Looking forward and looking backward: Cognitive and experiential search

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Citation: Giovanni Gavetti, Daniel Levinthal (2000) Looking forward and looking backward: Cognitive and experiential search. Administrative Science Quarterly (RSS)
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): Looking forward and looking backward: Cognitive and experiential search
Tagged: Business (RSS) cognition (RSS), search (RSS), organization theory (RSS), organization learning (RSS), learning (RSS)


Gavetti and Levinthal's paper presents a series of simulation-based models which attempt to unpack the difference between cognitive and experiential based forms of search. They define search in two ways:

  • Cognitive search which is forward looking. They essentially model this by providing users with a "map" which essentially is represented by a map of the environment that is at a lower dimensionality than the actual environment.
  • Experiential search which is based on previous experience in which on dimension is changed at a time.

Like other search papers, the authors use uses NK modeling (a technique developed by Stuart Kauffman for biological modeling). The effect is to model a multidimensional "fitness landscape." N refers to the number of distinct dimensions in the model -- in this case, the number of distinct policy choices an organization might make. K refers to the interdependence between choices -- in this case, the degree to which the payoff for one choice depends on the others. The interaction between the two can be seen as determining the number of peaks in the landscape.

The authors present a series of results from a variety of different models. Their basic finding is that the cognitive search does extremely well. When selection pressures are introduced, organizations engaged in cognitive search tend to dominate. They find that organizations that shift their representation do much less well than organizations that keep fixed representations.

They conclude by noting that:

  • Cognitive representations can play an important role in seeding and constraining the process of experiential learning.
  • That shifts in cognition can be effective, but often have dangerous effects.
  • That cognitive and experiential search are largely complementation and that theories of bounded rationality and organization search should incorporate both forms of intelligence.

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

This paper is well known and highly cited because it is the first paper in organizational theory that figures out a way to model cognition and then model its effect on learning.

It is frequently cited just because of its model of cognition. By decoupling cognition from learning, the modelers can make a real attempt at building a richer attempt at learning.