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An Experimental Analysis of a Tactical Blunder

Myers, Albert E.
Publication Year:
Report Number:
ETS Research Bulletin
Document Type:
Page Count:
Subject/Key Words:
Office of Naval Research, Decision Making, Error Patterns, Games, Problem Solving


This paper presents an analysis of inappropriate behavior by subjects playing a laboratory game which involved strategy. An experiment was conducted in which college students played a "Path and Obstacles" game. Their task was to trace a path on a 5 X 5 plugboard in such a way as to avoid hitting any of the obstacles placed by the other player. The placement of the obstacles was always controlled by the experimenter. Half the subjects faced obstacle arrangements which always left a certain path open. The trial to trial movement of the obstacles in this condition was fundamentally random. The other subjects faced obstacle arrangements in which the trial to trial movement of obstacles was systematic. Here, the subject could not be successful by repeating the same path. These conditions were labeled, accordingly, the Fixed and Variable Path solutions. It was possible to isolate a class of moves by the subjects which could be rigorously defined and which were, in every instance, inappropriate. It was found that the subjects in the Fixed Path condition made significantly more of these poor moves. That is, subjects who were in a milieu which was characterized by a high degree of order (Variable Path condition) made fewer mistakes even though they did not know what the principle of order was, and even though the success rates of the different subjects showed the Variable Path was more difficult to solve. It is speculated that the Variable Path enables subjects to form testable hypotheses for longer periods and that "the existence of a workable hypothesis, even if it does not lead to greater effectiveness, enables an individual to operate in a reasonably consistent way and thereby avoid making obvious mistakes." (JGL)

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