I was just reading an old article by Karl Weick, one of my intellectual heroes that you hear about here now and then. It is called "The Collapse of Sensemaking," Weick published in it in the Administrative Science Quarterly in 1993. I played a modest role in its publication because I was an associate editor there at the time and after hearing Karl present the paper in Michigan, I asked him to submit to ASQ. Karl certainly knew about ASQ, as he edited it for years, but his reaction was that this analysis of Norman McClean's lovely Young Men and Fire might just be too weird for this respectable (and I confess) rather stuffy publication (Note that both us were editors there, and it is a great journal, but well, that is how academic publications can be). But I begged a little and argued that the reviewers would love it, and I think that helped convince him to submit it. Luckily, it got rave reviews from distinguished peers and was soon published, and remains one of the most intriguing articles I've ever read. It is an interesting paper in that, every time I read it, I learn something new because there are so many twists and turns and Weick's mind works like no one else's I have ever read.
Here is a great part, which argues, essentially, that (near) randomness is sometimes the most rational decision process. On page 641, Weick talks about how a hallmark of wise people is that they are neither too cautious nor too confident -- both of which are dangerous because the overly cautious fear new information as it only deepens their uncertainty. And those who are too confident also are not curious, because of course, they already know all the answers and feel little need to learn more or to question their own ideas.
Then, over pages 641 and 642, Weick tells a lovely story, and provides an intriguing analysis, which I reproduce below:
A good example of wisdom in groups is the Naskapi Indians' use of caribou shoulder bones to locate game (Weick, 1979). They hold bones over a fire until they crack and then hunt in the directions to which the bones crack. The ritual is effective because the decision is not influenced by the outcomes of past hunts, which means that the stock of animals is not depleted. More important, the final decision is not influenced by the inevitable patterning in human choice, which enables hunted animals to become sensitized to humans and take evasive action. The wisdom inherent in this practice derives from its ambivalence toward the past. Any attempt to hunt for caribou is both a new experience and an old experience. It is new in the sense that time has elapsed, the composition of the hunter band has changed, the caribou have learned new things, and so forth. But the hunt is also old in that if you have seen one hunt you have seen them all: There are always hunters, weapons, stealth, decoys, tacks, odors, and winds. The practice of divination incorporates the attitude of wisdom because past experience is discounted when a new set of cracks forms a crude map for the hunt. But past experience is also given some weight, because a seasoned hunter "reads" the cracks and injects some of his own past experience into an interpretation of what the cracks mean. The reader is crucial. If the reader's hunches dominate, randomization is lost. If the cracks dominate, then the experience base is discarded.
The lesson, or at least one lesson (there are dozens in this paragraph), is that there is a delicate balance between acting as if everything brand new and everything is the same as it ever was, and wise people find constructive ways to strike that balance. And the implication is also that, in many decisions we make, we are so biased by our past experience and cognitive biases that introducing more randomness (and perhaps naivete and ignorance than usual) rather than less might do the trick. Along those lines, I have had numerous people tell me that the first iPhone was designed by people who had never done a phone before, so they didn't know what it was "supposed to" do. Is that so?
More generally, I would appreciate any comments on how Weick's perspective on wisdom does -- does not have -- implications for other decisions.