Look What I Avoided for You

Excerpt from the book Antifragile

Consider this need to do-something through an illustrative example. In the 1930s, 389 children were presented to New York City doctors; 174 of them were recommended tonsillectomies [surgically removing the tonsil, a small bell shaped piece of organ hanging inside your throat]. The remaining 215 children were again presented to doctors, and 99 were said to need the surgery. When the remaining 116 children were shown to yet a third set of doctors, 52 were recommended the surgery…note that a death occurs in abo ut every 15000 such operations…every child who undergoes an unnecessary operation has a shortening of her life expectancy.

When you medicate a child for an imagined or invented psychiatric disease, say, ADHD or depression, instead of letting him out of the cage, the long-term harm is largely unaccounted for.

…the doctor who refrains from operating on a back (a very expensive surgery), instead giving it a chance to heal itself, will not be rewarded and judged as favourably as the doctor who makes the surgery look indispensable, then brings relief to the patient while exposing him to operating risks, while accruing great financial rewards to himself.

It’s an underlying human tendency to say ‘Look what I did for you’ than ‘Look what I avoided for you.’

An excerpt from the book Think Like A Freak

Based on statistics, for a world class soccer player the chances of converting a penalty kick is 75 percent. To save the goal, keeper has to guess the ball direction and take a leap accordingly. Typically he jumps toward the kicker’s left corner 57 percentage of the time and to the right only 41. Which means that the goal keeper stays at the middle only 2 out of 100 times. A kick towards center, as risky as it may appear, is 7 percentage points more likely to succeed than a kick to the corner. Still only 17 percent of kicks are aimed at center. If you think about going the traditional route, toward a corner and if the keeper does guess correctly and stops the ball – well, you have made a valiant effort even if it was bested by a more valiant one. If you follow this selfish incentive – protecting your own reputation by not doing something potentially foolish – you are more likely to kick toward a corner. If you follow the communal incentive – trying to win the game for your nation even though you risk looking personally foolish (a straight kick saved by a goal keeper will give the impression that kicker didn’t do anything and just threw it in the goal keeper’s arms) – you will kick toward the center.

This is the case where the illusion of busyness prevails – where being busy in this context means kicking toward a corner and inaction means kicking the ball straight at the center.

My friend Jana Vembunarayanan has written an excellent post on this topic – Unconventional Wisdom.

Warren Buffett describes this situation in the corporate world –

Most managers have very little incentive to make the “intelligent but with some chance of looking like an idiot decision”. Their personal gain/loss ratio is all too obvious; if an unconventional decision works out well, they get a pat on the back, and if it works out poorly, they get a pink slip. Failing conventionally is the route to go; as a group, lemmings may have a rotten image, but no individual lemming has ever received bad press.

Conventional wisdom has its roots in all too common psychological biases afflicting the human brain – Social Proof, Incentive caused bias and Illusion of busyness.