Tactical Nothing

“We must do something. This is something. Therefore, we must do this.”

I’ve seen that mistake play out again and again. Come on a little trip with me and let’s talk about why.

Have you ever heard of the trolley problem? It’s a philosophical thought experiment. There’s a trolley barreling down a track and it’s going to hit and kill 5 people who are tied up in its path. You can’t stop this. But you can pull a lever that redirects the trolley onto a side track where it will hit and kill one person instead of five. Do you do it?

There’s no right or wrong answer here, it’s just a thought experiment to discuss the nature of active versus inactive harm – you see, the answer of “one death versus five deaths” might seem obvious at first, but the subtle second layer is that the first five deaths you had nothing to do with – but if you pull the lever you’re directly responsible for that person’s death.

But let’s look at this from a different angle. Instead of looking through the lens of moral action, let’s look through the lens of societal self-preservation.

Imagine the scenario again, but this time lets add cameras and a crowd. Thousands watching, potentially millions more will see recordings of the terrible event. If you do nothing, 5 people die – but nobody knows who you are. You’re just one person in the crowd, unconnected to this tragedy. But if you rush forward and pull that lever, you save five lives – but you’re branded a murderer, blamed for the one person’s death, your face plastered on every news site.

Changes the calculation somewhat, doesn’t it? Maybe it doesn’t change what, in theory, you should do. But for many people it changes what they would do.

People are often motivated by the desire to be blameless more than by the desire for the best outcomes.

In 2012, my parents’ house was destroyed by the local fire department. Not by a fire; by the fire department. There was a small fire in the corner of the garage; perfectly manageable by a small amount of water. Instead, the fire department soaked the entire house for hours. I don’t know if you’ve ever soaked a house for hours, but… it destroys it.

Why did they do this? Because if they soak the house and it gets destroyed, they don’t get any blame. After all, they did what they were supposed to do. But if they don’t soak the house and by some crazy event the tiny fire actually reignites and spreads to the house, they will get blamed for not doing their jobs. Their motivation wasn’t to save my parents’ house, it was to avoid blame. Whenever someone is forced to make a tactical call between several options, nine times out of ten they’ll choose the option that produces the lowest likelihood of blame for themselves.

I don’t mean to be cynical or overly critical of that fire department in particular. In fact, I understand them completely. People respond to incentives; that’s just the way it is.

How does this relate back to the original quote?

Because in a lot of dire circumstances, the correct thing to do is nothing. Not to panic, not to change, just to do nothing. But even in circumstances where doing nothing is the decision most likely to produce good results, it can also be a decision that bites you hardest in the ass if you happen to roll snake eyes and get the bad result.

So in a crisis, people decide that they just have to do something, even if nothing is the best call, because “doing something” insulates them from blame for the worst result even if it’s actually increasing the likelihood of that result. And once you’ve decided that you have to “do something” not because it’s a good idea, but because action is necessary for optics, you’ll do pretty much anything that looks suitably “decisive.” Hence: “We must do something. This is something. Therefore, we must do this.”

The hardest thing to do, even (especially!) when it’s the right thing to do, is nothing. “Tactical Nothing” is a really difficult move to pull off – it requires confidence, calm, and a true faith in statistical reasoning. But if you’re focused on the long run, it pays off.

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