Monday, 24 August 2009

More about psychology

It is salutary to remember that the second world war, which had such an influence on my childhood, is now studied as "history" at schools. Although I was born several years afterwards, the war was sufficiently recent to affect me in various ways. Added to the change in "distance" is the change in technology and communication.

It was natural for my training in O.R. to begin with a little of the background to O.R. from WW2; we were all peers, in the sense that we had grown up with family experiences from parents and relatives of the horrors of that conflict. And our lecturers on the postgraduate O.R. programme had either experienced the pioneering wartime years of O.R., or had been mentored by those who had been involved. One of the first case-studies we heard about was the classic of "O.R. against the U-boat".

(The O.R. pioneers had been asked to try an improve the success of depth charges used against enemy submarines. The main numerical control in a depth charge is the depth at which the explosive is triggered, by the pressure of water. Until O.R. was brought in, the calculations assumed that a submarine dived immediately at the time it was sighted by the approaching aircraft. Therefore the depth was set at about 150 feet. The O.R. team convinced the military that the deth should be set much less, since submarines did not dive as quickly as had been assumed, and the accuracy of the aircraft was greater for a submarine that remained visible for longer. Suffice it to say that the "success" rate increased. This is pictured on the cover of an out-of-print book.)

I was reminded of this story last week when I noticed a copy of a book about the WW2 battle against U-boats for sale as an unwanted book in the city library. It was written from the point of view of a naval historian, and I spent a few minutes looking to see whether there was any mention of O.R. and its place. Yes, O.R. was mentioned in two places. The first retold the story of the depth charges. The second was non-mathematical. It was the psychology of spotting an aircraft. And the O.R. group were credited with the idea that the underside of the attacking aircraft should be painted white, which would camouflage them against the sky. The O.R. people analysed the results afterwards and demonstrated that this simple measure increased the success rate by a further 30%.

Reflecting on these stories over the last few days, I wondered about two aspects of these stories.

First, how much do we encourage our fellow O.R. scientists to think about psychology and human behaviour?

Second, what are the stories of O.R. success that we can use to enthuse the next generation of O.R. people?

(In the latter context, I have used the success of airline O.R. groups in rescheduling U.S. flights after the atrocities of 9/11, and the role of O.R. in scheduling public transport for the Olympic Games in Beijing.)

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