Which cognitive processes do architects use during decision making?

Press/Media: Research


Learn more about new research suggesting that established narratives can lead to oversights by architects, especially during the construction site analysis stage.

Most architects will be unaware that their enthusiasm for an emerging design solution may increase the risk of overlooking potential problems or fail to seek out vital information even when it is readily available.

According to new research, these potential oversights are not because of a lack of experience but rather the way that the creative mind tends to work.

Diana Osmólska is a PhD Researcher at the University of Manchester who has been researching architects’ thinking, specifically at the site analysis stage where the outline building concept is being designed to test whether a site can accommodate a given proposal.

For her research, she interviewed architects and architectural assistants and found there is a positive feedback loop occurring where an early design rationale becomes a narrative that tends to increase the author’s confidence in the ‘rightness’ of the solution. Overconfidence means that site constraints and potential problems are more likely to be overlooked.

What are the two types of cognitive processes that influence decision making?

Diana's research challenges the assumption that designers, experienced or not, always know when to seek information.

Architects are guided by first impressions as a way into problem testing, she says, and will develop solutions with an assumption that there will be technical information that can be collected at some later stage. However, Diana’s research shows that such information sometimes can be neglected. This can be explained with what is known as dual-processing theory, where cognitive processes are divided into two types: Type 1 is fast and intuitive, while Type 2 is deliberate and slow.

When an architect is working on exploring their site by proposing different solutions and gathering more information, they are also developing narratives, due to the coherence-seeking and storytelling features of our intuition (Type 1). A good and consistent story associated with a narrative can increase architects’ confidence in the solution and reduce the need to deliberate (Type 2) and detect problems.

Once a designer feels that a coherent design narrative is developing, they will start to feel more confident about it and will, as a consequence, have less inclination to look for constraints and potential problems with the solution, Diana says.

This is not professional sloppiness, but rather confidence increasing feelings of rightness, which are in charge of the ‘gut feeling’ associated with the realisation of problems and the engagement of Type 2. Earlier assumptions may also be not reflected on, due to Type 2’s inability to sustain doubt.

How architects’ decisions are often driven by appealing narratives

Interviewees reported that the time available to complete site analysis is often limited by time and budget constraints, so it is often a quick process.

They also indicated that they do tend to develop strong assumptions based on first impressions and quickly developed rationales to support emerging solutions. These responses appeared to show that architects’ are indeed driven by cohesive and appealing narrative, ignoring relevant information sources, even when those are available.

Diana adds that when justifying their analysis, interviewees appeared to substitute difficult slow and reflective questions with more efficient ones, such as "benchmark[ed] against a project that already has planning permission".

She says precedents will often play a part here, as there will be an inclination to reuse successful ideas. “There is a fluency that comes from past projects, and this will be associated with positive feelings that will support the idea of repeating something that has worked in the past.

And if planners or no one else are pointing out problems, there is an inclination to go with a similar solution.”

Errors arising from this satisfaction bias do not just happen to individual designers, but also happen in collaborations, she adds.

What is the ‘culture of doubt’ and why is it a helpful approach?

Diana has been involved in the Get It Right Initiative, a group of UK construction industry experts and businesses working to improve productivity, quality, sustainability and safety in the construction sector by eliminating error. It is estimated that in the UK construction industry, mistakes account for 10 to 25% of project costs, compared to profit levels of around 3%.

The question is what can architects do to prevent problems creeping in as a result of information neglect?

Diana is not an advocate of checklists or adding new processes to site analysis, which is time-constrained anyway, partly because architects have enough processes to cope with already and partly because all sites are different.

However, Diana thinks that it is important to promote a ‘culture of doubt’ when approaching each project – to be cautious, aware of biases present, and to question the sources of confidence.

Architects can learn more about Diana’s research paper titled: Architects’ use of intuition in site analysis: Information gathering in solution development.

Thanks to Diana Osmólska, University of Manchester.

Text by Neal Morris. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas.

Period17 Aug 2023

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