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Recent Developments in Decision-Making Theories and Geographies of Science: Improvements in the Understanding of Relations Between Knowledge, Action, and Space

In proposing to use theories of heuristics[1] and nonrational tools, Gigerenzer and his collaborators have introduced a concept they call ecological rationality (Gigerenzer & Gaissmaier, 2011; 2015; Gigerenzer & Selten, 2001; Goldstein & Gigerenzer, 2002; Samuels & Stich, 2015; Todd, Gigerenzer, & ABC Research Group, 2012). Unlike rational choice theories, heuristic theories of decision-making are concerned with psychological realism relating to the capacities and limitations of actual humans and emphasize the importance of a specific context, frame, or environment and focus on the performance of actors in the external physical and social world (Buskens, 2015, p. 903; Gigerenzer & Gaissmaier, 2015, pp. 911-912; Hertwig & Herzog, 2009; Lindenberg, 2013; Todd & Gigerenzer, 2000).

In a world where not all risks are known and where optimization is not feasible, ‘nonrational’ tools such as heuristics are needed...[N]onrational theories apply to ‘decisionmaking under uncertainty,’ where not all alternatives, consequences, and probabilities are known or knowable.. .Rational theories, in contrast, are tailored to situations where all risks are known. (Gigerenzer & Gaissmaier, 2015, p. 911)

The study of the ecological rationality of heuristics,[2] or strategies in general, is a framework to study performance in the external world: A heuristic is ecologically rational to the degree that it is adapted to the structure of the environment. Heuristics are ‘domain-specific’ rather than ‘domain-general’; that is, they work in a class of environments in which they are ecologically rational. Heuristics provide not a universal rational calculus but a set of domain-specific mechanisms., and have been referred to collectively as the ‘adaptive toolbox’. (Gigerenzer & Gaissmaier, 2015, p. 912)

The heuristic approach to decision-making and the concept of ecological rationality are very similar to concepts used by geographies of knowledge and science (Livingstone, 1995, 2000, 2002, 2003; Meusburger, 1998, 2015a, 2015b, 2015c). They not only respect the view that human cognitive abilities are unequal because of different experience and learning processes, but—like the geography of knowledge—also take the environment’s information structure and knowledge milieu into account. They accept that both the formulation of goals and the processes of information-processing, learning, research, and decision-making can be somewhat shaped by their social environment (Flache & Dijkstra, 2015, pp. 908, 911; Meusburger, 2015a).

Depending on the prior knowledge and experience of actors, a physical and social environment can play the role of an external storage space of information that may trigger associations and send cues to the informed agent. People, pictures, traces, patterns, institutions, and written sources can help overcome the limitations of human memories and cognitive capacities, including the time and effort needed to acquire specific forms of knowledge and expertise (Baron, 2008, p. 15). Structures and dynamics of environments also affect how people seek out information (Navarro, Newell, & Schulze, 2016, p. 45) and which kind of bias they must cope with in their search (Fiedler & Wanke, 2009).

Two categories—recognition-based heuristics[3] and one-clever-cue heuris- tics[4]—closely resemble a concept used in the geography of knowledge, prior knowledge. The term Vorwissen (translated in this chapter as prior knowledge) draws on the hermeneutic circle and Gadamer’s (1960/1999) term Vorverstandnis (prior understanding, pp. 250, 275).[5]

Prior knowledge accrues through learning and experience, includes intuition and latent subconscious experience, and is domain specific. Optimal search for possibilities, evidence, new goals, and “actively open-minded thinking” (Baron 2008, p. 63, italics in the original) need a superior level of prior knowledge. Prior knowledge determines whether and how available information is perceived, analyzed, and evaluated by an actor and whether it enters and broadens that person’s body of knowledge.[6] Prior knowledge helps one select the most meaningful cues and has an impact on how patterns and cues are interpreted. Bushmen (San) in the

Kalahari are able to sleuth animals like nobody else. Experienced doctors can diagnose a disease by interpreting a few signs (students of medicine may not have this ability yet). Geographers who are specialists in a certain field of knowledge may draw path-breaking conclusions from a thematic map, whereas other persons will glean no information at all from the same map. Local people living in the Alps may have acquired enough knowledge from previous generations or from personal experience to recognize from scant, subtle indications which places may be endangered by avalanches; most tourists will not be able to evaluate these risks. Many culturally transmitted bodies of knowledge are learned through observation of[7] important environmental cues. In fact, observing and interpreting cues and spatial configurations is a long-standing heuristic device of geography.

Humans are susceptible to social influence and to the type of information that is available in their environment. Geographies of knowledge and science have illustrated how learning processes, research, and scientific careers can be influenced by the local availability of role models, resources, specific thought styles,[8] face-to- face contacts to prominent scholars, institutional logics, and organizational rules. The interrelationships of these factors and others constitute the knowledge environment of a place (for details see Meusburger, 2008, 2015a; Meusburger & Schuch, 2012). An extreme example of the impact that different informational environments have on decision-making and acting is given by Gregory (2015, pp. 113-114). Describing World War I battlefields at the western front and the differences between a paper war and a trench war,[9] he illustrates the insurmountable gulf between the experienced knowledge of the infantry in the muddy trenches of the battlefield and the abstract knowledge of the staff officers surrounding the map table in a comfortable room and planning the movements of their soldiers for the next days.

Scientific evidence from cognitive psychology (see the Chap. 6 by Funke in this volume), sociology (Stehr, 1994, 2005), social geography (Meusburger, 2015a, 2015c; Werlen, 1993b, pp. 8-11), and other research fields shows that there is no direct if-then relation between knowledge and action. There are a number of intervening variables—many of them related to the environment or place of action— that may modify, weaken, or strengthen the relations between knowledge and action. The concurrence and coaction of these variables at a certain place or in a specific area build a spatial context, social environment, or knowledge milieu that may affect decision-making and action. As pointed out by Fiedler and Wanke (2009, p. 699), properties of the environment can constrain or enhance the input to cognitive processes. These two researchers illustrate that error and bias may often originate in the information environment, in selective accessibility to information; that observations can be influenced by environmental sampling; and that agents—in their capacity as available sources of information—may lack first-hand experience, overdo some risks, and neglect others. In brief, “cognitive processes are fed with an environmental input that is itself often biased and highly selective” (p. 700).

Talent, motivation, and wealth of ideas are not the only characteristics determining how successfully a scholar’s research and academic career develops (Meusburger, 2015a). What we academics call creative is never the result of individual action alone. Learning processes and actions are situated in environments, organizational structures, and spatial relations. We cannot study scientific creativity by isolating scholars and their works from the social and historical milieu in which their actions are carried out. The key issue is the interaction with the environment. It is well known from creativity studies that a stimulating environment and a talented individual must come together and interact before a creative process can occur (for details see Amabile et al., 1990, 1996; Csikszentmihalyi, 1988, 1999; Hennessey & Amabile, 1988; Meusburger, 2009; Sternberg & Lubart, 1999).

An environment’s impacts on action must not be regarded deterministically. An environment should not be thought of as an independent variable that directly influences all relevant actors through a direct cause-and-effect relation (if A, then B). It depends on processes of evaluation based on learning, knowledge, and experience whether spatial structures, physical space, or social environments have an impact on human action.

A knowledge environment is a locally available potential or a local range of resources. It stands for incentives, challenges, stimulations, opportunities, and support networks that can be used, overlooked, or ignored. A knowledge environment can operate as it should only if the actors involved use the local resources and interact with each other. The outcomes of human interactions and experiences in life are always indeterminate. No one can predict the results of appropriation and interaction, whether and how often the local potential for integrating diverse viewpoints and knowledge bases will be activated, and how the relationships between creative agents will develop. Therefore, a knowledge environment’s significance and effect can be analyzed only after events have taken place, after the scientific careers and research results associated with that environment have become evident. (Meusburger, 2015a, pp. 266-267)

  • [1] ‘ ‘A heuristic is not per se rational or irrational; rather, its rationality depends on the matchbetween the architecture of the tool and the structure of the environment in which it is employed”(Hertwig & Herzog, 2009, p. 668). “An inferential or judgmental strategy is ecologically rationalif it is accurate and efficient on the sorts of tasks that were important in the environments in whichwe evolved” (Samuels & Stich, 2015, p. 722).
  • [2] “A heuristic is a strategy that ignores part of the information, with the goal of making decisionsmore accurately, quickly, and frugally (i.e., with fewer pieces of information) compared to morecomplex methods” (Gigerenzer & Gaissmaier, 2015, p. 913). “A heuristic is ecologically rationalto the degree that it is adapted to the structure of the environment. Heuristics are ‘domain-specific’rather than ‘domain-general’; that is, they work in a class of environments in which they are ecologically rational. Heuristics provide not a universal rational calculus but a set of domain-specificmechanisms” (Gigerenzer & Gaissmaier, 2015, p. 912).
  • [3] The goal of recognition-based heuristics is to “make inferences about a criterion that is notdirectly accessible to the decision-maker, based on recognition retrieved from memory”(Gigerenzer & Gaissmaier, 2015, p. 914).
  • [4] One-clever-cue heuristics looks for only one ‘clever’ cue and bases its decision on that cue alone(Gigerenzer & Gaissmaier, 2015, p. 914).
  • [5] Prior knowledge and prior understanding are synonymous in the hermeneutic method. Themethod entails a paradox in the sense that what is to be understood somehow has to have beenunderstood beforehand. Gadamer also calls it positive prejudgment (hence the terms Vorwissenand Vorverstandnis). To have prior knowledge or prior understanding of something, one has tohave already understood individual parts or aspects of it. This requisite is also called the hermeneutic circle. Philosophers preceding Gadamer also thought about this circle.
  • [6] The concept of prior knowledge plays an important role in the communication of various categories of knowledge (for details see Meusburger, 2017).
  • [7] Learning by observing “includes all cases in which we learn about our environment from observation alone, without intentional experimentation” (Baron, 2008, p. 14).
  • [8] “The greater the difference between two thought styles, the more inhibited will be the communication of ideas” (Fleck, 1935/1979, p. 109).
  • [9] “Trench war is an environment that can never be known abstractly or from the outside. Onlookerscould never understand a reality that must be crawled through and lived in. This life, in turn, equipsthe inhabitant with a knowledge that is difficult to generalize or explain” (Leed, 1981, p. 79).
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