Sunday, September 7, 2008

Three Virtues That Lead to Bad Decisions

The recent Republican convention has caused me to think about how some of the values held up by the nominees and delegates can lead to poor decisions when used to drive policy. Three personal attributes that we Americans hold up as virtues can be particularly damaging:


Loyalty is necessary in a military context but can be counterproductive in a civilian one. Why? Because loyalty only comes into play when someone is obligated to do something that they fundamentally disagree with. After all, if one agrees with a course of action, there's no need for loyalty. Loyalty is used to keep members of a team marching in the same direction whether they agree with that direction or not.

This may be entirely appropriate and constructive when loyalty is earned rather than demanded. But when loyalty is demanded because it hasn't been earned, there's no rational reason that loyal behavior will lead to a good outcome. Rationally, someone with less knowledge should defer to someone with more. When someone with more knowledge defers to someone with less, because loyalty is demanded, the outcome can be catastrophic. One need look no further than Colin Powell's presentation to the UN for a clear demonstration of how unmerited loyalty can upend the proper relationship between someone who is informed and competent and someone who is not.

This is one of the basic dynamics that have led to the most prominent failures of the Bush administration: loyalty was the most important attribute to Bush, and it was demanded rather than earned. It was more important than competence, as demonstrated by the response to Hurricane Katrina and the inept handling of the Iraq war and reconstruction. It also prevented thoughtful deliberation and honest, informed feedback at those times when it was most needed; dissenting voices were absent, so decision-makers never benefited from hearing all sides of an argument.

This came to mind when reading about how Sarah Palin, as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, fired her Chief of Police because she felt she didn't have his unreserved loyalty. Staffing an administration with people who are unquestionably loyal to you is a sure prescription for group-think, for suppressing the kind of feedback and honest disagreement that would lead to better, more informed decisions.


One of the attributes that certainly appealed to Americans about Bush, and now about McCain and Palin, is toughness. All of them pride themselves on the strength to make tough decisions. By definition, a decision is only tough when it's unpopular. And, in some cases, it may be unpopular because it's wrong.

In these cases, one's self image as tough can make it hard, or impossible, to change one's mind when presented with new evidence. Toughness, inflexibility, and stubbornness are basically synonymous. Again, one need look no further than the Iraq war to see the results of decision making distorted by toughness. The fact that McCain and Palin share this trait may make them vulnerable to the same kind of inflexibility.

Common Sense

One of the delegates at the recent convention cited Palin's "small town values" as a reason to support her, and when asked what those values were, cited "common sense" as a prominent one. Americans love common sense. I think they believe that someone who operates on common sense is trustworthy.

There are several problems with common sense. An obvious problem is that it's a substitute for education. Nature abhors a vacuum, and common sense fills in where education is absent.

A second problem with common sense is that it's reductionist. It often relies on a few, basic principles, sometimes derived from religious belief or moral values, that fail to recognize the underlying tradeoffs and complexities that exist in the real world.

A third problem is that it's based on one's personal experience with the world, and thus is limited by the limits of that experience. It was once common sense, for example, that the sun revolved around the earth. We now know better, and the fact that the earth revolves around the sun is conventional knowledge. But evolution is currently running into the same resistance that the Ptolemaic universe once did, and probably for the same reasons. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman have convincingly demonstrated the limits of human judgment, and the distortions of that judgment can be seen in the vast number of suboptimal decisions made in policy and economics, among others.

Again, one need look no farther than the Iraq war to see this in play. Common sense, to an American at least, would hold that one need only introduce democracy to a region and good things will happen. Bush's foray into Iraq failed to recognize the essential complexities of one of the most complicated parts of the world, and we will be paying the price for that for a long time.

Americans seem fundamentally suspicious of education, perhaps because they feel it will displace their highly valued common sense. They recognize that someone with more education than they have may be unpredictable to them, and thus untrustworthy. I think we can see this sentiment in the vilification of "elites" in the current campaign. But if anything, Americans should be suspicious of common sense, because it is as fundamentally incapable of grappling with the complexities of the world as our eyes are of watching atoms spin.


I don't include trust as a distorting virtue, but I do think that trustworthiness underlies all of the virtues that are. If someone is loyal, tough (therefore consistent), and uses common sense, they're more intrinsically trustworthy than someone who uses their superior education and mind. I wonder if our preference for trustworthiness over competence will, in the end, be the factor that holds us back in the world, as other nations embrace the opportunities that come with knowledge and better education.


Tulukaghogamiut said...

loyalty i think is a trait that most successful leaders are given (as compared to demand) and required to successfully execute on strategy. in my mind, loyalty and trust go hand-in-hand. if people dont trust the boss, they are more likely to waiver on loyalty. trust is built through sharing responsibility and open communication. blind loyalty is the problem, not loyalty.

i also think common sense is not a value to be diminished. you can read a book on one subject and know about that subject and then read a book about another subject and know that subject -- but i think common sense helps know how those subjects come together. i think another word for common sense is integrative thinking (ok that was 2 words). common sense helps with problem solving.

i will end on a funny note. i was driving home from my sister's yesterday with my 5 yr old daughter and we were discussing a behavior problem that happened at the end of our visit. i told her that it was inappropriate behavior and not acceptable, etc. she needed to make better choices. it was late in the day and with no nap she was starting to cry/wail. "you hate me" she cried. i replied, "no- i don't hate you, i love you always,
sometimes i just dont like the behavior" etc. she wailed, "i'm just like george bush". "what?!" i asked, thinking i didn't really hear what i just heard. "i'm just like george bush .-- i make bad choices sometimes".

Victor Riley said...

Gosh, kids DO say the darndest things....

Good points. Several others, some liberal and one conservative, have also called me on the common sense point. I may have stretched my case there, but I do think that there's an appropriate role for it, and an inappropriate one. I'm not sure yet how to characterize that difference accurately, though.

Wings2Sky said...

Well, I have always viewed CS as a knife to cut through the BS. Not something counter to knowledge. Sometimes scientific truth defies commonsense as in quantum mechanics or even the sun-centered planetary system. But other times, especially when dealing with hypocrisy, utopian plans and pyramid schemes, CS is a good thing.
I think the phrase, CS, like others such as safety and toughness get misused and stretched to fit our agendas (mine included!)

I think that it is not the three virtues that are bad but simply that they can be abused. Being tough and resolved has lead to triumphs in the human spirit and great scientific breakthroughs but has also led to tragedies and scientific disasters.

I think the zen-like middle way is what's important with regard to these virtues. Loyalty is good as long as disloyalty is allowed to exist. Toughness is good as long as we allow ourselves to be tender. And common sense is good as long as we allow the weight of evidence to cause us to rethink it.

I can't get much more pithy than that! :)