Is Decision-Making Skill Trainable?

by Venkat on November 11, 2013

I shared an article a while back on decision fatigue. The article came up again in a recent discussion, and another idea was raised, this time from the fitness/training world: Acute Training Load vs. Chronic Training Load

“ATL – Acute Training Load represents your current degree of freshness, being an exponentially weighted average of your training over a period of 5-10 days…

CTL – Chronic Training Load represents your current degree of fitness as an exponentially weighted average of you training over a 42 day period. Building your CTL is a bit like putting money in your savings account. If you don’t put much in you won’t be able to draw much out at a later date.”

This seems like a very fertile idea to me.  The language here is very control-theoretic, and the idea seems to be basically about separating time scales of training in a useful way. It also seems to relate to what I think of as the raise the floor/raise the ceiling ways of increasing performance, which I talked about in the context of mindful learning curves.

The interesting question, as a friend of mine put it, is whether decision-making skill (and therefore decision-fatigue limits) responds to training the way our bodies do. I don’t mean this in the sense of gaining experience. That of course happens. I mean, being able to go for longer before performance degrades.

I think the jury is still out on that one.

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Steven November 11, 2013 at 5:17 pm

Great question. Have you come across any tools to improve decision making skills over time through practice?

Venkat November 15, 2013 at 12:07 pm

No, at least not generic executive function decision-making. It seems to be fundamentally domain specific, so “decision-making” in a situated sense I suppose improves, but not in an abstract sense (unless perhaps around a specific abstract tool like statistical significance as a way to accept/reject options).

MFH December 5, 2013 at 1:35 pm

I’ve always been a little bit uneasy about the definition of “decision” in these types of discussions. I think it tends toward being overly broad.

I think most of the decision fatigue/ATL/CTL/etc stuff only applies to decision situations in which people feel (rightly or wrongly) that they can’t fuck up.

Look at the situation you may be in at this exact moment. In this context, I’m an anonymous nobody sniping from the sidelines. You are a respected author writing under your real name.

I can write a comment and fire it away without any practical consequences. I can be drunk, egregiously wrong, or maybe just a complete asshole in tone. I don’t really care.

You, on the other hand, (may) have a variety of complicating factors that you don’t want to screw up. Maybe you worry about the correct level of engagement in the comment section. Maybe you worry about what might happen to your reputation if you replied with “FUCK U ASSHOLE!!!”. Maybe it’s in your financial interest to be a cool customer at all times to help land consulting gigs.

At the end of the day, though, the “target” of the decision is the same for both of us: a comment on a website. The fundamental asymmetry is a vague sense of consequences in the scaffolding of the decision and its context rather than the target. This is my issue with what exactly a “decision” is.

I see (and work around) pathologies related to this so often in professional environments that I essentially have internally codified it into a law of human corporate behavior:

MFH’s 1st Law:

1. Corporations, by fundamental nature, inevitably distort employees’ perspectives.

2. As a consequence, most employees in any organization are not qualified to self-judge real consequences.

3. Many of the best and brightest of this group are dimly aware of this and improperly default to a skin-in-the-game approach.

4. Because of anxiety, excessive CYA plans, and general loss of focus, unwarranted skin-in-the-game approaches destroy at least 25% of individual cognitive capacity and often upwards of 50%.

5. Because of social factors, skin-in-the-game approaches also inhibit necessary course corrections, tactical retreats, and critical rethinkings.

6. As a result, the success of an aggressive project (which is a distributed, iterated collusion of individual actions) often hinges on convincing all contributors that they have no skin in the game!

Why do video game players not melt under the load of thousands of rapid-fire game-changing decisions? Because they don’t have any skin in the game and they can always restore from a save and choose another more fruitful path.

Would it be fun to play with a gun to your head? Probably not. Is there even any reward to winning besides self-satisfaction? Probably not. But people play anyways, just for the hell of it.

You do need to actively manage these kind of things and actively bend/prune wayward branches, but perhaps somewhat paradoxically, people generally don’t mind this because it means that (a) someone cares about their work, and (b) they care enough to give timely feedback.

Venkat December 6, 2013 at 12:32 pm

Hmm…not sure what you’re getting at here. Yes, different actors in a situation have different degrees of skin in the game, moral hazards and risks of failure due to factors like safety, training levels.

There are no two agents with the same incentive structure in any real situation. That’s what I call open systems. You can close a system in a textbook and get to simple patterns of symmetry and asymmetry, but in real life, every decision for every person is a step in their (unique) life trajectory. It’s not so much asymmetry as non-comparability.

That said, on a coarse level, with respect to a few basic features of a decision, people may be comparable within the situation (level of sincerity for instance) and in-situation behavioral cues/responses may contain enough info to analyze the decisions of all with respect to just those few basic features. So we may both be in this comment thread with similar levels of sincerity for different reasons and different long-term consequences. The decision has been sort of “boxed” in the Euler/Lagrange sense I talked about in an earlier post.

MFH December 6, 2013 at 5:14 pm

The words “decision-making skill” imply that greater skill gets one closer and faster to a desired outcome whereas poorer skill does the opposite. The desired outcome itself is assumed to be present and explicit, but the exact outcome itself is arbitrary and beside the point.

Given this, my larger point was that I believe decision-making skill is indeed trainable. We can get better results faster, both as individuals and recursively as leaders of groups.

I observe that there are two types of decisions we can make in pursuit of the desired outcome: draining and non-draining. Neither the desired outcome or the actual decision made controls placement into the draining/non-draining continuum. It is all about context, which we have some degree of control over, both for ourselves and others.

Quoting from your linked article on decision fatigue:

“When […] forced […] to remain stoic during a tearjerker movie, afterward they gave up more quickly on lab tasks […] like working on a geometry puzzle”

Using the definition for decision-making skill at top (e.g. better skill translates to better and faster progress), we can better our decision-making skill by simply adjusting context for ourselves and where possible for others by ruthlessly eliminating unnecessary draining items where they exist.

The caveat is the word “unnecessary”. I believe that people in general are terrible estimators in this area, and will consequently not ruthlessly eliminate unnecessary draining items. Corporations and other large organizations exacerbate this by chronically obscuring information.

By ruthlessly eliminating and/or refusing to participate in draining activities, we can get better results faster both for ourselves and teams. In other words, we can increase our decision-making skill.

I would also like to note that I could not disagree with you more on two points:

1. “There are no two agents with the same incentive structure in any real situation”. Many, many people do all kinds of things for almost solely self-satisfaction. Many, many people have the same incentives as their co-worker peers, fellow students, brothers/sisters, etc.

2. “[…] but in real life, every decision for every person is a step in their (unique) life trajectory”. I would argue that very few decisions normal individuals make significantly alter their life trajectories.

MFH December 6, 2013 at 5:15 pm

Aargh, intended to be a reply to: Venkat on December 6, 2013 at 12:32 pm

Sorry.

Venkat December 17, 2013 at 1:36 pm

On the two disagreements… hmm… I’ll leave that aside for now. I think we might be at a behaviorist/cognitivist divide there. I am saying similarity in I/O behavior does not imply similarity in internal-state evolution, but never mind. Fine distinction.

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