The Armchair CEO
The one asks you “heads or tails?” You say heads; it’s tails. You are forever the dunce, mocked mercilessly in vulgar drinking songs and cutesy nursery rhymes alike.
It’s all obvious once you know the answer.
From the comfort of our armchairs it’s easy to make claims about what we would have done had we been CEO or what we would have done had we been that patient’s doctor. Our brains see effects and attribute causes, and when we see a bad effect, our vision seeks idiots and not human beings trying to navigate uncertainty as best they can with whatever limited information they had available at the time.
It’s an unfortunate fact that once an individual makes a decision, the context of that decision is forever lost. You can never capture that moment of uncertainty again. Documenting your thought process would help, but no one actually does this.
Well, that’s not exactly true. The opening anecdote of the coin flip rings false because we know exactly what it is like to predict a coin flip without prior knowledge. Yes, maybe that other guy would have said “tails”, but you are not an idiot for picking heads.
Once the situation gets more complicated though, our ability to empathize evaporates like gasoline, and all the heads are wearing dunce caps. The doctor sees a patient with a particular condition that could have been identified with a simple test up front, but he does not see the myriad other possibilities that had to be eliminated first*.
Sure, the Russians warned the US government about the Tsarnaev brothers, but we don’t hear about the other 1000 leads received in that particular minute of that particular day, each of which were similarly ominous.
The Atlantic provides a perfectly adequate explanation of why Ron Johnson failed as JC Penney’s CEO. Do you doubt, however, that its author would have been unable to pen a perfectly adequate explanation of Ron Johnson’s success had things turned out differently? Of course not. Because once you have the result, it is a simple matter to hunt down the explanatory facts. (“The poor and middle class are most attracted to discounts, but their purchase power is vanishing, so it was obvious from the beginning that Johnson’s strategy of centering around higher-end brands would work.”) The results tell you what you can safely ignore and allow you to hunt solely for confirming evidence. It isn’t that you ignore contrary evidence but that you were never aware of it in the first place since you never sought it.
This is real danger. It allow you to convince yourself of your brilliance. To avoid this, you really need to make your predictions in advance, on paper, and in a single repository. If you fail to document your predictions, you are likely to lie to yourself retrospectively about how strongly you felt about the result. If your prediction was wrong, you can tell yourself you weren’t that confident in the first place anyway. If it’s true, you’ve reinforced your own hubris. If you don’t document all your predictions in single place, you can pick which predictions you count. This is good for your self-esteem, but bad for your development as a thinker.
Before doing this exercise, I genuinely thought that I was a better play caller watching from home than multi-million dollar professional football coaches. Once I sat down for a game and wrote predictions for each play and how things actually turned out, I realized that my intuition was not better than a team of professionals who study their subject all day**. It was only in retrospect that I could see my hubris as hubris. Now, I can’t believe I was ever so stupidly arrogant.
Of course, it helps that everyone else seems to have the same issue.
* I would be interested in seeing what doctors thought of the treatment they had provided their own patients if they didn’t know they were their own patients by disguising the details. I wouldn’t be surprised if they found an idiot or two.
** I still think that teams punt too often. I’ve seen academic research that supports me on that though.
Photo credit: Vishal Patel of Flickr