We have been avidly and obsessively researching a unique and potentially groundbreaking strategy model for many years which has repeatedly passed the tests of many contextual real-life situations and multiple consulting assignments. Today, I am going to talk about one of the building blocks of our model, which if you care to understand deeply will allow you to view the world and its interconnected parts under an inverted prism.

The most important skills that allow individuals and groups to sustainably succeed in life are not taught in schools and colleges. They are taught by the learning environment in which we operate. Learning environment may be simple, wicked or bizarre and while a detailed discussion is for another quick read, a simple comparison will help. Please note that the learning environment is not cast in stone and each type of environment can quickly evolve into another one. Simple learning environments provide rapid and accurate feedback to individuals operating in it. Wicked environments either provide no feedback or provide inaccurate/incomplete feedback. Bizzare Environments or bizarre domains are designed to actively fool agents interacting with it over and over again. Barring a few environments, the majority of environments are wicked or bizarre domains. It is in these two domains that individuals develop the so-called “Inflated Overconfidence in their abilities” also called “The Druning-Kruger Effect“.

Duning-Kruger Effect

Now, one of the most important skills that allow us to operate in simple, wicked or bizarre environments is not formally taught anywhere except our program  “Mental Model Innovation” program. However, learning that skill is no easy feat. This key skill operates unconsciously and any efforts at optimizing the skill can potentially open the subject to significant psychological discomfort due to internal impedance mismatch. We call this key skill as “Unconscious Search for Affordance” or “US”.

Unconscious Search (US) is a multi-start metaheuristic which is a type of non-linear search and optimization process and works very well in achieving combinatorial optimization. The term “heuristic” originated from the Greek word heuriskein, which roughly translates into “discovery of new strategies or rules to solve problems“. Meta simply means that a higher level of whatever we are talking about i.e. Meta-Cognition (Cognition about Cognition), Meta-Awareness (Awareness of Awareness), and Meta-Heuristics (Solution Discovery about Solution Discovery). In complex domains mired with uncertainty, dynamism, dimensions, it is very challenging to find “perfect solutions” to “hard problems. Metaheuristics is a method of finding “acceptable” solutions in a reasonable time for solving hard and complex problems in the space. If we know how to tap into the immense power we already have, our brain and embodied mind has the astounding ability to continuously search for good solutions in the changing landscape (using various optimization methods) and bootstrap the solutions in cascades (brick over brick) to build a pretty good solution. The problem is that the Unconscious Search (US) is limited by what we want to search (passionate desire), what we expect to search (habituation) and the undeveloped ability to carry out constraint optimization (getting rid of our own internal mental blocks). As such even if have the ability and possibility of searching for the “best solution” (Global Optima), we remain suck in the “existing comfortable solution” (Local Optima).

Our brain is automatically and unconsciously searching for affordances in the environment (simple, wicked and bizarre) and the search is an “always on” routine. The routine ramps up efficiency when we are sleeping effectively, are in a creative flow and works inefficiently when we are under stress or anxiety. Obviously, we will not discuss in this post, how to optimize the search process, but, we will provide some overarching information.

What are Affordances?

Affordances are possibilities inherent in a unique situation or event available to all agents in the system. Affordances allow degrees of freedom in which agents in a multi-agent system can move. The term was coined by psychologist James J. Gibson in his book “The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems”. Since then, other explanations of the term “affordance” have been outlined, but, all of them essentially means ” all transactions that are possible between an individual and their environment“. We must also note that most of the time, barring a few possible transactions, we are blissfully unaware of the rest of the possibilities in the system. The embodied mind and the environment act as coupling or as two arms of a scissor, take one out and the second will fail to operate effectively.

The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill – “James J. Gibson

Let us use an analogy to explain. Please follow along and try and answer the question/query, before I provide the answer.

Here is a hypothetical scenario for you. You have been nominated as an event coordinator for arranging a meal for eight people. The group is racially diverse and is considered to have unique, independent preference of cuisines. It is unlikely that any two or more individuals will order the same food. You have a large list of menu items with hundreds of items listed in it and you have to read out each item till they say “Yes” to the selected Menu item. Now, in this situation, how many possibilities or affordances exist in the system. Before you scroll down, try answering it yourself.

Unconscious Search Routines

Before we get to the answer, it is important to understand that we are trying to find out the possibilities inherent in this system by oversimplifying the transaction. As we add more variables, the possibilities will keep increasing. As we reduce variables, the possibilities will keep reducing. To keep things simple,  we are using the Latin phrase Ceteris paribus which means “all other things being equal” or “other things held constant” or “all else unchanged“.

It is possible that given a certain set of unique conditions, one set of individuals may experience “Worst case scenario” i.e too many possibilities and another set may experience the “Best Case Scenario” in which choices are limited, answers are quick and precise and the coordinator quickly, effortlessly succeeds. It is also possible that a smart and experienced individual may be able to innovatively collate the responses quickly. They can do this by inferring the ethnicity of the individual, subsequently predicting food preferences and start rattling the list in a certain order, while others may ignore this dimension/feature of the visitors and clinically read out each menu item till they get a “Yes”. As we can infer from the above situation, the situation offers a certain number of possibilities and the individual can make optimal use of their resources and competencies to reduce those possibilities to minimize computational load. In some cases, too many possibilities can be a good thing, while in others it can be a bad thing. Here, we are want to look at the baseline possibilities in a system instead of optimized ones. So, what the maximum number of possibilities inherent in the system given that “everything else remains constant” ?.

The answer is 256 possibilities. The simple way to calculate this is by calculating 2 to the power of 8 i.e 8 people with two choices each. The simpler way is to multiply 2 by itself 8 times. Sorry for making it sound like a kindergarten mathematics class. Now, let us assume that we increase the number of people from 8 to 32 and each has two choices for every menu item i.e. “Yes or No”. The possibilities in the system immediately skyrocket to 4.3 million. Make any changes on either side of the equation i.e provide three choices to each visitor “Yes, No or Maybe” and the possibilities soon exponentially spike into billions.

Searching for Affordances

Our brain is constantly searching for affordances in the environment to meet our objectives. Some players can actively and successfully capitalize on these affordances while others spectacularly fail at it. These possibilities are constantly evolving and based on the number of dimensions in the space, can become consciously incomprehensible.When we feel stuck in a problem, we fail to realize that there are so many solutions in the space, but, we feel stuck as we cannot access other possibilities. Of course, there are those who can access such possibilities easily.

Entrepreneurs perceive interstitial spaces in the market and create products/services that fulfill an unmet/ under-served or futuristic customer need. Politicians piggyback on campaign promises by understanding customer (voters) pain and state actors effectively utilize disenfranchised population to create insurgent movements. All of them are using “Unconscious Search for Affordances” in their environment. As we have already discussed above, the optimization process is riddled with pain and can also throw people off the curve. Take the optimization further to “Hyperforecasting” levels, and “Unconscious Search” can allow one to peek into the future using Future State Models. Using an example from history, certain events in the life starting with an early abandonment of Steve Jobs by his biological parents made him hyperaware and well as hyper-vigilant. Over time, solitary meditative practices activated his intuitive faculties which allowed him to significantly improve his “Unconscious Search”. The result was the successful range of Apple Products, but it came with a lot of clinical and psychological stress for Steve Jobs. In geopolitics, Iran has been unruffling feathers in the Middle East by its proxy actions and outwitting its adversaries. In it, they cash on existing affordances in line with their objectives. While Jobs used his new faculties for market innovation and some use it for strategy or simply stroking trouble in our neighbor’s house, there are many daily use benefits of improving this skill. Those cashing on the affordances do not necessarily create those affordances and simply capitalize on them. If a state actor uses a segment of the disenfranchised population for its own use, it is simply acting as an opportunistic actor due to its optimal search function.

For those who cannot access possibilities easily, when we feel stuck in a situation, we are unable to see new possibilities due to stress, anxiety or an undertrained sub-optimal search hardware and software (brain and embodied mind). The impact is a deeply constrained and overloaded neural and cognitive level of the individual. Once optimally used, the same constraining process can be used to come up with new inventions or breakthrough problem solutions. Sometimes, the solution is few steps away, but, attention blindness makes us ignore those possibilities.If I could go back to school and learn the only skill required to succeed in life, then, I would give up the rest of my education for it.

While there are many sophisticated formal ways and many painful informal ways to improve “Unconscious Search“, the least expensive and free one is to try to remain calm and power down the stress level. Under controlled test conditions in which the subject was administered certain calming exercises while being monitored under a 25 Channel EEG machine, it was quite evident that the impedance level across various parts of the brain significantly dropped and the subject was able to see possibilities fairly quickly. High impedance levels were directly proportional to nominal stress (rated by subjects) as well as feeling stuck.

On this basis, my advice to those reading this post is to remain calm and learn to remain calm under stress. It is the best therapy to improve sub-optimal unconscious search. If you are up for some roller coaster adventure and are looking at more sophisticated methods, drop me a line.