elements that enter into consciousness at any given time. It is clear that consciousness is not a necessary precondition to docility, and that even behaviors that are not in the focus of attention are capable of purposive adjustment. Certainly consciousness and attention are not involved in the simpler types of conditioned response—e.g., in the development of motor skills. In most cases, there seems to be a close relation, however, between the spheres of attention and of rationality. That is, docility is largely limited by (1) the span of attention, and (2) the area within which skills and other appropriate behaviors have become habitual. Hence to a considerable extent, the limits upon rationality described above are resultants of the limits of the area of attention.

Now it has already been noted that in so far as a part of behavior is governed by habit, it passes out of the area of conscious attention. For example, in a consideration of behavior alternatives, attention is not usually directed to possible movements of individual muscles. Instead, the behavior alternatives that actually come to attention are habitual integrations of such unitary movements—walking, writing, pronouncing, etc.; only under unusual circumstances is there a conscious attempt to analyze these integrations. Once the stimulus is received for the initiation of such movements, they go to completion without further consideration.

The same responsiveness in habitual manner to stimuli occurs at even higher levels of integration. A typist who receives some printed matter for copying converts it into typewritten form almost without the necessity of a single conscious or original decision. To the man on an assembly line, the presence on the belt in front of him of a partially finished product is the only stimulus necessary to initiate the whole series of skilled movements that represent his contribution to the manufacture of the product. The individual sitting down at the dinner table finds in the food before him the sufficient stimulus for the complex process of eating and can carry on this process without conscious attention—meanwhile devoting his attention to conversation.

It appears, then, that in actual behavior, as distinguished from objectively rational behavior, decision is initiated by stimuli which channel attention in definite directions, and that the response to the stimuli is partly reasoned, but in large part habitual. The habitual portion is not, of course, necessarily or even usually irrational, since it may represent a previously conditioned adjustment or adaptation of behavior to its ends.

In executive positions characterized by great busyness on the part of their occupants, a great many stimuli for decision come from outside the individual. A difficult case is referred upward for appellate review; a caller or a member of another organization insists on discussing a problem with the “top man.” Innumerable other persons, problems, and things are constantly being forced on his attention. In any such position the particular questions to be decided will depend largely on the accident of what stimuli are presented.

Not only do the stimuli determine what decisions the administrator is likely to make, but they also have a considerable influence on the conclusion he reaches. An important reason for this is that the very stimulus which ini- tiates the decision also directs attention to selected aspects of the situation, with the exclusion of others. For example, a fire chief pictures a city in which fire losses are extremely low—which seems to him a good thing. His knowl- edge tells him that progress toward this desirable state of affairs could be made by purchase of a new piece of equipment. The demands of rationality would require, of course, that before deciding whether a new piece of equipment is needed he consider the other purposes for which the money could be spent: street repairs, an addition to the municipal hospital, and so.on. That this description is not far from the actualities of administrative behavior will be amply demonstrated in later chapters.42

Almost all human beings have the feeling, at one time or another, that there are more things that they would like to do than there is time to do them. That is, there are more possible stimuli for behavior than could be acted out if they were all simultaneously present to the attention. Rationality demands that a conscious choice be made among competing “goods” instead of leaving the choice to the caprice of the attentiondirecting stimuli.

6. Determinants of the Psychological Environment

In so far, then, as choice is initiated by impingement upon the individual of accidental and arbitrary stimuli, it would seem that the integrated busyness of the adult is simply a more patterned busyness than the ran-dom movements and shifting attentions of the child. The organized wholes of which it is composed are larger and more complex but, as wholes, no more closely related to any overall system of values than those of the child. The study od administrative behavior as a  rational activity would hardly seem useful unless this difficulty can be removed by showing that the stimuli that initiate choice are not, or at least need not, be, arbitrary, when viewed from the standpoint of the organization as a whole rather than from that of an individual member.14                                                                                                                                                                                                                   ‘

The next question that must be considered, then, is how the stimuli themselves originate that are instrumental in initiating the decisional process.

A man in a room with a shelf full of books may glance over the titles and deliberately choose one of them to read for an hour. Once he has opened the book, if it is not too dull and he is not interrupted, the sym- bols which it places before his eyes will be the most important, perhaps the only, stimuli engaging his attention during the ensuing hour. Hence, his choice of a book determines these subsequent stimuli.

Now consider an illustration of a slightly more practical sort. A man has formed the habit of glancing at his calendar pad when he comes to the office each morning. On Thursday he receives a letter which will need to be answered the next Tuesday. He places a note on his pad, knowing that this note will provide the stimulus to act on the following Tuesday.

A third illustration involves the deliberate development of a skill. A person who uses the typewriter once in a while may fall into the “hunt and peck” system of typing because, at any given moment when he wishes to type, this is the fastest way of spelling out the words. If he anticipates, however, that he will make considerable use of the type-writer over a period of time, he may take the pains to develop the habits associated with the touch system. Then in the long run the stimuli that he wishes to translate into typewritten words will receive a more effec- tive response than if he had not previously developed this skill.

A final illustration is provided by the lines of communication in an administrative organization. Each member of the organization requires certain information in order to make correctly those decisions for which he is responsible.

To make certain that the necessary information is presented to each member, a regular system of records and reports is devised, which automatically directs these stimuli into the proper channels.

These illustrations give some notion of the mechanisms that bring about the integration of behavior in a broad pattern. Two principal sets of mechanisms may be distinguished: (1) those that cause behavior to persist in a particular direction once it has been turned in that direction, and (2) those that initiate behavior in a particular direction. The former are for the most part—though by no means entirely—internal. Their situs is the human mind, and to this extent their description and functioning is a problem for psychology, and can only be touched upon in the present study.

Behavior-initiating mechanisms, on the other hand, are largely external to the individual, although they usually imply his sensitivity to particular stimuli. Being external, they can be interpersonal—they can be invoked by someone other than the person they are intended to influence, and consequently, they play a central role in administrative organization.

The mechanisms of initiation have already been sufficiently illustrated for present purposes. The next few pages will dispose briefly of the mechanisms of behavior-persistence. That done, it will be possible to reconstruct a picture of rational behavior, giving a central place to the mechanisms of integration.

7. The Mechanisms of Behavior-Persistence

Attention and behavior, once initiated in a particular direction, tend to persist in that direction for a considerable interval of time. This is true even when the original choice of activity was a matter of relative indifference.

One important reason for behavior-persistence has already been discussed in Chapter IV. Activity very often results in “sunk costs” of one sort or another that make persistence in the same direction advantageous. An administrator may feel considerable doubt that a particular activity should be undertaken; but, once the responsibility has been assumed, it may be advantageous to continue rather than lose the time and effort that have already been expended. Another way of stating this is to say that activities are usually continued at least until a point of

A second reason for persistence is that the activity itself creates stimuli that direct attention toward its continuance and completion. This has already been pointed out—a book, if it is well written, tends to hold attention to the limits of its covers until it has been read through. But the same thing can be equally well illustrated from almost any administrative situation. An engineer, arriving at his office, finds on his desk a set of plans for a street on which he was working the previous day. Immediately, his attention is directed to these plans and the problems involved in completing them, and no further external stimuli may be needed to keep him at work on the plans for the remainder of the day.

It may be seen that a large part of this stimulation is “internal,” and proceeds along the associational paths that have been built up in the mind. If the pattern of associations is rich, the mind acts as a sort of closed circuit, repeatedly bringing thought back to the subject of concern whenever it strays. As is well known, any considerable degree of concentration (i.e., internal stimulation) will actually decrease the individual’s sensitivity to external stimuli.15

A third factor making for persistence, and one closely related to “sunk costs,” is one that might be labeled “make-ready” costs. In the case of many repetitive tasks, the time of preparing to perform the task, and the time required to turn from that task to another, make it advantageous to persist in the performance of the one task rather than to perform a variety.

Source: Simon Herbert A. (1997), Administrative Behavior, Free Press; Subsequent edition.

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