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)


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