Not My Last Lecture

As of May 1st I have retired from Wright State University. I accepted an early retirement incentive that was offered due to severe economic conditions at the university. I am not at all ready to retire, but I am eager for a change from WSU.  I hope I still have things to offer and I know there is still much for me to learn.

It was great to see many of my former students at a research celebration that the Department of Psychology hosted in my honor on May 7th. It is amazing to see the work that these former students are doing.  Clearly, I didn’t do too much damage!

I am looking forward to the next adventure!  Just waiting for the right door to open.


Toward an Ecological Theory of Rationality: Debunking the hot hand “illusion”

Taleri Hammack, Jehengar Cooper, John M. Flach & Joseph Houpt


This paper explores the ‘hot hand illusion’ from the perspective of ecological rationality. Monte Carlo simulations were used to test the sensitivity of typical tests for randomness to plausible constraints (e.g., Wald=Wolfowitz) on sequences of binary events (e.g., basketball shots). Most of the constraints were detected when sample sizes were large. However, when the range of improvement was limited to reflect natural performance bounds, these tests did not detect a success dependent learning process. In addition, a series of experiments assessed people’s ability to discriminate between random and constrained sequences of binary events. The result showed that in all cases human performance was better than chance, even for the constraints that were missed by the standard tests. The case is made that, as with perception, it is important to ground research on human cognition in the demands of adaptively responding to ecological constraints. In this context, it is suggested that a ‘bias’ or ‘default’ that assumes that nature is ‘structured’ or ‘constrained’ is a very rational approach for an adaptive system whose survival depends on assembling smart mechanisms to solve complex problems.

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Decisionmaking in Practice: The Dynamics of Muddling Through


An alternative to conventional models that treat decisions as open-loop independent choices is presented. The alterative model is based on observations of work situations such as healthcare, where decisionmaking is more typically a closed-loop, dynamic, problem-solving process. The article suggests five important distinctions between the processes assumed by conventional models and the reality of decisionmaking in practice. It is suggested that the logic of abduction in the form of an adaptive, muddling through process is more consistent with the realities of practice in domains such as healthcare. The practical implication is that the design goal should not be to improve consistency with normative models of rationality, but to tune the representations guiding the muddling process to increase functional perspicacity.

This paper has been accepted for publication in Applied Ergonomics: Access Article


FIGURE: The muddling dynamic is modeled as two coupled loops. The inner loop reflects the active control, driven by the current assumptions about the problem. The outer loop is monitoring performance on the inner loop for ‘surprises’ that might indicate that the current assumptions do not fit the situation.


Robert Pirsig dies at 88.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Robert Pirsig wrestled with the contradictions and alienation that has resulted from the separations between mind and matter – subjective and objective, rationality and emotion, values and morality, classical and romantic attitudes, form and function, science and art – that are embedded in Western culture. The Metaphysics of Quality was his solution for reuniting the dichotomies underlying Western thought into a unified ontology of human experience.

In Lila he describes the delicate balance between static and dynamic quality that is necessary to achieve stability in life (if not satisfaction). Static quality being the ratchet (essential friction1) that protects us from collapsing into instability, and dynamic quality being the impetus to innovate in order to adapt to change and to discover more satisfying solutions for living.

Robert Pirsig’s books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila, were an important source of inspiration for our recent book What Matters. In this book we explore the implications of Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality for applied cognitive science and design. The major theme that ‘experience’ is ontologically basic, and that the components of ‘mind’ and ‘matter’ or ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ are derivative aligns well with William James’ philosophy of Radical Empiricism and C.S. Peirce’s triadic model of Semiotics.

Farewell Robert! You taught us the meaning of areté through example. Thank you for allowing us to share part of the journey toward quality through your books.

  1. Åkerman, Nordal (ed.) (1998). The necessity of friction. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Links to more information about Robert Pirsig:


Putting Humans Into Control: The Dynamics of Experience

For those who might be interested.

Link to video for the webinar presented to HFES can be found here: Putting Humans Into Control 

Link to Slides:   Webinar Slides




MIT Disobedience Award

What a great idea!  I wonder if persistence in pursuing an ecological approach to exploring human cognition and Cognitive Systems Engineering would qualify as disobedience.  The fact that this persistence led to the denial of tenure at Illinois [banishment to the Pointless Forest] and the fact that we had to self-publish our most recent book [What Matters? ] might be seen as the consequences of disobedience. We don’t fit the standard mold. We haven’t conformed to the conventional wisdom.

Over the last 30 years we have challenged conventional assumptions about cognition, causality, human factors, and design.  We have crossed disciplinary boundaries and pursued a multi-disciplinary approach in a world dominated by stovepipes! We have endured rejections from publishers and funding agencies. We have defied publishing conventions by illustrating What Matters with cartoons and making the book available as a free pdf (close to 3000 downloads in less than a year).

After 30 years swimming against the stream, we continue to move forward, despite significant friction and inertia we remain eccentric. We take the less travelled path. We persist!

MIT Media Lab’s Disobedience Award


Putting Humans into Control: The Dynamics of Experience

I will be presenting a webinar sponsored by the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society at 12:00 EDT on Wednesday March 29, 2017.

I hope to make three major points about cognitive systems:

  1. Dynamics of the whole (e.g., pragmatics, stability constraints) determine the properties of the parts, NOT the other way around.
  2. Perspicacity almost always trumps logic when it comes to expertise!
  3. This requires a shift from a user-centered design orientation to a use-centered orientation. It is not sufficient to match existing mental models, rather representations should shape mental models to better conform with the pragmatic realities of work.

Here is a link to the registration page for the webinar:


William James’ “stream” metaphor

Recent discussions with colleagues about the ‘flow of experience’ and the implications for research have caused me to reconsider Williams James’ (1909, p. 165 – 166) words about the “stream of consciousness:”

It is, the reader will see, the reinstatement of the vague and inarticulate to its proper place in our mental life which I am so anxious to press on the attention. Mr. Galton and Prof. Huxley have, as we shall see in the chapter on Imagination, made one step in advance in exploding the ridiculous theory of Hume and Berkeley that we can have no images but of perfectly definite things. Another is made if we overthrow the equally ridiculous notion that, whilst simple objective qualities are revealed to our knowledge in ‘states of consciousness,’ relations are not. But these reforms are not half sweeping and radical enough. What must be admitted is that the definite images of traditional psychology form but the very smallest part of our minds as they actually live. The traditional psychology talks like one who should say the river consists of nothing but pailful, spoonful, quartpotsful, barrelsful, and other moulded forms of water. Even were the pails and the pots all actually standing in the stream, still between them the free water would continue to flow. It is just this free water of consciousness that psychologists resolutely overlook. Every definite image in the mind is steeped and dyed in the free water that flows round it. With it goes the sense of its relations, near and remote, the dying echo of whence it came to us, the dawning sense of wither it is to lead. The significance, the value, of the images is all in this halo or penumbra that surrounds and escorts it, – or rather that is fused into one with it and has become bone of its bone and flesh of its flesh; leaving it, it is true, an image of the same thing it was before, but making it an image of that thing newly taken and freshly understood. [Emphasis added].

For me the dynamic coupling of perception and action is the source of the stream that James is describing.  Although there are significant exceptions (e.g., Gibson), Psychology as a field has tended to ignore the dynamics of human experience and continues to study isolated buckets of water from the stream in hopes that one day the buckets will add up to an understanding of the stream.  In pursuit of ‘experimental control’ over the phenomena, I fear that experimental psychology first squeezes all the interesting dynamics out of the phenomena that they hope to understand.


Review of “What Matters” to Appear in Frontiers in Psychology

Gavan Lintern is the first to write a review of our book What Matters? for publication. Gavan’s review will be published in Frontiers in Psychology. Here is a link to the review:


Reproducibility Crisis in Psychology

Here is an interesting post with regard to the reproducibility crisis in psychology. I agree with the author’s [Doug Marman] point that in response to the crisis there is a danger that psychology may actually “objectify” human experience out of psychology experiments. See an earlier post on this site about “Cargo Cult Science”

Lenses of Perception February 22, 2017