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What Ever Happened to Conditioning? (5/1/11)
When I was an undergraduate in the late 50’s (so very, very long ago), I took an abnormal psychology course that was taught by a strict Behaviorist. It was, in effect, an attempt to account for various mental problems in terms of classical and operant conditioning. The course was an intense intellectual exercise but, ultimately, unsatisfying. On the other hand, it was a fairly unique experience because shortly thereafter the first cognitive revolution began and courses of its kind disappeared.
You don’t hear much these days about conditioning as the basic building block of behavior, but if you discount some of the archaic behaviorist ideology and language, the bare-bones of classical and operant models make a lot of sense (Endnote). They are important components of The Theory, in the form of cognitive contingent and non-contingent rules (Chapter 4 of The Book).
I’m sure others have done the same thing, but I first reformulated the two conditioning models as cognitive rules in an introductory text that was published in 1973 (which sold well in small Japanese Christian women’s colleges and nowhere else). The idea is that in classical conditioning, the subject learns to expect specific events to follow from other events; to the degree that the expectation is reliable, it is a rule that can be used to guide subsequent behavior. This is a non-contingent rule, also called a What-to-expect rule. Thus, in Pavlov’s experiments, the dogs learned to expect food when the experimenter rang a bell. In most discussions of Pavlov’s work, salivation is identified as the learned response. But this isn’t accurate. What the dogs learned was to expect food when the bell rang. Salivation is a dog’s natural reaction to anticipated food so it didn’t have to be learned. In fact, the only role salivation played was as a way for Pavlov to tell that the dog had come to expect food when it heard the bell.
It is interesting that Pavlov never used the Russian equivalent of the English word “conditioning.” He used the Russian word for “conditional,” meaning that salivation was conditional upon the bell being rung—a simple contingency with no mechanism implied. Moreover, the reliability with which salivation occurred when the bell was rung depended upon food being reliably presented—another simple contingency with no mechanism implied. It was the Behaviorists, who were looking for laws of behavior similar to the laws of physics, who changed “conditional, a contingency, into “conditioning,” a mechanism, and reliability of food presentation, another contingency, into “reinforcement,” another mechanism. Behaviorists pretty much agreed that some sort of linking of the stimulus (the bell) and the response (salivation) occurred as a result of reinforcement (the food), but exactly what was the linkage entailed was hotly debated. More important, they all agreed that this sequence of events constituted the law they needed to account for behavior acquisition. The Behaviorist movement was an attempt to construct a science of behavior using this law as the fundamental building block.
As it turned out, what the Behaviorists wanted to do was impossible. The stumbling block was purposive behavior, which couldn’t conveniently be accounted for using Pavlovian classical conditioning (although a good Behaviorist would never have use the word “purposive”). B. F. Skinner came to the rescue by proposing a second law of behavioral acquisition, operant conditioning. “Operant” meant that the subject, a rat or a dog or a person, acted (operated) upon some feature of the stimulus environment in order to produce something, a reinforcement. In Behaviorist terms, the food-deprived rat in the Skinner Box becomes conditioned to press the bar for food pellets. Which is to say, the stimuli provided by the box and the bar come to elicit the bar pressing response because it is reinforced by the appearance of food. In The Theory’s terms, this is a contingent rule, also called a What-to-do rule, and it also involves expectation. When it is in the Skinner Box, the rat learns to expect food when it presses the bar.
This second law of conditioning gave the Behaviorist interpretation of behavior greater flexibility and, in fact, allowed it to plausibly account for almost any simple behavior to which it was applied. Complex behavior was assumed to be the result of complex chains of classical and operant conditioned behavior. The Behaviorist accounts of mental problems that were supplied by the instructor in my long-ago abnormal psychology class consisted of conjectured chains of conditioned responses—where the emphasis is on conjectured.
The problem with the Behaviorist experiment could not have been apparent to those involved in it. They took as their model a reductionist view of the physical sciences, a model that, if it ever was accurate at all, certainly was inaccurate by the time they adopted it. Although the concept of emergent systems hadn’t been invented yet, they in effect approached behavior as a weak emergent system (see previous blog) the properties of which are directly traceable to its component’s properties, in this case classical and operant conditioning. As a result, they attempted to impose reductionist, weak emergence, research methods, models, and theories upon behavior, which is, in fact, a strong emergent system. And it didn’t work.
I’ve always thought that the work of Albert Bandura was the usher at Behaviorism’s funeral. He talked like a Behaviorist, but he used the language of conditioning so loosely, and in ways that would have been foreign to both Pavlov and Skinner, that he essentially gutted its meaning. The precise reasoning of the true believers gave way to nothing more than imprecise use of their terminology. And, while doing this, Bandura and others like him prepared the way for the first cognitive revolution—based upon the computer as a metaphor for mental processes—by releasing psychology from the stranglehold of Behaviorism.
Notwithstanding its excesses, the Behaviorist experiment was valuable. It taught us to think about mental processes without the baggage of mind and free will and all the other entanglements inherited from religion and mentalism. It taught us to think like scientists and how to do rigorous research, albeit of a very restricted, over-controlled nature. But we mustn’t overlook the other thing it taught us, the ubiquity of what was called conditioning and now must be called rule learning. Although they are not the fundamental building blocks of behavior, contingent and non-contingent rules, together with normative rules, are fundamental to forecasting and to planning, both of which are central to narrative thought and narrative-based action.
Aversive conditioning is central to some treatments for drug and alcohol addiction, and it works for lots of people. It works by making the bad effects, the hangover or “crash,” occur immediately upon ingestion of alcohol or insertion of the needle rather than hours or days later. This form of treatment is based on studies with rats, so all that research on conditioning wasn’t wasted. The same mechanism accounts for cancer patients becoming averse to particular foods that they ate shortly before becoming ill from treatment. Aversive conditioning appears to be very basic survival mechanism for all animals, including us. We come to dislike something we ingest just before becoming ill (although it can happen for things other than food too). It appears to be an evolved mechanism to teach us to avoid things that make us sick. Enter content here
The Narrative Urge (updated 8/28/11)
The Theory of Narrative Thought posits that narratives are the vehicle for structuring our experience so we can understand what has happened in the past, what is happening now, and what will happen in the future. Insofar as a narrative is “good,” we tend to believe that it is true. A “good” narrative is both coherent and plausible. Coherent means that events (effects) in the narrative are accounted for by other events (causes) and plausible means that the actions of both animate and inanimate actors in the narrative are consistent with the actions of those or similar actors in other narratives. In short, we assume causality and stability.
Because narratives are the primary, perhaps the only, way we have to understand our experience, it is not surprising that we are motivated to construct them when none exist and, having done so, we are motivated to improve them so they we can believe and rely upon them. The motivation to construct and improve narratives is called the narrative urge.
The narrative urge results from our need to understand and control our psychological and physical environment-- what’s going on in our bodies and minds and what’s going on in the world around us. The degree to which we elaborate and verify a narrative depends upon how important (values) it is to understand and control the sphere the narrative is about. If you don’t much care about politics, for example, your narrative about it will be less elaborate and you will make less effort to improve it than for narratives about something you care about.
Understanding the narrative urge is important because it casts light on so much of what humans do, both individually and culturally. Individually, each of us constructs chronicular narratives to account for our ongoing daily experience. We share these stories with friends and family (or, in these electronic times, with total strangers), editing in light of their criticisms and contributions. The tendency is to revisit and hone narratives in light of new insights and further information. This is particularly true for Big Issues such as how childhood experiences influence who we are now, the meaning of life, why bad things happen to good people, what constitutes the well-lived life, what makes people tick, why some people make good decisions and others don’t, and so on. The two Big Issues that seem to be addressed by everyone, or at least by every culture, as far back as records exist, are about the place of humans, and the individual, in the larger world and about the place of the larger world, and the individual, in the greater, cosmic, scheme of things. Over millennia some of the private narratives created to address these two Big Issues have become public narratives that have been extended and developed into the elaborate explanatory and procedural paradigms we call science and religion.
The paradigms advanced to address Big Issues are seldom unique. Indeed, because there are multiple narratives for each issue, it perhaps is best to think of categories and sub-categories of narratives about each issue. In the public sphere, the multiplicity of narratives in a category is contested in the marketplace of ideas. Any talk show on TV or radio is an example of such a marketplace, as are scientific journals, polemic books, and all the other methods of presenting competing narratives and arguments for their adoption.
From the individual’s perspective, most of the narratives we use early in our lives are acquired from our parents, community, and education. When experience leads us to question the adequacy of these pre-packaged narratives, if it ever does, we must select an alternative from the category or sub-category—or, construct a wholly new one of our own. Constructing a new narrative is hard work and a little frightening because it puts us out of step with those around us. People like John Calvin, Martin Luther, or Martin Luther King threatened more people than inspired, although their narratives prevailed in the long run. Most of us take an easier path, simply adopting a narrative recommended by a trusted source or, in much the same vein, adopting the narrative that fits most easily with our narratives in related areas. We like to think we’re clever and original, that our beliefs are based on hard evidence, but it isn’t so. Indeed, aside from their One Big Thing, Calvin, Luther and King adopted their other narratives just the way the rest of us do.
Science is the one place where evidence usually determines which of a number of competing narratives is accepted by scientists who work in that area. This competition is broadly recognized as an integral part of science and is considered a good thing because there are rules about what constitutes admissible evidence for resolving the competition, or at least for giving more credence to one answer than to another. This is in contrast to religion, which also offers multiple paradigms, but in which competition has never been regarded as a good thing. This is because the admissible evidence, faith and personal testimony, can be offered in equal measure by all religions, so there is no way to resolve the competition among competing religious narratives. Competition between science and religion is equally irresolvable because the evidence offered by one is not admissible for the other.
Of course, science and religion are only two Big Issue narratives—or, more correctly, two categories of narratives. The important point of all of this is that the two reigning narratives of our time, science and religion, both result from the narrative urge, as do nationalism, political ideologies, economic philosophies, and so on. For all that they differ, they have common roots in the human need to feel in control. The basis of control is understanding and our mechanism for understanding is narrative. Even when the evidence for their veridicality is absent, or suspect, we find our narratives preferable to the void they are designed to fill.
Two Narratives: The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street (11/17/11) The media have been quick to compare the Occupy Wall Street movement to the early days of the Tea Party. They are said to be similar because they each are rooted in that outrage about current political and economic conditions in America. They are said to be different because they attribute these conditions to different causes and they prescribe different remedies. These comparisons may be true, but they don’t contribute much to our understanding of the import of the two movements nor of their lasting impacts. The purpose of this essay is to look at the two movements and their implications in terms of their underlying narratives.
The Tea Party Movement
I can’t pretend that I agree with the Tea Party so my analysis of their narrative may be rather inaccurate. But the point is less my ability to accurately capture their narrative than the fact that they have one and what it implies for them as a movement.
In times of economic trouble, people in general feel unease and seek to understand what led to the current state of affairs, presuming that identification of causes will reveal remedies. The Tea Party narrative seems to me to be based on the axiom that “the government isn’t the solution, it is the problem.” The narrative flows from this is simple, although the implications are complex: Beginning with FDR and the Democrats during the Great Depression, government has expanded until it intrudes in nearly all aspects of our lives. The major reason for this growth is the imposition by Liberals of an ever increasing list of regulations and entitlements. These regulations and entitlements threaten liberty, stifle individual initiative, and discourage job creation by businesses. As government expands to handle the expanding list of regulations and entitlements, it requires expanding revenues, so it imposes more taxes—which further stiffle initiative and discourage job creation. When tax increases are resisted, it resorts to uninhibited borrowing, leading to a ballooning national debt that will be passed on to our children and our children’s children.
This basic narrative line has different variations for different Tea Partiers, the most common of which is a conflation of the political narrative and a fundamentalist Christian narrative. This leads to what outsiders consider as contradictions; for example, the condemnation of government interference in citizens’ private lives coupled with demands for abortion to be outlawed. But these are not contradictions to Tea Partiers because they define abortion as murder and murder allows—requires—the government to interfere. Similar reasoning supports opposition to government interference and opposition to gay marriage, sex education in the schools, and so on—God disapproves of homosexuality and pre-marital sex, so government interference is justified.
Because the Tea Party narrative is generally coherent and plausible, it is compelling. And, because it is primarily about opposition to big government, a remedy is both familiar and readily available—political activism and redress through the ballot box. And this is precisely the route the Tea Party took; their grass roots organizing, coupled with national malaise, led to a Republican majority in the House of Representatives at the midterm elections. Moreover, because of its demonstrated political clout, the Tea Party exerted considerable sway over incumbents who were not indebted to it for their seats, thus ensuring that the Republican agenda has largely followed the Tea Party’s line.
This is not to imply that the Tea Party has gone from public demonstrations of outrage to established political party. It has never been sufficiently unified to form a third party and it has no clearly defined leadership—although many claim to speak for it. Rather, its narrative is clear enough, and widely enough shared in Conservative circles, that a rigid party leadership structure isn’t necessary for it to exert its influence. The narrative identifies the problems (big government, taxes, over-regulation and too-generous entitlements as well as various issues that might be thought of as moral—abortion, the death penalty, gay marriage, etc.) and the now-captured legislative process is the vehicle for their solution. Moreover, prevention of future problems dictates that government be wrenched from the destructive influence of Liberals, primarily through defeat of President Obama and election of majorities in both the House and Senate.
The Occupy Wall Street movement also has a narrative, although it is more fragmented than the Tea Party’s. It is rooted in the same discontent that motivated the Tea Party, the bad economy. But, in contrast to the Tea Party, it attributes the causes of economic problems to Big Business rather than Big Government. It laments the diminishment of the middle class (and rather more incidentally, the poor) for which job loss, foreclosures, and shrinking incomes stand in stark contrast to the soaring economic power of the wealthy. It decries the excessive bonuses paid executives, whether they succeed or fail, particularly in firms that were bailed out using tax money.
In contrast to the Tea Party, the Occupiers’ narrative is neither coherent nor entirely plausible. There are too many different kinds of grievances, no specific villain, and no obvious remedy. Grievances range from student indebtedness to inequitable distribution of wealth to environmental issues, which doesn’t lend itself to a single narrative, largely because there isn’t a single cause or identifiable set of causes leading the diversity of lamented effects. In short, there isn’t a single overriding narrative—the outrage lying at the core of the movement is too diffusely directed to allow one to emerge or even be imposed.
And, in contrast to the Tea Party, the Occupiers’ narrative, even if it were a single narrative, has no obvious mechanism for bringing about desirable remedies. Because the Tea Party saw the government as the villain and government redress is provided for by elections, its course was obvious. Because the Occupiers see so many different villains, each of which may require a different mechanism for redress, it isn’t clear what course of action it should take. The role of government in righting these wrongs is implied but never clearly specified.
The debate of the moment is about what will follow from the Occupy Wall Street sit-ins in parks throughout the country. Detractors say that nothing will happen in the long run, that this thing will peter out as winter winds begin to blow. I think this probably is correct if the expectation is that the Wall Street movement will follow the same course as the Tea Party and become a focused political force. On the other hand, there is a good chance that the Wall Street movement already has had a significant impact because it has brought attention to what, without their outrage, would simply be dry facts—the greater monopoly of wealth by only a few people, extravagant bonuses, and all the rest. Indeed, if Democrats listen to the Occupiers and address their concerns using the legislative process, the movement will have succeeded. That is, the lack of narrative and the absence of a plan of action may make the Wall Street movement disappear, but if what they are saying, however unclearly, influences the Democratic Party’s narrative, then the movement will not have been futile.
Finally, I recently discovered the work of Gene Sharp, a political scientist who has spent over 40 years studying nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience. He often cited as the father of the Arab Spring uprisings, although it isn’t clear to me that his work instigated the uprisings so much as it helps us understand them and supplies warnings to revolutionaries about what not to do if they don’t want to fail. His premise is that political power derives from the governed; it is not intrinsic to those who are in power. In short, government relies entirely on the willingness of the governed to be governed. This is true even if the governed think they are unwilling, as long as they comply with the demands of their governors. (The governors often try to give themselves legitimacy through alliance with religion (the divine right of kings, for example), or an ideology, or tradition, but doing so requires that the governed affirm that the alliance is itself legitimate.) Once the governed stop complying, however, the governors’ power is weakened. A people who refuse to be governed cannot be governed. If violence is used by governors against nonviolent resistance or civil disobedience, the governors loses credibility in they eyes of their own citizens as well as in the eyes of other governments—particularly democracies. By the same token, if civil disobedience turns to violence, the government gains credibility if it uses violence to crush it. Hence, the message to transformative movements is to avoid violence and resist being governed. As I write this, local governments are dispatching police to force Occupiers out of the parks, prevoking violence as they do so. This is a harrowing time; if violence becomes widespread the movement will lose its credibility and the use of violence against it will appear justified. It undoubtedly will weaken or eliminate its influence on public discourse about the problems it is protesting and Democratic politicians will distance themselves from it and from the issues it seeks to have addressed by those politicians.
[Personal Note: If anyone actually reads this blog, I should explain the hiatus in postings to it. I have been focusing on other things for a while, the unraveling of my art career for one and the unraveling of my right hip for another. The art thing unraveled because I appear to have lost my mojo. The pace demanded by producing for a gallery resulted in paintings that began to look alike—not style alone, but content too. There wasn’t any fun in it and, after all, that was the point for me. So, I dropped out of the Flux Gallery, of which I was a founding member, and stopped painting. I recently tried again, but the result wasn’t encouraging. So, we’ll see what happens—maybe it is all over. The hip thing started with severe pain after a 7 hr. train trip from St. Petersburg to Helsinki about 3 years ago and has gradually got worse since then. After a very painful walking trip in England this past summer, I went to an orthopedic surgeon and was told that my right hip is worn out; it will be replaced on Jan. 24th. What with the absence of painting and recuperation after the surgery, I will have time to be more diligent about blogging, starting now:]
The Nature of Understanding (1/18/13)
The other day, I received an e-mail from a friend who designs science curricula for school children, with an emphasis on experiential learning. The goal, of course, is to help the students better understand and be more comfortable with science. Thinking about her work led me to consider what we mean when we say that someone understands something and how that relates to the Theory of Narrative Thought.
Recall that, absent some external standard, we tend to believe that coherent, plausible private narratives are valid—where coherent means that events can be accounted for by the actions of the narrative’s animate and inanimate actors and plausible means that the actions of those actors are consistent with their own or similar actors’ actions in our other narratives.
The foregoing suggests that when new information is received that increases a narrative’s coherence and/or plausibility, it is readily incorporated into the narrative, which is then perceived to be of increased validity. Incorporation of new information into a narrative links it to the other components of the narrative as well as to related content in episodic memory. This increase in narrative validity and the links within and without the narrative are what we mean when we say we understand the new information.
New information that does not increase the coherence/plausibility of an existing narrative, or that decreases them, usually is rejected as false, unless it comes from an unimpeachable source. False or not, it is a fact that the information was received. So, rather than being completely forgotten the circumstances surrounding the receipt of the information form a narrative (i.e., you remember you received it and what it was, even if you don’t believe it). This “receipt narrative” allows the questionable information to be held in a sort of limbo—not incorporated into the existing narrative but not forgotten. If subsequent information supports the “false” information, it and the “receipt narrative” are available for incorporation into the existing narrative, causing revision in the latter and an increase or decrease in its perceived validity and an increase or decrease in links within and without the narrative. For example, if A tells me that B is suffering from dementia but my recent experience with B does not make that plausible, I construct a “receipt narrative” about A’s message, which allows me to retain the questionable information without changing my existing narrative about B. If I find that A was wrong (or that A had reason to spread lies about B), I can keep the message in limbo—A did in fact tell me, I just don’t believe it and it has no effect on my narrative about B. But if I get corroborating information, I can revise my narrative, reinterpret B’s previous behavior in light of the new information, and readjust my predictions about how B will behave in the future.
Comprehension vs. Understanding
One purpose of education is to introduce wholly new narratives and to promote understanding of them. As any teacher can attest, this can be a difficult task; students may memorize the new narrative but they don’t necessarily understand it.
It is useful to differentiate between comprehension and understanding—although doing so requires us to use “comprehension” in a narrower sense than is usually done. For our purposes comprehension is more superficial than understanding. Recall your experience when learning algebra or some other aspect of mathematics. If you went to a school similar to mine, you were taught the mechanics, first by demonstration and then by using them to solve problems stated in mathematical form. Then, in the hope that your rote comprehension of the mechanics had somehow transmuted into understanding, you were asked to solve “word problems;” short verbal descriptions of some problem to which application of what you had learned would produce a solution . If memory serves, I usually could deal with problems presented in mathematical terms, the terms in which I had been instructed. But I frequently was flummoxed by word problems because, while I comprehended what I had been taught—I could spout it back and even could apply it in a familiar format—I did not understand it. Indeed, it wasn’t until graduate school that I began to understand mathematics, because I had to use it to solve problems for which I had narratives, problems that were meaningful and important to me. Even then my understanding was limited. I could use the step by step paradigms supplied by my instructors to do, say, an analysis of variance on a calculator (does anyone do that anymore?) but I still relied on rote application—which meant I couldn’t deal with any irregularities or do anything creative.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with comprehension, in many cases it is sufficient to get the job done and if you don’t anticipate future need, no deeper knowledge is required. I comprehend many things that I don’t truly understand: String Theory, The Big Bang, evolution of dinosaurs into birds, and how super glue works—for that matter, how my car’s engine works. I know about each of these at a superficial level that is sufficient for my needs. And I am quite aware that this knowledge is superficial, it feels different from knowledge about my health, my wife’s relationship with her sisters, my complaints about my representative in congress, and so on. The difference isn’t just because the former are abstract and the latter are personal and important. It is because I have more coherent and plausible narratives about the latter than I do about the former. I understand the latter and merely comprehend the former. This isn’t to say that I can’t have an understanding of abstracts—I understand the Theory of Narrative Thought at a very deep level, it is part of me and my narratives about the world. I have a reasonably deep understanding of some aspects of statistics and of various theories of decision making—all very abstract and largely mathematical—because I have used them so much in my career and they have been incorporated into many of my narratives. I will never ever have a deep understanding of String Theory.
My final point about the comprehension/understanding dichotomy is that it isn’t a dichotomy. It is a gradation. My grasp of some of things that I comprehend is more than mere rote but less than intuitive understanding, more than cold and less than warm. Thus, I’m not an economist, but I feel comfortable with economic ways of thinking and can adapt it to fit instances about which I have not been instructed. So too with electricity and medieval history; I know enough about these topics to be comfortable but not enough to debate with an economist, an electrician or a historian. In short, some of my less-than-fully-understood knowledge is sufficient to allow me to construct a reasonable narrative—a narrative that is sufficiently coherent and plausible for my own use but not for much else. As a result, I am wary about placing too much faith in the validity of such narratives and I am amenable to correction by those whom I perceive to have a deeper understanding than I have.
Techniques for Promoting Understanding
Although new narratives may, with familiarity and use, move from comprehension to understanding, the transition ordinarily takes time. A teacher must be more efficient. As a result, teachers, and the rest of us, rely heavily upon tried-and-tested techniques to speed up the process; examples, metaphors, similes, and analogies.
Examples are the most commonly used technique for building understanding of new information. Most often they are instances that illustrate the information in a context for which the student has existing narratives. The goal is to link the information to existing components of the existing narratives and, in most cases, to illustrate how the information enhances the validity of the existing narratives. Multiple examples frequently are more effective than single examples, both because they address a broader range of existing narratives and because, in doing so, they demonstrate the range of generality of the information.
Metaphor, simile, and analogy promote understanding by either exploiting parallels or creating new parallels between the structure and/or content of the information being presented and the structure and/or content of one or more of the recipient’s existing narratives. Metaphor uses a word or phrase to draw a parallel between the offered information and something that is already part of the recipient’s narrative by equating the former and the latter. A simile is a more explicit form of metaphor that compares two different things for which narratives exist in order to create a new meaning that is slightly different from either of them; simile utilizes words such as “like” and “as.” Analogy is a form of argument in which two things that are alike in some ways are implied to be alike in others as well. Analogy is used to compare something for which no narrative exists to something for which one does, thereby creating links between the former and the latter without claiming an identity between them.
These techniques are familiar. Parables, which draw on all of them, are standard fare in religious training and for promoting motivation in everything from athletics to business. So too, Freud and his colleagues used tales from mythology as metaphors for various psychological syndromes, the Oedipus Complex, for example. Indeed, Freudian theory was analogous with the operation of a steam engine, just as Behaviorism was analogous to a telephone switchboard, and economic decision theory is analogous to a gambler placing bets. Part of the reason that these three behavioral theories are no longer as compelling as they once were is that their analogies wore thin—steam engines are no longer the new technology, switchboards don’t even exist anymore, and the gambler analogy simply isn’t analogous to what decision makers actually do.
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