And then what?
When it comes to increasing the drama in TV crime shows, westerns, and spy thrillers, both the brilliant, evil villain and the smart, brave, good-looking protagonist display one common and remarkable weakness: they rush into action without much thought as to the possible consequences of their actions.
Here’s a scene that you and I have probably seen a thousand times. The hero has a gun drawn and a bead on “The Evil One” but the Evil One has a knife to the throat of the friend or lover of The Hero. The Evil One, as both we in the audience and The Hero know, cannot be trusted. Most likely, The Evil One has caused the death of many people already, is treacherous, and lies as easily as most people breathe. Nonetheless, The Evil One promises to release the hero’s friend or lover provided only that The Hero put down their gun and slide it over to The Evil One. And The Hero complies! Often, The Hero will elicit a “promise” from The Evil One: “OK, I’ll give you my gun, but you have to let them go!” The Evil One, for whom promises mean nothing, “promises” and then The Hero slides the gun over. At this point, The Evil One is obviously free to kill both The Hero and their friend or lover immediately. Instead, The Evil One will begin chatting them up. This allows time for magic, skill, accident, God, unknown allies, or brilliance to turn the tables on The Evil One.
Here’s another scene that we’ve both witnessed. The Hero suddenly finds out some crucial piece of information that lets them know the whereabouts of The Evil One. Often this is an abandoned warehouse filled to the brim with minions of The Evil One. But, it might be the cave deep beneath the island stronghold of The Evil One; a stronghold filled to the brim with his minions. The Hero rushes in with a woefully inadequate force and without informing anyone concerning his whereabouts. He or she confronts The Evil One who not only confesses to past misdeeds but outlines their future plans to The Hero as well.
In the TV series or the movies, the sequence of events is determined by the writer(s) so even though The Hero faces impossible odds, he or she will almost certainly overcome those impossible odds. That makes for an exciting story!
But in life?
In real life, you’ll typically do a lot better if you think about the likely consequences of your actions.
Sometimes, people fail to do this because they have simply never developed the habit of thinking ahead.
Sometimes, people let their wishes completely color their decisions. For instance, an addicted gambler, despite their actual experience, believes that gambling more will result in a favorable outcome for them rather than the truth which would be that there is an extremely small chance that they will win overall.
Sometimes, people are too ignorant to realize that there are potential negative consequences. For instance, when I was a youngster, I had a “glow in the dark” watch and cross; each glowed partly because of radium. I enjoyed putting these right up to my eyes in order to observe the flashes of individual photons. I also put together model airplanes with glue. When I applied too much glue, I dissolved it with Carbon Tetra-choloride. I loved the exotic smell of Carbon Tet. Now, it is deemed too dangerous to be used in this way.
In many cases, it seems to me that people do think about consequences but use an overly simple model of reality on which to base their predictions. In particular, people often treat individuals and social systems as mechanical systems and base their decisions on those mechanical models rather than actuality. For example, your kid does not, in your opinion, eat enough broccoli so you simply force them to eat broccoli. Your “prediction” of the consequences of this may include that the kid will eat more broccoli, be healthier, eventually like broccoli, etc. Depending on the individual child, it may be that none of these will actually occur. In some cases, it may even happen that the exact opposite of your goals will be achieved. The kid may eat less broccoli, be unhealthier, and hate broccoli more than ever. There are many other possible consequences as well. The kid may end up hating meals with the family or hating you or hating the color green.
When it comes to individuals and social systems, it is hard to know what the net effect might be. Often though, the most significant cognitive problem that people have is that they are so sure of their prediction that they base their actions on what they think should happen rather than what actually does happen.
As recounted in some detail in the Pattern, “Reality Check,” instituting a new social reward or punishment system often does indeed change behavior, but not necessarily in the desired manner. If, for instance, programmers are now rewarded on the basis of lines of code written, they might indeed write more lines of code but many of those lines of code may be unnecessary. You might write 1000 lines of code or you could spend time thinking about the problem and then write two lines of code that accomplish the same result. Will you do so if you are only rewarded 1/500 th of the bonus?
Similarly, you may measure the performance of service technicians by how many calls they “handle” during their shift. But if that is the main or sole measure, you may also end up having those service people tend to offer trivial or even useless advice based on insufficient information. In all these cases, if management keeps seeing what really happens, any damage done by having an inaccurate predictive model of what will happen as a result of a change will be mitigated. But in a system, whether private or governmental, where people are mainly motivated to keep management happy by telling them what they want to hear, instead of correcting a poor intervention, the problems caused by inadequate models will tend to multiply, fester, or explode.
Think of possible consequences and try to determine which ones are most likely. Then, observe what really does happen. This helps avoid turning an issue into a disaster and, over time, it also helps you develop more realistic models of reality. It will also tend to put you in the habit of taking a flexible and reality-based approach to your decisions rather than one that is based on a rigid and inaccurate model of how things should be. The latter approach to decisions will not only make you individually ineffective; it will also make it almost impossible to work well with others (unless everyone involved shares the same inaccurate model).