Outside The Matrix: Paul Picciano

pmp.headshotIn our first 2014 Outside The Matrix interview  we meet Paul Picciano who is a Senior Human-Systems Engineer at Aptima, Inc., a leading human-centered engineering firm based near Boston, MA. At Aptima, he applies a diverse set of cognitive engineering methods to improve human performance in the military, intelligence community, air traffic management, and health care. His approach to supporting humans operating in complex environments leverages system design and training to enhance decision processes. Dr. Picciano earned a Ph.D. in Cognitive and Neural Science from the University of Utah, a M.S. in Human Factors and Ergonomics from San Jose State University, and a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Tufts University.

Dr. Picciano was also one of the speakers at the InDecision dinner for young researchers organised at the recent Society for Judgment and Decision Making conference in Toronto. 

Tell me about your work: how does decision making psychology fit in it? Most of the work we do involves human operators that must collect data from the environment, analyze and make sense of the input, and select and execute a course of action. The conditions under which they work typically involve uncertainty and time pressure, modulated by goals, objectives, and priorities that change over time.

My favorite part of the job is getting out there and observing and interacting with the experts (and sometimes novices), performing their craft. This has garnered provided access to operating rooms, air traffic control towers, Navy ships, and various command centers for organizations ranging from the Air Force to the CDC. When it’s time to run a more controlled study, there is great access to high fidelity simulators at some of the top government and academic labs.

At Aptima, psychology plays a large part in much of our work.  We provide services such as training, organizational analysis, and system design, by employing practitioners from industrial/organizational, cognitive, and neural disciplines across our portfolio. Most of my work is rooted in cognitive science, looking at perception, attention, and decision making as a mechanism for behavior and resultant task performance. It’s critical to understand how people process information. Empirical findings continue to demonstrate the magnitude of the influence of environments and decision architectures on the human operator in all domains.  Many operators confront stressful situations, data overload, and conflicting objectives, so having a grasp of these psychological aspects help us design more accommodative systems and better training programs to prepare them. But of course, we don’t always get it exactly right…

Why you decide to go into industry instead of continuing in academia? I was in industry before I went to graduate school – I worked for five years after college, and thought I would just go back for an MS and return to the workforce. Plans changed when I realized how much I enjoyed being back in school and doing applied research (at NASA Ames). I found Aptima during this time and was tempted to leave, but  I decided to continue school.
One might ask why I didn’t change my target over the next few years. First, I was committed to completing the PhD program. Second, I continued to be enamored with the academic environment. It is a great opportunity to interact with bright colleagues and an energetic student population with the benefits of a flexible schedule. I was even able to coach lacrosse in grad school and that may have been an option if I had chosen to work on campus long term.
However, I really enjoy the diversity a consulting role provides, interacting with customers in a wide range of domains and problems. I believed industry would provide me more of those experiences and greater opportunity to travel to see different types of operations. I was also very fortunate to find advisors that supported my path away from academia.

How did you first become interested in decision making psychology? Psychologists run such clever experiments. That’s probably what hooked me. The experimental designs and results from people like Milgram, Festinger, Tversky & Kahneman, Loftus, and Ariely are not just fascinating, they’re also actionable. Designers of systems, policies, and organizational structures can leverage these finding to make things better.

I view so much of behavior as a result of decision making – whether it be implicit or explicit, automatic or deliberate, intuition or reason mechanisms as the driving force. Even at the perceptual and instantaneous level, these reactions I still see as decision making. In the heart of the NFL playoffs now, the analysts always talk about quarterback decision making. These are trained, perceptually-driven, goal-directed actions that are dictated by the environment, expectations and training. Similarly, coaches are making decisions on fourth down and general managers are making draft decisions. For all of these decision types, there is a great deal in the scientific literature that could improve these decision processes (if any NFL owners are reading this I can make myself available for a consulting gig!)

What type of research do you find most interesting, useful or exciting? In my opinion, the most valid research emerges when we have the opportunity to marshal a diversity of research techniques that includes observations in naturalistic settings, high fidelity simulations, and tightly controlled and focused research settings. Converging evidence from these perspectives offers the best opportunity to build a strong case for your findings. However, rarely can we pull all of that off in a single project. There usually are not enough resources to cover the problem space to this degree (the government labs seem to more often have the time and funding for such investigations). It’s pretty impressive how realistic well-crafted simulations can feel to participants. We have been able to make senior physicians and air traffic controllers break into a sweat even though no human lives were ever at risk.

One of my most exhilarating days of “research” involved observing the training procedures for landing U2 aircraft. The U2 has a long nose making it difficult for pilots to see the ground. The training method involves other pilots on the ground guiding the aircraft down by calling out the number of feet the jet is above the ground just prior to touching down (“15ft…10ft…8ft…etc.). These callouts come from fellow pilots in zippy little sports cars waiting for the U2 to pass overhead and then chase it down the runway at over 100mph. I was fortunate enough to ride shotgun in one of two chase cars that followed down the runway, in formation, close enough to make accurate distance calls between the landing gear and the runway.

Do you see any challenges to the wider adoption of decision making psychology in your field? There are always challenges; one constantly in need of solutions is that of establishing useful, collectible measures. Part of this requirement stems from the responsibility of presenting a strong return on investment (ROI) argument. In research and development, technology often grabs attention and funding.  It is compelling when a company makes a battery that is small and has longer life – that’s justified spending. It’s more difficult to convince a sponsor that you have improved the decision making process for a group of analysts. The bright side is the military is responsive to decision making research. There are specific programs (and funding) in place for efforts such as training small unit leaders and building decision support elements for tasks including weapons deployment, intelligence analysis, and air traffic management.

How do you see the relationship between academic researchers and practitioners? I think the classic model is that academia is doing the ”basic science” and practitioners are applying that science, to real world problems. I believe it is much more that. We have great partnerships with universities on many active projects, and they are involved in the full range of project activities. They are more than just a place to run first year psych students through a basic experiment.  They are great thought partners and often the first to have produced or read about a new study. Many academics have security clearances, and many are consulting on the side. This makes it easy to engage them on a few levels beyond traditional roles. I also believe that practitioners can help develop new problems of interest for academics to investigate. We really enjoy our interactions with academia.

What advice would you give to young researchers who might be interested in a career in your field? Don’t be afraid to shape your own future. Figure out what you really like to do. Find companies and people that are doing that type of work and engage them. Don’t be frustrated by the fact that your keyword search returns 0 matching job titles. This is a growing field, and most people don’t know much about it. Tell them about it. Show them how you can be useful. If you can help them understand or even predict (with some accuracy) the decisions that will be made by their clients, staff, or management, you can be useful to them. Show that you can help them design choice architectures in their favor, impacting their bottom line, or contribute to community improvements-it will be hard to ignore you.

In my job search, I looked for companies, not job titles or employment ads. Go to conferences and interact with as many people. They won’t all help you, but many are willing. Build your network. There is so much going on out there, so many roles that we don’t even know about. Get yourself out there so you can stumble upon it.

Paul’s profile on Aptima website (incl. publications)

In The Wild: Tom Wein

35b5aeaIn our first In The Wild interview of 2014, we speak to Tom Wein who is a behavioural change consultant who has led major primary research projects to tackle counter-radicalization, aid security sector reform, plan public diplomacy efforts and design communication strategies. He currently works on behavioural change for national security, principally for the consultancy SCL. He read War Studies at King’s College, London, and has also worked for the European Defence Agency in Brussels as a communications consultant.

Tell me about your work: how does decision making psychology fit in it? We conduct research projects for the US and UK militaries in fragile and conflict-affected states, and design interventions to reduce violence. The one thing we’re always trying to explain is that just asking people about their attitudes isn’t enough – you need to examine their psychology in order to change behaviour. So we measure concepts which psychologists will be familiar with, like self-efficacy, motivations and reward structures, to build up a much deeper picture of a group; that way we can come up with much more effective ways of to solve the problem.

Of course, nobody will pay us to do research in Switzerland – our projects are invariably in places where high quality research is difficult. We can partly solve those problems through good recruitment and training, and through building in redundancy, but crucial to the way we research is a process of triangulation. Some problems are inevitable, given the challenges, but two research strands are unlikely to go wrong in identical ways, so we focus on those findings that are confirmed by several sources. We generally use a mixture of semi-structured depth interviews and surveys (containing scales), plus a few focus groups and more free-form interviews with experts at either end of the process, to inform that process.

How did you first become interested in decision making psychology? Like a lot of people studying conflict, I was frustrated with the crudeness of the military’s tools in fighting the deeply complex wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – wars that were defined by our ability to win over the very people we kept accidentally killing. At the same time, I was shocked (I still am!) at how much money was being spent on projects and policies with only the flimsiest evidence base. Those two ideas were crystallized when I came to work for SCL, and found that there was a better, more intelligent way of doing things.

What type of research do you find most interesting, useful or exciting? I am always, always looking for field trials. Hypotheses are great, and laboratories are wonderful places, but I want you to prove that your thing could work in the messiness of the real world (and that doesn’t mean testing on American college students!). No doubt lots of the readers will be familiar with the work of Chris Blattman, whose work in Liberia and Uganda is magnificent stuff. The younger members of the development industry really do ‘get’ evidence and research, even if they’re still sometimes fighting their elders. When I argue that you’ve got to look at groups, rather than humans in general, constantly in the background is the work of Stathis Kalyvas, who has written powerfully about the impact of very local conditions on the conduct of wars.

Other than that, I am always more excited by elegantly written work, and by work that is open access. Those factors are much more important than the field a paper comes from. I’m also suspicious of the validity of findings in different contexts, so I’m often looking for research conducted in the country I’m studying at the time.

Do you see any challenges to the wider adoption of decision making psychology in your field? There’s an awful lot of persuading still to do. In the UK, the Behavioural Insights Team has been invaluable in persuading people that they ought to do research before taking a decision, but in the US there’s a complete focus on very simplistic attitude surveys, if they do research at all. Part of the problem is that comprehensive research projects in warzones are really expensive – it’s a lot cheaper to just do a quick poll.

How do you see the relationship between academic researchers and practitioners? We’ve been quite lucky in that respect – there is a reasonable-sized cohort of academic researchers who have been doing some exciting research in this field, and they’ve been generous with their time, especially when we’re trying to learn about and plan research in a new country. As I hinted above, I can get quite frustrated with the academic system, but that hasn’t prevented us from working well with individual academics.

What advice would you give to young researchers who might be interested in a career in your field? The first thing is to learn some quantitative skills. There are lots of people who can write essays out there; you’re far more likely to get an interesting job if you can also analyze data. The second, rather depressing, thing to say is that there are fewer and fewer full time jobs where you’ll get trained up – you may well have to fight for a series of short term projects before you get hired properly. Therefore, make contacts, network, and use your time at university effectively (including begging professors for introductions) – you’ll never have so much time again. Finally, if you’re in London, go to the monthly behavioural economics networking drinks!


Happy New Year from InDecision!

It’s been little over a year since we started this blog, with the hope of attracting a couple of hundred readers. Instead, we’ve had over 70,000 hits with over 35,000 visitors from 155 countries. The top 10 countries for visitors included:

  1. visitors globallyUnited States
  2. United Kingdom
  3. Canada
  4. Germany
  5. The Netherlands
  6. Australia
  7. India
  8. Singapore
  9. Sweden
  10. Switzerland

So much, so predictable! But who does JDM research in Honduras, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Vanuatu, Sudan, Rwanda, Ghana, Nicaragua, Bermuda, Bhutan, Barbados or Bolivia? If that’s you, get in touch – we’d love to speak to you and hear about JDM research in your country. This year, we’ll address one of the issues highlighted by professor Dan Ariely in his interview and start to look at what impact culture might have on decision making science through a series of interviews focusing on the challenges (and opportunities!) cross-cultural psychology might pose for JDM.

In case you missed them the first time, the top 10 posts from the year are:

  1. Research Heroes: Richard Thaler
  2. In The Wild: Rory Sutherland
  3. Outside The Matrix: Paul Litvak
  4. The Seven Sins of Consumer Psychology
  5. Research Heroes: George Loewenstein
  6. Viewpoint: The role of revealed research preferences
  7. Outside The Matrix: Jolie Martin
  8. In The Wild: Kelly Peters
  9. Research Heroes: Colin Camerer
  10. Research Heroes: Gerd Gigerenzer 

We’ve been incredibly lucky in being able to interview some amazing people in our field, and we can’t thank them enough for giving their time to answer our questions. On behalf of all the people who have thanked us for running the blog, please know that your contribution is widely appreciated and makes a big difference to young researchers around the world.

The original aim of the blog was to give young researchers a voice. We’ve taken some steps in that direction by growing the team with sub-editors Caroline Roux, Shereen Chaudry and Leigh Caldwell as well as our dedicated contributor Troy Campbell. In 2014, we’ll start to feature young researchers more regularly through a new interview series. We’ll also widen our net for career advice to include researchers who have are making waves early on in their career and shaping the field as they go.

Lulu+-+Something+To+Shout+About+-+CD+ALBUM-427621We’d also welcome submissions from readers: if you’re a young researcher and have just published an awesome paper you want to tell the world about, get in touch. Since subtle hints and words of encouragement have so far fallen on deaf ears, let us put this bluntly: blatant self-promotion is OK, and strongly encouragedOne of the main goals of this blog is to give young scholars a platform to share and discuss their work, but we cannot achieve this goal without your contribution!

Finally, one of the emerging trends in our field is the rising popularity of field studies and applying the science both in the policy and commercial worlds with many of our Research Heroes highlighting the need to connect our work with the outside world. However, such work is extremely challenging and we have much to learn from the pioneers, so in 2014 we’ll also be speaking to those who have made early inroads into taking decision making science out of the lab and into the Real World.

As always, we welcome your feedback and contribution – please don’t hesitate to get in touch and let us know what you think!

We hope that you’ll enjoy the next year with us.

Elina & Neda