World events through the prism of stupidity

Photo by REVOLT on Unsplash

As the world heads further into uncharted territory with coronavirus it’s baffling how we continue to try for solutions which are predicated on large collections of human beings choosing to do the right thing. This made me think about 3 rules of humanity I formulated as a semi-humorous introduction about why people are not really suited to rational thought. So I decided to look at current world events through this framework because it’s topical and keeps me off the street.

On the basis that I need rules to function and human beings have always seemed intractable to me I came up with these rules to help me predict behaviour (and also amuse myself). They can be taken with a smallish pinch of salt but there’s plenty of research to back up the underlying messages.

Rule One: People believe what they want to believe
We want to believe that medicine will have an answer which means we don’t have to face up to the exponential certainty. We want to believe that contact tracing and lockdowns will get the virus under control and that we’ll remain in control. Neither of these are likely in the immediate term. This is because people can’t admit when their wrong (cognitive dissonance) and filter out anything they disagree with (confirmation bias). We want to believe it will all be over soon and we can go back to our lives. This makes it hard to take onboard any worldview which disagrees with this.

Rule Two: People behave in their own short term interests
It’s sad to say this but we may care about the wellbeing of the herd in principle but that only goes so far as our own expedience. At point it becomes inconvenient to us we tend to assume the rules apply to other people. And we’re hardwired to not naturally think about what life is going to be like in even six months time. As selfish creatures of the moment we can largely be relied upon to act for ourselves now. If I might be sick I’m likely to prioritise taking care of myself at the expense of exposing other people to what I have. If I’m worried that food might run out then I want to make sure that I have food security. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a cruel mistress.

Rule Three: People suck
Yes, I may be a deeply cynical person and no, I don’t believe that rules one and two are true in all cases but they’re true often enough that to predict human behaviour any other way leads to suboptimal outcomes. If you start by considering what’s the dumbest thing a person can do in this situation then assume that a non-trivial portion of the herd are going to exhibit this behaviour then you’re not going to go too far wrong in life.

From this we can derive some useful rules for dealing with large groups:

  • Never assume people will choose to do the right thing. Any system which is predicated on people understanding what this is AND choosing to act on it is doomed to fail. It has to be obvious what the path of least resistance is for people (preferably with a massive carrot at the end of the road). I include the ongoing climate crisis in this assessment.
  • It’s always someone else’s problem. Until it isn’t. We are somehow able to hold the conflicting ideas in our head that, firstly, it’s terrible other people are suffering but as we are not other people we don’t have to change anything. It’s fair to assume that anyone not directly affected right now is not likely to care. This isn’t entirely fair to the many people who do do the right thing. But, unfortunately, the system doesn’t work with bad actors in.
  • Once you have bad actors it’s in nobody’s interest to do the right thing. If you see someone else profiting from doing the wrong things then you have no incentive to continue doing the right thing. The Tragedy of the Commons nails this.
  • If you want immediate and significant changes in behaviour then carrots don’t work. I’ll also note that this should not be your de facto answer to problems as people don’t enjoy being beaten with sticks. Take away people’s ability to do the wrong thing or make the cost of it disproportionate to the benefits.

Ex-Google, ex-Netscape, ex-Skyscanner. Interested in solving complex problems without complexity and self sustaining self improving organisations.