Thursday, July 21, 2011

Researching Behavior: A Tale of Cats and Dogs

An experience of mine from quite a few years ago is relevant to the challenges in understanding how people think and behave in another culture.  It's not about China, but instead involves a different culture that was foreign to me in many ways at the time -- the US Marines.

My first job after graduate school was at a consulting company which focused on the development of PC-based training system prototypes for the United States Armed Forces.  My work wasn't only conducting research to guide the design of useful and useable systems but also designing the intelligent agents that would mimic human behavior in a virtual environment and interact with real humans.  In short, I had to detail both typical and ideal decision-making at a fine level in very complex environments.  The projects covered domains ranging from the Air Force Space Command to Navy air wing strike teams.

One project brought me to Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in North Carolina.  While sitting next to a large table used for tactical planning, an experienced Marine who was assisting the project and considered to be an expert in his domain suddenly began screaming at me.  The short (and cleansed) version was that he wanted to know how it was that I, fresh out of college and without a shred of military experience, could be playing such a key role in mapping out the decision-making in their activities.  Didn't they already know how they did things much better than I possibly could?

I simply wrote down a word and asked him to read it.

He was a bit surprised by my response.  After a brief moment of stunned silence he correctly said "cats".

I then wrote down another word and asked him to read it as well.  He correctly said "dogs".

I pointed out that they both ended with the written letter "s".  He didn't appear to be impressed by that insight, but I still had his attention.

I then pointed out that despite both ending with the written letter "s" he said the word "dogs" ending with a z sound and "cats" ending with an s sound.

I asked him how he decided which sound to use.

He thought for a while before saying he had no idea how he made the decision.

I used this example to show how being an expert in something doesn't mean you know how you do it.  Despite him probably being able to correctly pronounce the final sound in words such as "dogs" and "cats" nearly 100% of the time, he had no explicit awareness of the decisions he was making.  In fact, this was likely advantageous as "thinking about it" while speaking would probably interfere with performance.  As he could well appreciate in the military where the quickness of decisions could mean life or death, much of the value in gaining certain types of expertise is in reducing the need for conscious decision making so choices can be made more expediently and automatically.  This can hold true for a variety of activities, whether it's speaking a language, riding a bike, or playing a video game.

Figuring out how people think and behave is not at all simple.  In my work I need to apply a variety of methods borrowed from fields ranging from cognitive psychology to anthropology to ensure I best address various research questions.  I made it clear to the Marine that the skills I possessed in researching human cognition that better enabled me to ascertain how he was making certain decisions didn't necessarily mean I could effectively make those decisions myself in a "real world" situation.  My expertise was in figuring out how and why he did certain things.  His expertise was in doing them.

He appreciated my explanation and there were no further issues.  It helped him to better understand our respective roles, and he proved to be an invaluable member of the project.

While my research since that first job, and certainly in China, has not at all been military oriented, I continue to work with people who in their own way are experts in a particular field or activity.  Often, it is a part of their daily lives -- whether it's how to use their mobile phone to organize a gathering of friends, how to purchase an item that's not fake online, how to communicate differently with work colleagues and friends, or how to be unique without being too different.  Occasionally in China, people have posed questions similar those of the Marine (though in a far less aggressive fashion).  Like my conversation with the Marine, I've sought appropriate ways to explain that their "expertise" doesn't necessarily translate to fully understanding how they behave and why they behave that way.

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