Sunday 26 July 2009

Making bad decisions

From the moment we wake up to the moment we fall asleep in our beds, we are making conscious decisions. Probably the first one is; “Should I get up now?” and the last one is; “Should I go to sleep now?” And in between those two decisions, are thousands of other daily decisions. Almost all of them are mundane. And yet, some are incredibly important to us individually and in many occasions when made by others, to society in general.

As an example; when my maternal grandparents had taken a sabbatical from their missionary work in Nigeria in 1912, they were in Liverpool making arrangements to choose which ship they would go on to sail to New York so that they could catch a train to take them to their home in Toronto. The passage would be paid by the Bible society that had employed them. They were given two choices of which ship they could take. One was a Belgium ship and the other, a British ship. My grandmother decided that the Belgium ship would be fine as they didn’t need to go on a more expensive ship such as the British ship. As fate would have it, the British ship was the Titanic. Further as fate would have it, my grandmother was going to give birth to my mother in three weeks.

In 1947, I lived with a captain Radley Liversidge for nine months. He had been retired as a seaman since 1912. Prior to that, he was the captain of the largest passenger ship in the world at that time, the Baltic. What was remarkable; was that when he was the captain of that ship, he was only 24 years of age. In 1912, Ismay, the head of the White Star Line offered him the job as captain of the Titanic. He turned down the offer. Ismay wanted him to sail the Titanic non stop at full speed so that the ship would break the world record at crossing the Atlantic but Liversidge knew that he would have to slow down when they were approaching the ice field that was heading south from the area of Newfoundland and if he did this, the Titanic would not beat the speed record and he would be fired by Ismay as soon as the Titanic docked in New York. Rather than risk being fired, he chose to refuse the offer. Had he taken the job, he would have slowed down and the 1,500 who died; would have lived to tell the tale and he would have been fired when he got to New York and that was the factor that made him decide to refuse the job. That fact has haunted him all his life even though he had no reason to feel guilty about his decision; after all it wasn’t he who told Captain Smith to keep going through the ice field as if it wasn’t there.

In 1975, after having addressed a United Nations crime conference on terrorism at the U.N. headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, I decided to take a bus to the town of Chamonix, France so that I could climb part way up Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps. The morning that I was to catch the bus, I missed it by two minutes. I was told that I would have to wait for two hours for the next one. I decided instead to catch the train to Chamonix. As fate would have it, it was on that train that I met my Japanese-born wife. I married her six months later and we have been married 33 years and we have two daughters and four granddaughters.

After I had given my speech at the U.N. conference in Geneva, I was invited by the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s official observer to the United Nations to join him for lunch. It was ironic that he invited me to have lunch with him considering the fact that I had just condemned the PLO for their acts of terrorism. In any case, we had an enjoyable lunch. The solicitor general of Canada who was at the conference as head of the Canadian delegation, observed me speaking with PLO observer and he later asked me to speak to him about the upcoming Olympic Games being held in Montreal the following year. As you may know, one of the Palestinian terrorist factions had murdered 15 Jewish athletes at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972 and we didn’t want a repeat of that happening in 1976. As a result of my talks with the PLO observer and his talk with Arafat, the chairman of the PLO, no acts of terrorism were committed at the Olympic Games in Montreal or any future games by any Palestinian. Had I chosen to refuse to meet with the PLO observer to the UN on a matter of principle because he was a Palestinian, and Palestinians were committing acts of terrorism, things may have turned out differently.

In 1980, I was invited to address a U.N. conference being held in Caracas, Venezuela. That was the year of the child. Originally I had decided to write my paper on my concerns about the horrific crimes committed by young offenders. However, while I was doing my research on my paper, I read a very lengthy report on the abuses being heaped upon young offenders in American correctional facilities. I was so incensed when I read the report; I decided to write a paper on the need for a bill of rights for young offenders that would prevent these abuses from happening anymore. During my speech, in which I spoke about the American abuses and abuses in other countries against their young offenders, the American delegation was extremely upset and embarrassed. After I finished my speech, I left the conference hall to deal with another matter and while I was absent, the head of the American delegation asked the chairman of the session for permission to respond to my speech. Normally, the rules of the UN don’t permit delegates to respond to the speech of an expert (yes, that’s what they call us) but he decided that the Americans could respond for this one occasion. They agreed with what I said and further said that I was right when I said that there was a need for the UN to create a bill of rights for young offenders. They brought in a resolution the next day asking the UN to conduct studies on this issue for the next five years. The rest is history. The bill of rights (which is called, The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules on the Administration of Juvenile Justice) was created after five years of conferences around the world and passed by the General Assembly in New York in November 1985. That decision of mine to switch my paper from horrific crimes committed by young offenders to the need for a bill of rights for young offenders has had an effect on the lives of millions of children world wide.

I have given you instances where decisions were made that had an effect on some of us personally and in some cases, an effect on great many others. Of course, greater men and women have made decisions that have had an enormous effect on society.
President Truman struggled for quite a while before he finally decided that the Americans could drop the two atomic bombs on Japan. Had he not made that decision, over a million Japanese and Americans would have been killed in the battles that would have followed.

General Eisenhower, the commanding officer of the Allied forces decided on the exact day that the Allied forces would invade Normandy during the Second World War. Prime Minister Churchill decided to replace the British general in charge of the African Theatre with General Montgomery. After making that decision, the British battles in Africa were won.

We all make good decisions throughout our lives. If we didn’t, we would die as youngsters, probably by walking across a street without looking first at the transport truck heading our way. But alas, we also make bad decisions. Some decisions made by some people are horrendous.

For example, after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the Japanese leaders were invited to surrender. The leaders of Japan refused. It was only after the second atomic bomb was dropped, this time on Nagasaki, that the emperor of Japan interceded and ordered the Japanese leaders to surrender. His decision to intercede, save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Japanese citizens. However, the refusal of the Japanese leaders to initially surrender after the first bomb was dropped; cost the lives of thousands upon thousands of Japanese citizens in Nagasaki.
As brilliant as Eisenhower was, he slipped up when he didn’t press forward towards Berlin when he had the chance. As fate would have it, the Soviet Army got their first and problems with the Soviets haunted the people of Berlin for a great many years.

Adolf Hitler made two terrible blunders. He was so cocksure of his ability to win any war; he foolishly declared war on the Soviet Union and later on the United States. It was primarily the efforts of those two nations that Hitler’s armies were finally defeated in April 1945.

The Japanese leaders also screwed up when they decided to attack the United States in 1941. As Admiral Yamamoto said it so succinctly as his task force attacked Pearl Harbour, “We have awoken a sleeping giant.” That sleeping giant crushed the Japanese forces and walked into Japan as conquerors

Is it not the duty of society to learn from its mistakes so future generations will not have to pay for past errors as we do now? The answer is academic and yet, leaders of nations continue to blunder their way into mistakes after mistakes.

Take for example, the American mistake of going to war against North Vietnam. The Vietnam War was a military conflict that occurred in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1959 to 1975. The war was fought between the communist North Vietnamese, supported by its communist allies, and the government of South Vietnam, supported by the United States and other member nations of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. It was primarily the American forces that conducted the war against the North Vietnam communist forces. The war was lost to the North Vietnamese forces at a huge human cost in terms of fatalities, including 3 to 4 million Vietnamese from both sides, 1.5 to 2 million Laotians and Cambodians, and 58,159 U.S. soldiers. What a waste of human life that was. At least five million lives were lost and for what? The communists took over all of Vietnam anyway.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq, from March 20 to May 1, 2003, was led by the United States, backed by British forces and smaller contingents from Australia, Spain, Poland and Denmark. President George W. Bush stupidly invaded that country because he believed that the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. Where did Bush get that information? From his Central Intelligence Agency of course; an agency that is not known for its great advice in the past. As it turned out, no such weapons were stockpiled or ever found. Admittedly, Iraq is better off without Saddam and his two evil sons but the Iraqis have suffered even more after the Americans stepped in to temporarily take over. The War with Iraq has almost bankrupted the United States. What a terrible decision that was when the equally terrible (and the worst) U.S. president that nation ever had made the decision to invade Iraq.

In 1953, the U.S. and British governments covertly removed the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh of Iran, because he opposed the greed of British/American oil companies in his country. Oil profits were not helping the Iranians. This action laid the foundation for an anti-American fundamentalist Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. Now the Iranians are really suffering in a nation run by religious zealots.

In 1979, Afghanistan was well on its way toward reforms designed to lift that country out of feudalism. But when the Soviets invaded, the Americans aided fundamentalist Islamic opposition groups including Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda army, which became a potent force in the region. Once the Soviets were expelled, the Afghans were left to pick up the pieces, which led to a further 10 years of civil war and the Taliban gaining power.

What makes us make bad decisions? Below are ten reasons that we and others make bad decisions and sometimes without even knowing it. And as they say in poker, if you can't spot the sucker at the table, then it's probably you.

1. I have come this far, I might as well continue. We all know that the past is past and we can’t get back money or time that we already spent. But many people irrationally take invested costs, time, money, or other resources which have already been spent and can't be recovered, into their decision making. They then plow on hoping and wanting to believe that things will get better.

2. Me, me, me! (the egocentric bias) Putting yourself in another person’s shoes is harder than it sounds for most people. If we only think about ourselves, then others will suffer. Ismay, the head of the White Star Line was thinking about all the glory he would get if his Titanic broke the Atlantic speed record. He didn’t consider the risk he would put all those on board his ship if the ship plowed through the ice field at full speed.

3. Proving a point. (confirmation bias) Isn't it a coincidence that no matter what happens in the world, politicians can spin it to show why it confirms their opinions? A cynical explanation is that politicians twist the truth to get what they want. But a more subtle explanation is that our brains tend to search for and interpret information in ways that support our pre-existing opinions.

4. That’s easy. (overconfidence) According to a famous survey of drivers conducted by Ole Svenson in 1981, 80% of respondents rated themselves in the top 30% of all drivers. And anyone who doesn't see that as a strange finding probably rated themselves in the top 30% in math also. While overconfidence is definitely a good thing in many situations, it probably means people don't work on their weaknesses as much as they should. Do overconfident drivers practice safe driving given their lack of abilities? Do overconfident doctors, discussed in this HealthDay article, get the proper training? Do overconfident public officials realize when they are making bad foreign policy decisions? Probably not.

5. Why not me? (dysfunctional competition) Do you have mixed feelings when you find out your co-workers get a promotion that you weren't even interested in? You're not alone. People's happiness is often a function of what they have relative to others. Your co-workers might be just as happy with you getting a pay cut as they would with getting a raise themselves. Everyone wants to have homes and cars like their neighbours have and will spend money to achieve these things even if their spending bankrupts them.

6. Mine, mine, mine! (endowment effect) Why is it so hard for people to throw, give away or sell things that are past their prime? One theory is that people tend to place a higher value on objects they own relative to objects they do not. I must confess; I fit into that category, much to the chagrin of my wife. I just can’t seem to make the decision to throw something away that has been with me for years.

7. Watch out for sharks. (availability bias) People are suckers for recent and memorable events. So much so, that they think these types of events are more likely to happen than they actually are. For example, do you really believe that if you walk on a sidewalk crack, you will break your mother’s back? Despite the publicity that terrorism and aircraft crashes has gotten in the past several years, the risk of dying from terrorism or in an aircraft crash is very low compared to much more mundane ways to die such as driving off the road which is 80 times more likely to kill you. It follows that to not visit a country because acts of terrorism occur in it or not fly in a plane because planes crash is rather stupid. Mind you visiting Somalia or flying in a plane owned by an airline that is prohibited from landing at international airports is even more stupid.

8. If everybody else thinks it’s OK, it must be OK. (conformity) People should make decisions based on what they think and not what everyone else thinks, right? Well, unfortunately many people die because they were told it is safe. How many people have drowned in overloaded ferries after they were told that everything will be OK? Fifteen hundred people died after the Titanic sank because they believed that it was unsinkable. The builders of the Titanic only put twelve lifeboats on the ship because they thought they wouldn’t be needed anyway.

9. Lets go at it hard. (illusion of control) We all know that there’s no difference between our chances in craps if we have the dice or someone else at the table does, right? Ellen Langer from Harvard famously showed that people rolling the dice in craps threw harder on average when going for high numbers and softer when going for low numbers. And they tended to bet more when they were rolling relative to others. This may be one reason that people know gambling doesn't pay on average, yet gladly gamble their own money. It should also cause us to question the confidence of our co-workers who know they will hit an aggressive deadline even though there are many factors out of their control. Every runner knows that he must slow down at some point otherwise he will fail. I remember watching a famous long distance run at the Games in Vancouver, B.C. many years ago. The man who was in the lead ran faster than everyone else but by the time he got into the field where the end of the run was located, his legs were so wobbly and he was so weak, runners who were five minutes behind him had passed him in the field where he had collapsed.

10. He's just a moron. (attribution error) Is the driver that cut you off a jerk? Or is he a good guy who didn't see you because he's distracted by something else going on in his life. Judging by the finger that you chose to hold up, you think he's a jerk. I remember years ago when I was on my way to court to represent a client when I thought I was cut off by another motorist. I screamed at him and gave him my one-finger salute. I saw him an hour later. He was the judge hearing my client’s case. That's about par for the course, as most people tend to over-emphasize personality-based explanations for the actions of others. It's better to withhold judgment about a person until you've actually talked to them. Perhaps President George W. Bush would have been smarter if he looked for a way to talk with Saddam instead of telling Saddam to “get out of Iraq in 48 hours or I’m coming to get you.” His faulty attitude has cost thousands of American lives since the invasion and will cost many more.

Making decisions can be a hard thing to do sometimes. My wife and I looked at over 30 homes before we chose the one we wanted. I looked at only 5 cars before I chose the one I wanted. Sometimes, we have to make split decisions. Years ago, someone cut in front of me on a major highway and I jammed on my brakes and crossed three lanes of traffic before I got my car under control. Others in the same predicament jammed on their brakes and were rear ended by transport trucks or struck by them head on when they crossed over the median. They were killed. I was lucky that I wasn’t killed. Now I don’t jam on my brakes when a thoughtless fool suddenly cuts in front of me.

If at all possible, we should carefully consider all issues with respect to our decisions before we make them. By doing this, there is less of a chance of us making bad decisions. If we do make bad decisions, we shouldn’t immediately make another bad decision to correct the previous one we made. It will obviously compound the initial problem and when that happens, someone else will have to make a decision for us so that we can be extricated from the problem we created for ourselves.

I want to compliment my readers who have read this essay in my blog. Obviously, you have made a very good decision.

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