The Psychology of Administrative Decisions: The limits of rationality

Objective rationality, as that term was defined in the previous chapter, would imply that the behaving subject molds all his behavior into an integrated pattern by (a) viewing the behavior alternatives prior to decision in panoramic fashion, (b) considering the whole complex of consequences that would follow on each choice, and (c) with the system of values as criterion singling out one from the whole set of alternatives.

Real behavior, even that which is ordinarily thought of as “rational,” possesses many elements of disconnectedness not present in this idealized picture. If behavior is viewed over a stretch of time, it exhibits a mosaic character. Each piece of the pattern is integrated with others by their ori- entation to a common purpose; but these purposes shift from time to time with shifts in knowledge and attention, and are held together in only slight measure by any conception of an over-all criterion of choice. It might be said that behavior reveals “segments” of rationality—that behavior shows rational organization within each segment, but the segments themselves have no very strong interconnections.

Actual behavior falls short, in at least three ways, of objective rationality as defined in the last chapter:

  1. Rationality requires a complete knowledge and anticipation of the consequences that will follow on each In fact, knowledge of consequences is always fragmentary.
  2. Since these consequences lie in the future, imagination must supply the lack of experienced feeling in attaching value to them. But values can be only imperfectly anticipated.
  3. Rationality requires a choice among all possible alternative In actual behavior, only a very few of all these possible alternatives ever come to mind.

1. Incompleteness of Knowledge

The first limitation upon rationality in actual behavior has been mentioned in Chapter IV.38 Rationality implies a complete, and unattainable, knowledge of the exact consequences of each choice. In actuality, the human being never has more than a fragmentary knowledge of the conditions surrounding his action, nor more than a slight insight into the regularities and laws that would permit him to induce future consequences from a knowledge of present circumstances.

For instance, to achieve a completely successful application of resources to a city’s fire protection problem, the members of the fire department would need to know in comprehensive detail the probabilities of fire in each portion of the city—in fact, in each structure—and the exact effect upon fire losses of any change in administrative procedure or any redistribution of the fire- fighting forces.

Even to state the problem in this form is to recognize the extent to which complete rationality is limited by lack of knowledge. If each fire were reported to the department at the moment ignition occurred, fire losses would miraculously decline. Lacking such omniscience, the fire department must devote considerable effort to securing as promptly as possible, through special alarm systems and otherwise, information regarding situations where its action is needed.3

This point has been developed in some detail in order to emphasize that it poses an extremely practical problem of administration—to secure an organization of the decision-making process such that relevant knowledge will be brought to bear at the point where the decision is made. The same point might have been illustrated with respect to a business organization—the dependence of its decisions, for example, on the correct prediction of market prices.

The human being striving for rationality and restricted within the limits of his knowledge has developed some working procedures that partially overcome this difficulty. These procedures consist in assuming that he can isolate from the rest of the world a closed system containing only a limited number of variables and a limited range of consequences.

There is a story to the effect that a statistician once found a very high correlation between the number of old maids and the size of the clover crop in different English countries. After puzzling over this relation for some time, he was able to trace what appeared to him to be the causal chain. Old maids, it appeared, kept cats; and cats ate mice. Field mice, however, were natural enemies of bumblebees, and these latter were, in turn, the chief agents in fertilizing the flowers of the clover plants. The implication, of course, is that the British Parliament should never legislate on the subject of marriage bonuses without first evaluating the effect upon the clover crop of reducing the spinster population.

In practical decision-making, devious consequences of this sort must of necessity be ignored.« Only those factors that are most closely connected with the decision in cause and time can be taken into consideration. The problem of discovering what factors are, and what are not, important in any given situation is quite as essential to correct choice as a knowledge of the empirical laws governing those factors that are finally selected as relevant.

Rational choice will be feasible to the extent that the limited set of factors upon which decision is based corresponds, in nature, to a closed system of variables—that is, to the extent that significant indirect effects are absent. Only in the cases of extremely important decisions is it possible to bring to bear sufficient resources to unravel a very involved chain of effects. For instance, a very large amount spent for research to determine the indirect effects of a governmental fiscal policy upon employment in the economy would, if it achieved its aim, be well spent. On the other hand, a physician treating a patient does not take time to determine what difference the life or death of his patient will make to the community.

2. Difficulties of Anticipation

It is a commonplace of experience that an anticipated pleasure may be a very different sort of thing from a realized pleasure. The actual experience may be considerably more or less desirable than anticipated.

This does not result merely from failure to anticipate consequences. Even when the consequences of a choice have been rather completely described, the anticipation of them can hardly act with the same force upon the emotions as the experiencing of them. One reason for this is that the mind cannot at a single moment grasp the consequences in their entirety. Instead, attention shifts from one value to another with consequent shifts in preference.

Valuation, therefore, is limited in its accuracy and consistency by the power of the individual to trace the varied value elements in the imagined consequence and to give them the same weight in anticipation as they will have f or him in experience.

This is probably an important influence in “risky” behavior. The more vividly the consequences of losing in a risky venture are visualized—either through past experience of such consequences or for other reasons—the less desirable does the risk assumption appear. It is not so much that the experience of loss leads to attaching a higher probability to the occurrence of loss as that the desire to avoid the consequences of loss has been strengthened.

3. The Scope of Behavior Possibilities

Imagination falls down also in conceiving all the possible patterns of behavior that the individual might undertake. The number of things that a man, restricted only by physical and biological limitations, could do in even so short an interval as a minute is inconceivable. He has two legs, two arms, a head, two eyes, a neck, a trunk, ten fingers, ten toes, and many sets of voluntary muscles governing each. Each of these members is capable of complex movements individually or in coordination.

Of all these possible movements, only a very few come to mind at any moment as possible behavior alternatives. Since each alternative has distinct consequences, it f ollows that many sets of possible consequences never reach the stage of valuation, since it is not recognized that they are possible consequents of available behavior alternatives.

Relatively speaking, of course, human beings come much closer to exploiting in purposive action their physiological capacities of movement than other animals. The relatively simple “tool behaviors” of which the great apes are capable5 are very elementary, judged by human standards.

In some fields, considerable ingenuity has been shown in devising methods for exploiting possibilities of behavior. Elaborate devices have been constructed in phonetics for observing and correcting lip and tongue movements. Time-and-motion studies are made to observe, in great detail, hand movements in industrial processes, to improve these movements, and to facilitate them through revision of the process. In the same category could be placed the whole field of tool-invention and skill-training. Both involve a close observation of behavior processes, and a consequent enlargement of the alternatives available for choice.

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

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