Understanding the Determinants
of Adaptive Behavior
in a Modern Airline Cockpit
Stephen M. Casner
In his classic work The Sciences of the Artificial, Herbert Simon offers an allegory about how adaptive behavior might be determined by internal and external influences: the goals of the problem solver and the features of the environment. The allegory stars an ant making “his laborious way across a wind and wave-molded beach. He moves ahead, angles to the right to ease his climb up a steep dunelet, detours around a pebble, stops for a moment to exchange information with a compatriot. Thus he makes his weaving, halting way back to his home” (Simon, 1981, p. 63). Because the path of the ant over the beach is determined as much by the features of the beach as by the goals of the ant, the allegory suggests that the study of problem-solving behavior has to include not only a detailed consideration of the nature of problem solvers but also of the environments in which they conduct their business.
Understanding how the features of a complex environment influence problem-solving behavior is difficult because it is generally not possible to enumerate all of the relevant features of a complex environment. However, I can test the extent to which problem-solving behavior is adapted to selected features by comparing a record of those features, measured directly in the environment, with a record of problem-solving behavior measured in that same environment. Statistical techniques can then be used to assess the extent to which the two records are related. As a simple example, the extent to which the ant's behavior is adapted to the topographical features of the beach can be tested by comparing a trace of the ant's path with a trace of the contour of the beach.
This research quantitatively explores the influences of a complex environment on pilots' problemsolving behavior when managing the flight path of a modern commercial airliner. The problem requires the flight crew to guide the aircraft along a planned flight route that consists of particular courses, altitudes, and airspeeds. During the flight, the flight crew must also deal with modifications to the planned flight route made by air traffic control (ATC). These modifications instruct the flight crew to follow assigned headings, altitudes, and airspeeds that differ from the original route. Characteristics of the routes and clearances issued to the flight crew represent one kind of environmental landscape that affects the way pilots do their job.
The flight crew must follow planned routes and comply with clearances by choosing among a collection of flight control resources found in the