Sustainable Transport and the Importance of Pattern Recognition

In order to turn around a very big boat that is moving in the wrong direction – think global warming or any of the other wrong-way trips that we are currently locked into when it comes to transport in cities – it helps to be smart, studious and work very hard. But it is if anything even more important to have a feel for what is really going on. And this is where the fine art of pattern recognition comes in. Pattern recognition: all too often the empty chair when it comes to understanding and decision making in the field of transport policy and practice. No wonder we are doing so poorly.

[Quick reminder: Pattern recognition inside our skulls has to do with the cognitive process of recognizing the unfolding performance of a set of events or actions (think stimuli) so as to be able, if that is our wish, to anticipate change, challenge and eventually seize an opportunity to react . . . and possibly to break the pattern. It is a basic animal instinct, but it would appear that if we spend too much time in our narrow zones of high expertise we risk to lose the habit.]

Here is a perceptive piece that appeared the other day in the New York Times by Joseph Hallinan, much of which we are pleased to share with you. The full piece is available here .

The Young and the Perceptive

- By Joseph T. Hallinan, New York Times. Published: March 5, 2011

IT has been more than three years since the beginning of the Wall Street financial crisis, yet we continue to hear about new evidence of glaring errors and widespread misdoings. Even the smartest minds in finance are left scratching their heads: how did we not catch any of this sooner?
When I hear this refrain, I am reminded of Boris Goldovsky.

Goldovsky, who died in 2001, was a legend in opera circles, best remembered for his commentary during the Saturday matinee radio broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. But he was also a piano teacher. And it is as a teacher that he made a lasting — albeit unintentional — contribution to our understanding of why seemingly obvious errors go undetected for so long.

One day, a student of his was practicing a piece by Brahms when Goldovsky heard something wrong. He stopped her and told her to fix her mistake. The student looked confused; she said she had played the notes as they were written. Goldovsky looked at the music and, to his surprise, the girl had indeed played the printed notes correctly — but there was an apparent misprint in the music.
At first, the student and the teacher thought this misprint was confined to their edition of the sheet music alone. But further checking revealed that all other editions contained the same incorrect note. Why, wondered Goldovsky, had no one — the composer, the publisher, the proofreader, scores of accomplished pianists — noticed the error? How could so many experts have missed something that was so obvious to a novice?

This paradox intrigued Goldovsky. So over the years he gave the piece to a number of musicians who were skilled sight readers of music — which is to say they had the ability to play from a printed score for the first time without practicing. He told them there was a misprint somewhere in the score, and asked them to find it.

He allowed them to play the piece as many times as they liked and in any way that they liked. But not one musician ever found the error. Only when Goldovsky told his subjects which bar, or measure, the mistake was in did most of them spot it. (For music fans, the piece is Brahms’s Opus 76, No. 2, and the mistake occurs 42 measures from the end.)

Goldovsky’s experiment yielded a key insight into human error: not only had the experts misread the music — they had misread it in the same way. In a subsequent study, Goldovsky’s nephew, Thomas Wolf, discovered that good sight readers report that they do not read music note by note; instead, they rely on their recognition of familiar patterns and on their ability to organize the music into those patterns and dependable cues.

In short, they don’t read; they infer. Moreover, this trait is not unique to musicians: pattern recognition is a hallmark of expertise in any number of fields; it is what allows experts to do quickly what amateurs do slowly.

Goldovsky’s insight offers a useful metaphor for understanding the crisis on Wall Street: Not only did hedge-fund managers, bankers and others misread the danger involved in many of their investments, but they misread them in the same way.

As Paul E. Kanjorski, a former congressman who served on the House Financial Services Committee, put it, “Why does it appear to the general public that all the finest minds in finance missed the most obvious?”

It appears that way because they did miss it. These types of errors are most likely to be discovered by those who, like Goldovsky’s young student, look at the world with new, unblinking eyes. . . .

# # #

And so it is with us. As keen observers, planners, policy makers and advisers, we need to learn to step back and open our eyes. When we do we will see and learn about some of the mistakes we are making. And some of the opportunities we are missing.

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About the author

Joseph T. Hallinan, a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal and Pulitzer Prize winner, is the author of “Why We Make Mistakes.”

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