Defensive Decision-Making - Joe Abittan

Defensive Decision-Making

One of the downfalls of a negative error cultures is that people become defensive over any mistake they make. Errors and mistakes are shamed and people who commit errors do their best to hide them or deflect responsibility. Within negative error cultures you are more likely to see people taking steps to distance themselves from responsibility before a decision is made, practicing what is called defensive decision-making.

 

Gerd Gigerenzer expands on this idea is his book Risk Savvy by writing, “defensive decision making [is] practiced by individuals who waste time and money to protect themselves at the cost of others, including their companies. Fear of personal responsibility creates a market for worthless products delivered by high-paid experts.”

 

Specifically, Gigerenzer writes about companies that hire expensive outside experts and consultants to make market predictions and help improve company decision-making. The idea is that individual banks, corporations, and sales managers can’t accurately know the state of a market as well as an outside expert whose job it is to study trends, talk to market actors, and understand how the market relates to internal and external pressures. The problem, as Gigerenzer explains, is that even experts are not very good at predicting the future of a market. There is simply too much uncertainty for anyone to be able to say that market trends will continue, that a shock is coming, or that a certain product or service is about to take off. Experts make these types of predictions all the time, but evidence suggests that their predictions are not much better than just throwing dice.

 

So why do companies pay huge fees, sit through lengthy meetings, and spend time trying to understand and adapt to the predictions of experts? Gigerenzer suggests that it is because individuals within the company are practicing defensive decision-making. If you are a sales manager and you make a decision to sell to a particular market with a new approach after analyzing performance and trends of your own team, then you are responsible for the outcome of the new approach and strategy. If it works, you will look great, but if it fails, then you will be blamed for not understanding the market, for failing to see the signs that indicated your plan wasn’t going to succeed, and for misinterpreting past trends. However, if a consultant suggested a course of action, presented your team with a great visual presentation, and was certain that they understood the market, then you escape blame when the plan doesn’t work out. If even the expert couldn’t see what was going to happen, then how could you be blamed for a plan not working out?

 

Defensive decision-making is good for the individual, but bad for the larger organization that the individual is a part of. Companies would be better off if they made decisions quicker, accepted risk, and could openly evaluate success and failure without having to place too much blame on individuals. Companies could learn more about their errors and could do a better job identifying and promoting talent. Defensive decision-making is expensive, time consuming, and outsources blame, preventing companies and organizations from actually learning and improving their decision-making over the long run.
Social learning and risk aversion

Social Learning and Risk Aversion

In his book Risk Savvy, Gerd Gigerenzer looks at risk aversion in the context of social learning and presents interesting ideas and results from studies of risk aversion and fear. He writes, “In risk research people are sometimes divided into two kinds of personalities: risk seeking and risk averse. But it is misleading to generalize a person as one or the other. … Social learning is the reason why people aren’t generally risk seeking or risk averse. They tend to fear whatever their peers fear, resulting in a patchwork of risks taken and avoided.”

 

I agree with Gigerenzer and I find it is normally helpful to look beyond standard dichotomies. We often categorize things into binaries as the example of risk averse or risk seeking demonstrates. The reality, I believe, is that far more things are situational and exist within spectrums. In general for most of our behaviors that we may want to categorize with a dichotomy, I would argue that we are often much more self-interested than we would like to admit and often driven by our present context to a greater extent than we normally realize. People are not good or evil, honest or dishonest, or even hardworking or lazy. People adjust to the needs of the moment, fitting what they believe is in their best interest at a given time with influence from a great deal of social determinants. Social learning and risk aversion helps us see that dichotomies often don’t stand up, and it reveals something interesting about who we are as individuals within a larger society.

 

People have a patchwork of things they fear and a patchwork of risks they are willing to accept. On the whole, we generally won’t accept a bet unless the payoff is twice the potential gamble (there is an expected value calculation we can do that I don’t want to dive into). However, we are not always rational and calculating in the risks and gambles we take. We are much more likely to die in a car crash than an airplane crash, yet few of have any hesitation when buckling our seat for the drive to work but likely feel some nervousness during takeoff on a short flight. We are not risk seeking if we are more willing to drive than fly (in fact it isn’t really appropriate to categorize this activity as either risk seeking or risk avoiding), we are simply responding to learned fears that have developed in our culture.

 

What this shows us is that we are creatures that respond to our environment, especially our social environments. We often think of ourselves as unique individuals, but the reality is that we are dependent on society and define ourselves based on the societies and groups we belong to. We learn from those around us, try to do what we understand to be in our best interest, and navigate a complicated course between societal expectations and our self-interest. Just as we can’t classify ourselves into imagined dichotomies, we cannot do so with others. Social learning and risk aversion give us a window into the complexity that we smooth over when we try to categorize ourselves or others into simple dichotomies.
The Social Imitation of Fear

The Social Imitation of Fear

“Why do people fear different things?” asks Gerd Gigerenzer in his book Risk Savvy. Many Americans are afraid of clowns, actor Kevin Hart is afraid of basically all bugs and animals, and as Gigerenzer writes in his book, I (like most Americans) would be afraid to go pick mushrooms in the wild to eat for dinner. The social imitation of fear, Gigerenzer explains, is often at the heart of many of our phobias. Most Americans probably haven’t had a personal bad experience with creepy clowns, few of us have ever picked the wrong mushroom for dinner and died, and most of us probably haven’t had near lethal encounters with bugs or animals. It is easy to understand why a toddler who was chased or bit by a dog might be afraid of animals, but it is simply comical that Kevin Hart is afraid of harmless butterflies and mice.

 

Much of what we fear comes from social learning, picking up on what others fear, and learning to fear that thing ourselves. Gigerenzer explains that the social imitation of fear can be a benefit and serve as protection for us, but that it isn’t without its own costs. Regarding the psychology of our fear he writes, Fear whatever your social group fears. This simple principle protects us when personal experience might be lethal. At the same time, it can also make us fear the wrong things.”

 

Fears that keep us away from the edge of dangerous cliffs or keep us away from people with dangerous weapons can save our life. We can’t afford to learn to fear something lethal from experience – if you fall from a 100 foot cliff you won’t have a chance to learn to be more careful in the future. Fearing dangerous cliffs because everyone else in your tribe fears cliffs is a safer option.

 

However, this does lead us to fears that are unreasonable. It is very unlikely that any of us will be murdered by a creepy clown in the dead of night. However, a few years back pranksters started standing on street corners dressed as creepy clowns, and they scared lots of people across the country. I know people who had nightmares and were very frightened by the thought of these clowns, and were terrified of even the prospect of seeing a creepy clown on the street corner. Horror movies and common discussions of clown fears prime us to be afraid when there is no threat to us, and no real reason to be afraid. The social imitation of fear which helped our ancestors learn and survive together from the experiences of others, has been hijacked by horror movies and pranksters to create fear and anxiety for no meaningful reason.
Dread Risks - Joe Abittan

Dread Risks

Over the course of 2020 we watched COVID-19 shift from a dread risk to a less alarming risk. To some extent, COVID-19 became a mundane risk that we adjusted to and learned to live with. Our initial reactions to COVID-19, and our later discontent but general acceptance reveal interesting ways in which the mind works. Sudden and unexplained deaths and risks are terrifying, while continual risk is to some extent ignored, even if we face greater risk from dangers we ignore.

 

In Risk Savvy Gerd Gigerenzer describes dread risks and our psychological reactions by writing, “low-probability events in which many people are suddenly killed trigger an unconscious psychological principle: If many people die at one point in time, react with fear and avoid that situation.” Dread risks are instances like terrorist attacks, sudden bridge collapses, and commercial food contamination events. A risk that we did not consider is thrust into our minds, and we react strongly by avoiding something we previously thought to be safe.

 

An unfortunate reality of dread risks is that they distract us and pull our energy and attention away from ongoing and more mundane risks. This has been a challenge as we try to keep people focused on limiting COVID-19 and not simply accepting deaths from the disease the way we accept deaths from car crashes, gun violence, and second hand smoke exposure. Gigerenzer continues, “But when as many or more die distributed over time, such as in car and motorbike accidents, we are less likely to be afraid.” Dread risks trigger fears and responses that distributed risks don’t.

 

This psychological bias drove the United States into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s and we are still paying the prices for those wars. The shift of COVID-19 in our collective consciousnesses from a dread risk to a distributed risk lead to mass political rallies, unwise indoor gatherings, and other social and economic events where people contracted the disease and died even though they should have known to be more cautious. Reacting appropriately to a dread risk is difficult, and giving distributed risks the attention and resources they deserve is also difficult. The end result is poor public policy, poor individual decision-making, and potentially the loss of life as we fail to use resources in a way that saves the most lives.
The Spotlight Effect

The Spotlight Effect

We are social creatures that crave connections with and acceptance from other people. We want to have many allies as we move through life and want to be seen as a valuable ally to others. In our minds, we magnify our actions, words, and behaviors, examining what we do and how we present ourselves to others to make sure we are winning as many allies as possible. However, this constant focus on ourselves and how we might appear to others creates an illusion known as the spotlight effect. We are so focused on how we are presented to others that we begin to feel as though everyone else really is watching us and really is paying attention to how we present ourselves.

 

The reality, for most of us, is that very few people really notice much about us. Our spouse and other members of our household probably notice the little details about us, whether we haven’t shaved for three days, whether we have worn the same shirt two days in a row, and whether something is really bothering us, but most other people probably don’t notice that much. The reality is that most of them are focused on themselves, falling into their own spotlight effect and not actually paying much attention to what we are doing.

 

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein write about the spotlight effect in their book Nudge. They write, “One reason why people expend so much effort conforming to social norms and fashions is that they think that others are closely paying attention to what they are doing. … here’s a possibly comforting thought: they aren’t really paying as much attention to you as you think.”

 

People follow traditions, like wearing ties, that they dislike because they think everyone expects them to wear a tie and will be disappointed in them if they fail to wear one. This example of conformity bias mixed with the spotlight effect is relatively harmless, but the spotlight effect can have more severe consequences. People may believe their phones and social media posts are being watched by the police, they may worry that their colleagues will think of them as a cheapskate if their Secret Santa gift isn’t expensive and cool enough, and they may worry that other people on social media won’t find them authentic if they don’t angrily denounce the outrage of the day. These examples show how the spotlight effect can play into conspiratorial thinking, spending more money than one can really afford to spend, and engaging in signaling behaviors that might be beyond reasonable.

 

This is why Sunstein and Thaler’s quote can be helpful and possibly comforting. It is useful to recognize that we overanalyze ourselves and focus too highly on everything we do and how we present ourselves. Understanding this can help us see that everyone is so focused on themselves that they don’t have a lot of mental capacity left for scrutinizing everyone else. Once we realize that others are not paying as much attention to us as we thought, we can scale back negative aspects of conformity and self scrutiny. We can dial back the spotlight effect, and hopefully make decisions and choices that better fit the person we are, not the person we try to convince everyone else that we are. There are positive aspects to the spotlight effect, but for many of us, we probably over stress ourselves worrying about what others think, and would benefit from recognizing that others don’t pay so much attention to us.
The Happiness of the Moment

The Happiness of the Moment

In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes, “remember that neither the future nor the past pains thee, but only the present.” He also writes, “if though holdest to this, expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but satisfied with thy present activity according to nature, and with heroic truth in every word and sound which though utterest, though wilt live happy.”

 

Aurelius is a foundational Stoic thinker. A key part of stoicism is remaining in the present moment, focused on where you are now, what you are doing now, and how you can best use your current time. Worrying about what will happen in the future and feeling regretful of what has happened in the past only distracts from the present moment, bringing anxiety to situations that on their own do not cause any negativity in our lives.

 

The stoics, it turns out, were largely correct about finding happiness in the present moment. Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking Fast and Slow, writes, “Our emotional state is largely determined y what we attend to, and we are normally focused on our current activity and immediate environment. There are exceptions, where the quality of subjective experience is dominated by recurrent thoughts rather than by the events of the moment.”

 

Happiness is generally an emotion we feel when we are present. By refocusing our mind on our present activity and finding constructive and useful outlets for our attention, we can find happiness, even if our past has been a nightmare or if we are afraid of what will come in the future. It is important to learn lessons from the past and important to plan for the future to be successful and maximize our opportunities to meaningfully engage in the world, but when we spend all our time allowing recurrent thoughts to dominate our mind, we will diminish our overall happiness. If we constantly think about something embarrassing from the past, if we are always worried about an upcoming deadline, or if we only think forward to vacations and what we would rather be doing, then we won’t be happy in the moment. We won’t make the most of our current situation, and we won’t be content where we are. By focusing on the present and attending to a single present task or activity (even if it is just our breath), then we can root ourselves to our current state, and allow the regret and fears from our past and future to begin to melt away.
Why Terrorism Works

Why Terrorism Works

In the wake of terrorism attacks, deadly shootings, or bizarre accidents I often find myself trying to talk down the threat and trying to act as if my daily life shouldn’t be changed. I live in Reno, NV, and my city has experienced school shootings while my state experienced the worst mass shooting in the United States, but I personally have never been close to any of these extreme yet rare events.  Nevertheless, despite efforts to talk down any risk, I do psychologically notice the fear that I feel following such events.

 

This fear is part of why terrorism works. Despite trying to rationally and logically talk myself through the post-terrorism incident and remind myself that I am in more danger on the freeway than I am near a school or at a concert, there is still some apprehension under the surface, no matter how cool I make myself look on the outside. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman examines why we behave this way following such attacks. Terrorism, he writes, “induces an availability cascade. An extremely vivid image of death and damage, constantly reinforced by media attention and frequent conversations becomes highly accessible, especially if it is associated with a specific situation.”

 

Availability is more powerful in our mind than statistics. If we know that a given event is incredibly rare, but have strong mental images of such an event, then we will overweight the likelihood of that event occurring again. The more easily an idea or possibility comes to mind, the more likely it will feel to us that it could happen again. On the other hand, if we have trouble recalling experiences or instances where rare outcomes did not happen, then we will discount the possibility that they could occur. Where terrorism succeeds is because it shifts deadly events from feeling as if they were impossible to making them easily accessible in the mind, and making them feel as though they could happen again at any time. If our brains were coldly rational, then terrorism wouldn’t work as well as it does. As it is, however, our brains respond to powerful mental images and memories, and the fluidity of those mental images and memories shapes what we expect and what we think is likely or possible.
The Value of Difficulties

The Value of Difficulties

“For our powers can never inspire in us implicit faith in ourselves except when many difficulties have confronted us on this side and on that, and have occasionally even come to close quarters with us,” writes Seneca in Letters from a Stoic.

 

In the quote above, Seneca writes that we can never develop a legitimate sense of self-confidence if we never face difficulties and challenges. If our lives are free from real obstacles and if we never face any real struggles, then we will never be prepared to step up  to take on greater challenges. Growth and preparation for large and important moments in life comes from the struggles we wish we could have avoided along the way.

 

Seneca continues, “It is only in this way that the true spirit can be tested – the spirit that will never consent to come under the jurisdiction of things external to ourselves.”

 

By learning from mistakes, overcoming obstacles, and finding strength during difficult times, we begin to be able to step back and become more objective in how we view ourselves and the situations in which we find ourselves. Wild successes and crushing failures lose their influence on our lives when we have faced difficulties and survived. Instead of placing all our happiness in a certain outcome, instead of living with constant fear of something negative, we are able to be more calm and centered, accepting that things may not go well, but confident that we can make it to the other side in a reasonable manner if things don’t go well. In this way external pressures and outside considerations of our lives cease to have influence over how we live and how we feel from moment to moment. Only by facing obstacles, learning about ourselves, and surviving difficulties can we develop the mental fortitude to reach this level of self-confidence.
Violence and the Drug War

Violence as a Reason to End the Drug War

My last post was about violence related to drugs. When we make drugs illegal, we open the door for a black market. The best way to control a black market is through force and violence. A direct result of drug prohibition is violence related to black markets. We saw this in the United States with alcohol prohibition and in the 1970’s as the drug war in the United States escalated.

 

In Chasing the Scream Johann Hari writes, “By the mid 1980’s, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and right-wing icon Milton Friedman calculated that it [drug prohibition] caused an additional ten thousand murders a year in the United States. That’s the equivalent of more than three 9/11’s ever single year. Professor Miron [Jeffrey Miron, Harvard University] argues this is an underestimate. Take the drug trade away from criminals, he calculates, and it would reduce the homicide rate in the United States by between 25 and 75 percent.”

 

What Hari is doing in this quote is turning around the justification for a drug war and using it as a justification for ending the drug war. The typical argument that someone would make would be along the lines that drugs cause crime, so drugs should be illegal. Hari instead writes that drug prohibition causes crime, so drugs should be legalized.

 

The first option is instinctual and popular. Hari’s opinion is counter-intuitive, and would be a tough political sell. Nevertheless, I think Hari is correct.

 

I think it would be terrible to have huge numbers of people using recreational drugs during all their free time. I worry about the economic losses our country would face as people chose to do more drugs, harming their brains and bodies. These considerations make me fearful of finding legal ways to provide safe drugs to people.

 

However, that perspective doesn’t consider the costs that are in our current status quo. The current drug prohibition creates criminals and black market drug dealers. It gives gangs a profit source, and leads to young people choosing gangs over legal ways to make money, and in the process, still destroys the lives of huge numbers of people. Perhaps a legal system would reduce our deaths, and maybe even if drug use picks up, the overall number of people dying and losing opportunity to meaningfully contribute in this world would decrease. We wouldn’t have as much gang violence, wouldn’t arrest so many young black men, wouldn’t have so many people die from using unsafe drugs. Hari argues this trade-off will pay off, and I think he might be right.
Fears and Symbols

Fears and Symbols

“Its a natural human instinct to turn our fears into symbols, and destroy the symbols, in the hope that it will destroy the fear,” writes Johann Hari in his book Chasing the Scream. Hari writes this to explain the ways in which American culture has responded to drug use and addiction. We have demonized drugs and cast out drug addicts as moral failures. Our mindset is that the eradication of drugs and the expulsion of addictions will solve many of our countries ailments. If only there were not dangerous tempting chemicals to hook our brains, and if only people were more strong to resist the temptations to use use drugs, we could all be happy, productive, and united again.

 

In reality, drug use and societal ailments are more complicated than this paradise lost narrative. Hari’s quote continues, “It is a logic that keeps recurring throughout human history, from the Crusades to the witch-hunts to the present day. It’s hard to sit with a complex problem, such as the human urge to get intoxicated, and accept that it will always be with us, and will always cause some problems (as well as some pleasures). It is much more appealing to be told a different message – that it can be ended. That all these problems can be over, if only we listen, and follow.”

 

I think it is really interesting that we have such a tendency to turn our fears into symbols. We take the things we are afraid of, the things that disgust us, and create symbols to represent that evilness and reprehensible aspect of the world. The symbol could be a president you dislike, a foreign religion or character, chemical substances, or personality traits (laziness, close-mindedness, selfishness). This gives us a heuristic for addressing the thing we don’t like. It creates a less complicated version of the thing we fear, and allows us to draw a moral line in the sand, separating us (the good ones) from them (the bad ones associated with the evil symbol).

 

As Hari’s quote reveals, these symbols, and our efforts to destroy these symbols, can be problematic themselves. The Crusades were costly wars waged on outsiders, witch-hunts wrap up innocent people and threaten lives, and political polarization fueled by the hate of one political party or candidate only increases the gulf between us and our fellow citizens and human beings. Fears and symbols might be useful for galvanizing action, but they can have a wide range of negative externalities, and they can be misunderstood and over-generalized. Additionally, our fears and symbols can be captured by actors and institutions which seek to further their own ends, deliberately harming others in pursuit of their own agendas.

 

I don’t think Hari would tell us to abandon all of our symbols for our fears. He might agree with me that it is likely impossible to do so. The alternative seems to be to recognize when you are using such symbols and to understand how you are reacting to them. Are you allowing a symbol to stand for something you will avoid in your own life, or are you allowing a symbol to stand as a marker of your own righteousness? If you are using fears and symbols for self-control and discipline, you might be ok, but if you are using them simply to judge others and to justify avoiding or out-casting them in an effort to signal your virtue to others, you may be more of a problem than you realize. When these symbols and our efforts to destroy them start to harm others, we have a problem and need to redirect our energy to find real solutions to the real problems that underlie the fears and symbols in our lives.