Rationality for Engineers: Part I- Setting the scene


Brunel University, London


The truly complex element of modern times is not the technology, but the engineers who develop, design, manufacture, and maintain it. An engineer’s job is to change/improve existing situations into more desirable ones, as well as to respond to the demands or needs of society. Engineers cannot wait until all phenomena and their implications are well understood. Engineers have worked for centuries solving problems with limited information and knowledge and are presumed to be rational decision-makers. Then, how do engineers make their decisions with limited knowledge, time, and cognitive capacity in a variety of domains? Engineers require understanding what part of information can be ignored, and what situations require fast, and timely response, resulting hopefully in a better decision by freeing cognitive capacity to make it.  A rational decision-maker should choose an option that maximizes the expected benefits (utilities), although there may be significant hurdles in achieving such goals, especially in emergencies where time pressure is acute.  To overcome these hurdles, most engineers revert to “rules-of-thumb”, also known as heuristics. Heuristics are experience-based methods of gut feelings that can be used as an aid to solve specific problems in a particular environment. Heuristics, however, are imperfect; thus, engineers must understand their limitations. Their applicability is also limited by the context under which they were derived as well as their fit with the environment of the problem at hand.  The overall objective of these four-part papers is to discuss heuristics and how they can make decision-making easier and faster for engineers. These papers also remind them of their own cognitive biases and describe ways of avoiding them. This first part aims to set the scene by providing background information. These papers address the type of rationality that engineers need to be effective build on the existing literature and liberally draws from them. Engineers cannot march on the spot while thinking for a solution, they must think while moving forward, thus there is a danger not starting on the right foot.


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