A short story by Herbert Simon

Models of My LifeI’ve been dipping into Herbert Simon’s autobiography, Models of my life. He’s from an interesting time in the intellectual history of economics and the social sciences. The major contributions of his professional life began in the 1950s and, though he was part of the mainstream, he was highly critical of that mainstream. Being in search himself of the means for scientifically formalising economic subject matter himself, I think he was far more reflective in its pursuit than many of the neoclassicals whose approach was very formulaic.

He is pretty scathing about neoclassical economics, but from an unusual angle. He’s a very rigorous thinker. You won’t find me using the word ‘rigorous’ often because of its ambiguity. Most people use the word to mean ‘with lots of maths’, whereas I use the word to mean “being careful in proceeding from the premise to the conclusion of an argument”. In Simon’s case it’s both, which distinguishes him from a lot of his neoclassical colleagues.

In any event, the major preoccupation of his professional life was decision making. That led him into economics, the psychology of decision making (and precisely in how one might build a ‘science’ of such a thing), and he then ventured into computing and artificial intelligence in the mid-1950s. This immensely enriched his thought. I’m realising how much he anticipates embodied cognition as it emerged in the late 1970s and has matured into its own field since a landmark paper by Clark and Chalmers in 1998. I’m writing a little more about that which I hope will appear here soon.

In any event, Simon’s best-known contribution to economists is his idea of ‘bounded rationality’ – of the necessity to make decisions with less knowledge and understanding than one would like. The book contains Simon’s only short story which I reproduce below. It riffs on one of Simon’s obsessions which was the labyrinth as metaphor for decision making in life. It won’t surprise anyone to know that he was most intrigued by Jorge Luis Borges writing on the same theme and the book also contains a transcript of their discussing their shared interest in the labyrinth as metaphor. Anyway, below the fold is a transcription of Simon’s short story. It’s quite intriguing. A SHORT STORY In my one attempt at story writing, I did start with a model, in fact, the model of a maze that I had just described in my 1956 paper on “Rational Choice and the Structure of the Environment.” No doubt that can be detected in the finished product. Nevertheless, [like Borges – a reference to the earlier transcript of his discussion] I too had to write it. You may take it as philosophy, as a story, or as an artificial literary exercise. For those of you who don’t like equations, it will at least provide a relatively painless introduction to my theories of decision.

THE APPLE: A STORY OF A MAZE

There once was a man named Hugo who lived in a castle with innumerable rooms. Since the rooms were windowless, and since he had lived there since his birth, the only world he knew. His mother, who had died when he was very young, had told him of another world “outside,” lighted by a single large lamp that was turned on and off at intervals of ten or twelve hours. She had not seen the outside world herself, but stories about it had been handed down from generation to generation. Hugo was never certain whether his ancestors had really lived in, or viewed, this world, or whether the stories had been invented in some remote time to entertain the children of the castle. At any rate, he knew of it only through his mother’s tales.

The rooms of the castle were rectangular and very long — it took Hugo almost ten minutes of brisk walking to go from end to end of one of them. The walls at each end of each room were pierced by four or five doors. These doors were provided with locks so that they could be opened from one side, but not the other. The doors on the west end of a room opened into the room, while those on the east end opened out into adjoining rooms. When Hugo entered a room and the door shut behind him, he could not again return on the path along which he had come, but could only go on through one of the eastern doors to other rooms beyond.

At one time, Hugo became curious as to whether the rooms might be arranged in cycles, so that he could return to a room by a circuitous path, if not directly. It was not easy to decide, for many of the rooms looked much alike. For a time, he dropped a few crumbs of bread in each room through which he passed, and watched for evidences of his return to one of these. He never saw any of the bread crumbs again, but he was not certain but what they had been eaten by the mice that lived in the castle with him.

After the death of his mother, Hugo lived alone in the castle. Perhaps it seems strange that he or his ancestors had not long since died of hunger in this isolated life. Most of the rooms were quite bare, containing only a chair or two and a sofa. These Hugo found comfortable enough when he wanted to rest in his wanderings or to sleep. But from time to time, he entered a room where he found, on a small table covered with a white linen cloth, food for a quite adequate and pleasant meal.

Those of us who are accustomed to a wide range of foods, gathered for the pleasure of our table from the whole world, might not have been entirely satisfied with the fare. But for a person of simple tastes — and Hugo had not developed elaborate ones — the fruits and green vegetables, the breads, and the smoked and dried meats that Hugo found in these occasional rooms provided an adequate and satisfying diet. Since Hugo knew no other world, it caused him no surprise that the arrangements of the castle provided for his weariness and hunger. He had never asked his mother who it was that placed the food on the tables.

The rooms stocked with food were not very numerous. Had his education in mathematics not been deficient, Hugo could have estimated their relative number. For the connecting doors between the rooms were of clear glass, and peering through one of them, Hugo could see through a series of five or six doors far beyond. If any of the rooms in this range of vision had dining tables in them, he could see them from where he stood.

When Hugo had not eaten for some time, and was hungry, he would stand, in turn, before each of the four of five exit doors, and peer through them to see if food was visible. If it was not — as usually happened — he would open one of the doors, walk rapidly through the next room and reinspect the situation from the new viewing points now available to him. Usually, within an hour or two of activity, he would finally see on his horizon a room with a table; whereupon he walked rapidly toward it, assured of his dinner within another hour. He had never been in real danger of starvation. Only once had he been forced to continue his explorations as long as four hours before a dining room became visible.

Since life in the castle was not very strenuous, and since the meals that were spread before Hugo from time to time were generous, he seldom took more than two meals a day. If, in the course of a stroll when he was not actually hungry, he came upon a dining room, he simply passed through it, seldom pausing to pick up even a snack. Sometimes he would search for a dining room before retiring, so as to be assured of a prompt breakfast when he awoke.

As a result of this generosity of nature — or of the castle’s arrangements, however these were brought about — the search for food occupied only a small part of Hugo’s time. The rest he spent in sleep and in idle wandering. The walls of most rooms were lined with attractive murals. Fortunately for him, he found these pictures and his own thoughts sufficiently pleasant and of sufficient interest to guard him from boredom, and he had become so accustomed to his solitary life that he was not bothered by loneliness.

Hugo kept a simple diary. He discovered that his time was spent about as follows: sleep occupied eight or ten hours of each twenty-four; his search for a dining room, about three hours; eating his meals, two hours. The remaining ten hours were devoted to idle wandering, to inspection of the castle’s decorations, and to daydreaming in the comfortable chairs with which the rooms were provided.

In this existence, Hugo had little need for personal possessions, other than the clothes he wore. But his mother had given him a small knapsack that he carried with him, containing a comb, a razor and strop, and a few other useful articles — and a single book, the Bible. The Bible, which was the only book he had known or even seen, had been his primer under his mother’s tutelage, and continued to provide him with an enjoyable and instructive activity, even though a large part of the “world outside” it talked about was almost meaningless to him.

You might suppose that the murals on the castle’s walls would have helped him to understand this world outside, and to learn the meaning of such simple words as “tree.” But the pictures were of little help — at least in any ordinary way — for the designs the castle’s muralists had painted on its walls were entirely abstract, and no object as prosaic as a tree — or recognizable as such to an inhabitant of the outside world — ever appeared in them.

The murals helped Hugo in another way, however. The long hours spent in examining them developed in him a considerable capacity for understanding and appreciating abstract relations, and it must be supposed that he read the creation myths and the parables of the Bible in much the same way — the concrete objects taking on for him an abstract symbolic meaning. That is to say, his way of understanding the Bible was just the reverse of the way in which it was written. The authors of these stories had found in them a means for conveying to humble people in terms of their daily experiences profound truths about the meaning of the world. Hugo, deprived of these experiences, but experienced in abstraction, could usually translate the stories directly back to the propositions they sought to communicate.

I do not mean to imply that Hugo completely understood all that he read. The story of the Garden of Eden was particularly puzzling to him. What attraction did the Tree of Knowledge possess that led Eve to such wanton recklessness — to risk her Edenic existence for an apple? If he did not know what a tree was, he was familiar enough with apples, for he had often found these on the linen-covered dining tables, and his mother had taught him their name. that were provided for his hunger. Perhaps in this case, the very fact of his actual experience interfered with his powers of abstraction and made this particular story more difficult to understand than the others. He did, in time, learn the answer, but experience and not abstraction led him to it.

On the afternoon of a winter day — as judged, of course, by the events and calendars of the outside world — Hugo, who had been relaxing in an armchair, felt the initial stirrings of hunger. In his accustomed way, he arose, walked to the east end of the room, and peered through the glass in search of a table. Seeing none, he opened the second door, walked through the next room, and repeated his surveillance. This time he saw, five rooms beyond the fourth door, the table for which he was searching. In less than an hour he had arrived in the dining room ready to enjoy the meal that was waiting for him there.

But on this occasion, Hugo did something he never had done before. Before sitting down to his meal, he scanned the table to see what kind of bread had been provided. He saw in the middle of the table, surrounded with sausages and cheese, a freshly-baked half loaf of dark rye bread. And as this met his eye, there came unaccountably to his nostrils — or more likely to his brain, since his nostrils could have had nothing to do with it — the odor of French bread baked with white flour, and accompanying this imagined odor, he felt a faint distaste for the meal before him.

If Hugo, at this critical moment in his life, had stopped short and pondered, the vague movements of his imagination might have quieted themselves, and his life could have gone on as before. But Hugo, though he had spent much of his life in reflection, had never before had occasion to deliberate deeply about a course of practical conduct, and he did not deliberate now. Without pausing further, he turned from the table, walked around it, and marched on quickly to the next set of doors.

No table was visible through the glass. He pulled open one of the doors, and resumed his rapid walk. At the end of the third room he saw again, through an exit door, a distant table. He peered hard at it to see if he could identify the food that lay on it, but the distance was too great. He walked — almost ran — toward it, and was delighted to find on entering the last room that a loaf of white French bread was included in the collection of items spread before him. He ate his dinner with great gusto, and soon afterward fell asleep.

Hugo’s subsequent development — or discovery — of his tastes and preferences was a very gradual matter, and for a time caused him no serious inconvenience. Although not every table was provided with French bread or with ripe olives (he soon began to develop a taste for ripe olives), a great number of them were. Besides, he did not insist on eating these delicacies at every meal. To be sure, the amount of time he spent daily in the search for food increased, but this meant merely that he could substitute a more serious purpose for some of his idle wanderings, which perhaps even increased slightly his pleasure in life.

But several major happenings foretold a more difficult future. On one occasion, Hugo passed by four tables in turn, because the food did not please him, and then, famished with hunger, hurried on for three hours more until he found a fifth — which was no different from the other four except that his hunger was now greater. For several days after this experience, Hugo was less particular in his diet.

At about the same time, Hugo discovered that his preferences were now extending also to the pictures on the castle’s walls. Twice, he found himself turning away from a door after a brief inspection of the room beyond, because the colors or designs of the murals did not please him. A few weeks later, he saw a distant dining room at a time when he was moderately hungry, but formed a dislike for the decorations of the rooms through which he must pass to reach it. In the second room he turned aside and peered through the other glass doors — those not leading to the table — to see whether there might be another meal prepared for him that could be reached through more pleasant surroundings. He was disappointed, and proceeded on his original path, but on later occasions he turned aside often with nothing more than a hope that his new path would provide him with a meal.

Now Hugo’s diary took on a very different appearance than before. First of all, almost all of his waking time was now occupied in the search for his preferred foods, a search that was further impeded by his distaste for certain rooms. Second, his diary now included more than an enumeration of the paths he took. It was punctuated with the feelings of pleasure and annoyance, of hunger and satiety, that accompanied him on his journeys. If he could have added these feelings together, he could have abbreviated the diary to a simple quarter-hourly log of the level of his satisfaction. This level was certainly now subject to violent fluctuations, and these fluctuations, in turn, sharpened his awareness of it.

Hugo felt himself helpless to blunt these sharpening prongs of perception whose prick he was now beginning to feel. Perhaps it is reading too much into his thoughts to say that “he felt himself helpless.” More probably, the idea did not even occur to him that his tastes and preferences might be matters within his control — and who is to say whether in fact they were? But if Hugo did nothing to curb his desires, he did begin to consider seriously how he was to satisfy them. He began a search for clues that would tell him, when he looked through a series of doors and saw a distant table, what kind of food he would find on it. He developed a theory that rooms decorated in green were more likely to lead to white bread than other rooms, while the color blue was a significant sign that he was approaching some ripe olives.

Hugo even began to keep simple records to test his predictions. He also developed a sort of profit-and-loss statement that told him how much time he was spending searching for food — and with what result — and how much his tastes in decoration were costing him in the efficiency of his search. (In spite of the propitiousness of green and blue for good meals, he really preferred the cheerfulness of red and yellow.) To a certain extent, these scientific studies were successful, and served to reduce temporarily the increasing pressures on his time. But the trend revealed by the profit-and-loss statements was not reassuring. Each month, the time devoted to finding the best meals increased, and he could not persuade himself that his satisfaction was increasing correspondingly.

As Hugo became gradually more perceptive about his surroundings, and more reflective in his choices, he began also to observe himself — something that he had almost never done in the past. He found that his tastes in decoration were slowly changing, so that he actually began to prefer the green and blue colors that his experience had taught him were most likely to lead him to particularly desired foods. He even thought he detected a reverse effect: that his aversion for highly symmetrical murals, which seemed always to be present in rooms stocked with caviar, was spoiling his taste for that delicacy. But this sentiment was so weak that it might have been merely a construct of his imagination.

This gradual adaptation of his eyes to his stomach served somewhat to quiet Hugo’s anxiety, for he realized that it made his task easier. In retrospect, he wondered whether his initial preferences for certain kinds of murals had not developed unconsciously from eating particularly delicious meals in rooms similarly decorated.

each day, he seated himself at the table he had discovered before retiring. But however delicious the meal he had provided himself — even if the eggs were boiled to just the proper firmness, and the bread toasted to an even brown — he was unable to enjoy his meal without distraction. He would open his notebook on the table and proceed to calculate frantically what his objectives should be for the day. How recently had he eaten caviar? Was this a good day to search for peach pie, or, since he had eaten rather well the previous day, should he hold out for fresh strawberries, which were always difficult to find? Having worked out a tentative menu, he would consult his notebook to see what his past experiences had been as to the time required to find these particular foods. He would often discover that he could not possibly expect to locate the foods he had listed in less than ten or fifteen hours of expioration.

On occasions when he was especially keenly driven by search for pleasure, he planned menus that he could not hope to realize unless he were willing to forgo meals for a week. Then he would cross off his list the items, or combinations of items, most difficult to find, but only with a keen feeling of disappointment — even a dull anger at the niggardliness of the castle’s arrangements.

Again before he retired, Hugo always opened his notebook and recorded carefully the results of his day’s labor. He made careful notes of new clues he had observed that might help him in his future explorations, and he checked the day’s experiences against the hypotheses he had already formed. Finally, he made a score-card of the day’s success, assigning 10 or 15 points each to the foods he particularly liked (and a bonus of 5 points if he had not eaten them recently), and angrily marking down a large negative score if hunger had forced him to stop before a table that was not particularly appetizing. He compared the day’s score with those he had made during the previous week or month.

A period of two or three months followed during which Hugo became almost wild with frustration and rage. His daily scores were actually declining. Fewer and fewer of the relatively abundant items of his diet seemed to him to deserve a high point rating, and negative scores began to appear more and more frequently. The goals he had set himself forced him to walk distances of twenty or thirty miles each day. Although he often found himself exhausted at the end of his travels, his sleep refreshed him very little, for it was disturbed by nightmarish visions of impossible feasts that disappeared before his eyes at the very moment when he picked up knife and fork to enjoy them. He began to lose weight, and because he now begrudged the time required to care for his appearance, his haggardness was further emphasized by a stubbly beard and unkempt hair.

Midway one day that had been particularly unsuccessful, Hugo, almost at the point of physical collapse, stumbled into an armchair in the room through which he was walking, and fell into a light sleep. This time, unaccountably, he was troubled by no dreams of food. But a clear picture came to him of an earlier day — some two years past — when he had been sitting, awake, in a similar chair. Perhaps some resemblance between the sharply angular murals of the room he was in and the designs of that earlier room had brought the memory back to him. Whatever the reason, his recollection was extremely vivid. He even recaptured in this dream the warm feeling of comfort and the pleasant play of his thoughts that had been present on that previous occasion. Nothing of any consequence happened in the dream, but it filled Hugo with a feeling of well-being he had not experienced for many months. An observer would have noticed that the furrows on his forehead, half hidden by scraggly hair, gradually smoothed themselves as he dozed, and that the nervous jerks of his limbs disappeared in a complete relaxation. He slept for nine or ten hours.

When Hugo awoke, the dream was still clear in his mind. For a few moments, indeed, his present worries did not return to him. He remained seated in the chair admiring the designs on the wall opposite — bold, plunging lines of deep orange and sienna, their advance checked by sharp purple angles. Then his eye was caught by the white page of his notebook, lying at his feet where it had slipped from his sleeping fingers. A pain struck deep within him as though a bolt had been hurled from the orange and purple pattern of the wall. Sorrow, equally deep inside him, followed pain, and broke forth in two sobs that echoed down the hall.

For the next few days, Hugo had no heart for the frantic pursuit in which he had been engaged. His life returned very much to its earlier pattern. He rested, and he wandered idly. He accepted whatever food came his way, and indeed, was hardly aware of what he ate. The pain and sorrow he had felt after his dream were diffused to a vague and indefinable sadness — a sadness that was a constant but not harsh reminder of the terror he had passed through.

It was not long, however, before he felt the first stirrings of reviving desire, and began again in a cautious way to choose and select. He could not bear to open the notebook (though he did not discard it), but sometimes found himself thinking at breakfast of delicacies he would like to eat later in the day. One morning, for example, it occurred to him that it had been a long time since he had tasted Camembert. He searched his memory for the kinds of clues that might help him find it, and passed two tables that day because he saw no cheese on them. Although his search was unsuccessful, his disappointment was slight and did not last long.

More and more, he discovered that after he had had a series of successful days, his desires would rise and push him into more careful planning and more energetic activity. But when he failed to carry out his plans, his failure moderated his ambitions and he was satisfied in attaining more modest goals. If Camembert was hard to obtain, at least ripe olives were reasonably plentiful and afforded him some satisfaction.

Only this distinguished his new life from that of his boyhood: then he had never been pressed for time, and his leisure had never been interrupted by thoughts of uncompleted tasks. What he should do from moment to moment had presented no problem. The periodic feelings of hunger and fatigue, and the sight of a distant dining room had been his only guides to purposeful activity.

Now he felt the burden of choice — choice for the present and for the future. While the largest part of his mind was enjoying its leisure — playing with his thoughts or examining the murals — another small part of it was holding the half-suppressed memory of aspirations to be satisfied, of plans to be made, of the need for rationing his leisure to leave time for his work. It would not be fair to call him unhappy, nor accurate to say that he was satisfied, for the rising and falling tides of his aspirations always kept a close synchrony with the level of the attainable and the possible. Above all, he realized that he would never again be free from care.

These thoughts were passing through Hugo’s mind one afternoon during a period of leisure he had permitted himself. He now had time again for occasional reading, and he was leafing the pages of his Bible, half reading, half dreaming. As he turned a page, a line of the text in this book. The meaning, he knew now, lay not in the apple, but in him.

Of course, we have no way of knowing for sure what that meaning, so clear to Hugo, was. We can only conjecture, empathizing with the trials of his journey, interpreting them in the light of our own experiences. My own conjecture is that Hugo found a meaning not very different from the one I have arrived at, journeying through the maze of my own life. If it were not so, my experience would have falsified my theory, the model from which “The Apple” was drawn.

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8 Responses to A short story by Herbert Simon

  1. Kien Choong says:

    Such an interesting parable! Thank you for reproducing it in full.

    Reminds me of the argument that the fact injustice exists shows there cannot be a just God. I often think this argument has it backwards. It’s our capacity to identify injustice that gives us the motivation to search for a more just world and make the world better. So it is precisely our ability to identify injustice that makes progress possible, and so perhaps this shows that a just God does indeed exist.

    Or never mind about whether God exists or not. The point is that our capacity to identify injustice gives us the motivation to seek a better world.

  2. Robert Banks says:

    I think Simon came up with the concept of satisficing, which is kind of the ur-concept underpinning ideas developed later like “simple solutions that make us smart.”

    And which is kind of the strategy of life as evolved.

  3. paul frijters says:

    I am not a fan of such stories because they contain a central conceit in them that points the audience squarely in the wrong direction, which is that humans were or could be happy solitary animals whilst the vast majority of us would go stark raving mad in the circumstances described. You see this conceit also in Hobbes, Locke, and many enlightenment thinkers who talk about solitary “man in a state of nature”.

    A recent author called this type of thinking the “god view” of social science, as if social scientists are god designing humanity from scratch, including the nature of the beast. Such a great phrase.

    Even as a means of making a point I dislike the story. The valid point is 1%, the misdirecting 99%.

    • Kien Choong says:

      I thought the point of the parable was that our insatiable wants are the reason we become unhappy? (Something the Buddhist also teach.) But I would agree that humans are social creatures; it’s an adaptation (shared with many other animal species) that enhances our reproductive fitness. That said, inter-group rivalry is also a cause of conflict.

      • paul frijters says:

        “our insatiable wants are the reason we become unhappy?”
        which is the 1%. For which one doesnt need such a long story.

    • Quite so I read it and thought, were is Eve? ( and Cain and Able )

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