DSS News 
                    D. J. Power, Editor 
             October 10, 2004 -- Vol. 5, No. 21
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* Ask Dan! - Do DSS builders assume their targeted users are 
rational thinkers?
* DSS News Releases


Ask Dan!

by Dan Power

Do DSS builders assume their targeted users are rational thinkers?

YES, generally.  This question is somewhat troubling for me. The attitude that
we, as DSS builders, have toward potential users of a DSS influences our design
choices, but we also need to be realistic about the cognitive biases and
limitations of our targeted users.

Are people capable of "rational" thought? What is rationality? The
Hyperdictionary defines rationality as "the quality of being consistent with or
based on logic." The definition also states rationality is “the state of having
good sense and sound judgment.” So rational thinkers base decisions on logic and
have good sense and sound judgment.  Wouldn’t we all like to think the targeted
users of a planned DSS have these qualities? YES.

Rationality has been used in philosophy to characterize a number of theories that
presume human kind is seeking truth, is exercising “higher order” reasoning
capabilities or that some people are knowledgeable and logical. According to
WordIQ, “A logical argument is sometimes described as rational if it is logically
valid. However, rationality is a much broader term than logic, as it includes
‘uncertain but sensible’ arguments based on probability, expectation, personal
experience and the like, whereas logic deals principally with provable facts and
demonstrably valid relations between them. … In economics, sociology, and
political science, a decision or situation is often called rational if it is in
some sense optimal, and individuals or organizations are often called rational if
they tend to act somehow optimally in pursuit of their goals.”

The term “bounded rationality” is used by Herbert Simon and others to described
rational choice behavior that takes into account the cognitive limitations of
both knowledge and cognitive capacity. 

So are we concerned about whether all people have this capability for rational
thinking or just whether our targeted users are capable of rational thought? Some
argue Nietzsche and Freud demonstrated that all people are incapable of rational
thought.  Nietzsche argues "In Twilight of the Idols" that human thought is not
really based on reason, but that humans can mistake their approaches and
incorrectly identify them as rational. 

According to Nietzsche, decision-making is rarely rational because it is often
influenced adversely by the error of confusing cause and effect; the error of
false causality; and the error of imaginary causes. 

Also, the research on decision biases should be taken into account when building
a DSS ... but knowing how to reduce human bias while using a DSS is still a
troubling challenge. For example, Tversky and Kahneman (1974) showed making
estimates can be influenced by the value used as a starting point. This has been
called the anchoring and adjustment phenomenon.  Also, behavioral research has
demonstrated that people display overconfidence in most situations. People think
they know more than they really do.

As a DSS builder my working assumption has always been that the serious users of
a DSS were interacting with the system to improve the quality of the decision
that was made.  The DSS users wanted to be rational in their analysis and
selection of a course of action. One can argue that the user of a data-driven DSS
may use the system to bolster a choice that was previously made with newly found
"facts".  Perhaps ... it seems plausible that using a data-driven DSS to support
rationalizing might alter the previously made decision as well.

One might ask what would we do differently if people weren't rational when we
built a DSS?  Would one want to cater to whims and biases to encourage use of the
system?  Or would one want to focus more on decision automation?

At best my conclusion is that many managers and responsible decision makers
attempt to be rational, wise and thoughtful in their decision-making.  DSS
builders should try to reinforce the intended rationality of the targeted user of
a specific DSS.  When one builds a model-driven DSS the assumptions of the
quantitative model should be explicit and understandable.  A DSS builder must
work to avoid introducing "irrationality" into the modeling process.  When
simplifications are made in the construction of a DSS, then the builder must make
sure the user can understand the trade-off that was made.

A few years ago I chaired a panel on the philosophical foundations of Decision
Support Systems at the AMCIS meeting in Boston. Both Jim Courtney and George
Widmeyer focused on C. Wes Churchman’s work and that of his mentor Singer. As a
Ph.D. student I was heavily influenced by Churchman's book "The Design of
Inquiring Systems", but I must admit it is a challenging book to read.  Churchman
presents a vision of a general inquiring system and various approaches to
constructing such a system.  My desire in building DSS has never been so
sweeping. My thinking about reason and rationality was also strongly influenced
by John Dewey's book titled "How we think". So pragmatism has strongly impacted
my approach to systems design.

As a technologist I don't often dwell in the depths of the philosophical
foundations of DSS.  The practice of building DSS is much guided by what works
and that is perhaps as it should be given the demands placed upon DSS builders by
the users of computerized DSS.

So to those who build DSS I suggest a bit of introspection.  What do you assume
about your intended users?  Are they sophisticated, rational managers?  Are your
users technology illiterates who are prone to make mistakes when they use a
computerized system?  Are you trying to "bullet proof" the application to avoid
stupid errors?  Are your intended users trying to make fact-based decisions?

We know the targeted users of a DSS will differ based upon the specific system
that is being built in a specific organization.  Some systems may have a goal of
increasing rationality in a specific situation.  Other systems may only enhance
the intended or desired rationality of the targeted decision makers.

Enough about rationality for this Ask Dan! The topic is perplexing from a design
standpoint. No computerized system can force a person to act in a rational way
when that is not the person's goal and no DSS can guarantee a rational solution
to a complex problem or guarantee that the correct facts about a situation will
be uncovered or that relevant knowledge will be applied to resolve problems. DSS
can help us struggle more effectively with the challenge of decision making and
planning in a rapidly changing, complex, uncertain, information rich situation
that we have had some experience with resolving.  People need to grapple with
novel, unique decision situations as best they can.  Perhaps a general purpose
decision structuring program will assist in such a situation, but success in such
a situation is lodged in the creative, adaptive mind of the human decision maker.

I build Decision Support Systems because I believe at least some people are
capable of "rational" thought ... IMHO a well-designed Decision Support System
can encourage "rational" thinking in a specific decision situation.

Greetings from Hong Kong

This Ask Dan! was written during a visit to Hong Kong, PRC that began October 1,
2004 and is scheduled to end on October 15, 2004.  My trip involves teaching MBA
students about Information Systems and especially Decision Support Systems.  It
is always a joy to see the progress that good students can make in a short period
of time in understanding how technology can be used to improve individual, group
and organizational decision-making.  



Churchman, C. W., The Design of Inquiring Systems, Basic Books, NY, 1971.

Hyperdictionary, at

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Twilight of the Idols, 1895, at

Tversky, A. and Kahneman, D. “Judgment under uncertainty:  Heuristics and
biases”.  Science, 185, 1974, 1124-1131.


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