by Matthew Leitch, 17 May 2002
Can we think of everything? This question has been answered in convincing theory by Nobel Prize winning economist and psychologist, Herbert A Simon, with his theory of bounded rationality. The answer is "No".
Simon showed that even imaginary problems, free of the messy complexities of real life, quickly create computational tasks that would keep the fastest imaginable computers busy for longer than the expeced future life of the earth. Throw in the complexities of real life and we haven't got a hope.
Even without theory, it's obvious that today's fast moving, complex world is a confusing, chaotic mess. Some of its problems people solve, but many defy solution, with one well meaning change after another failing to work.
Even if we had lots of reliable, accurate information to work with we don't have time to use it properly. But anyway, we don't have good information to work with. Apart from the evidence of our own eyes and ears we rely on a great deal of hearsay (including journalism, friends, work colleagues, and so on), often based on partial information, and yet more hearsay.
Many of the things we regard as "common sense" are no better than dubious received wisdom. Attractive, compelling, but totally wrong beliefs circulate the collective human mind like viruses.
More recently, chaos theory has clarified why some things are extremely hard to predict with certainty - impossible in practice. Some things are extremely sensitive in a particular way. Their behaviour evolves in radically different ways as a result of tiny differences in their starting state. The weather, for example.
I'm not saying that nothing is certain, nothing is predictable, and nothing can be done to solve our problems. But I am saying there are some pretty big limitations we need to be aware of.
The following are all common reasoning errors resulting from not understanding, or choosing to ignore these limitations:
Unreasonable assertions of complete certainty: Some philosophers have argued that nothing is truly certain, but holding to this approach through daily life soon gets tiresome. There are lots of things we can be so confident of that assertions of complete certainty are usually reasonable. But there are also many things where absolute certainty is not reasonable.
|Example||Reasonable or unreasonable to be completely certain?|
|"The sun will rise tomorrow"||Reasonable (for the time being, and not forgetting the hazards of black holes and asteroids)|
|"Gravity will keep on working this afternoon on earth."||Reasonable, but beware of very precise predictions about its strength.|
|"These proposals are popular/unpopular with staff."||Unreasonable, unless "staff" consists of one person, the speaker. You can get nearer certainty by asking everyone, but human attitudes are extremely difficult to establish with absolute certainty and change too.|
|"2 + 2 = 4"||Reasonable.|
|"The restructuring will enable us to focus on our core business and provide the world class services our customers demand."||Unreasonable. Management speak often includes unreasonable assertions of complete confidence.|
|"This research shows that people are more stressed now than they were 10 years ago."||Unreasonable. Research on human nature is almost never conclusive and the vagueness of the conclusion means it would probably fall apart if analysed critically.|
Unreasonable certainty seems to be caused by a number of things, including the effort of holding something in mind as uncertain, the way language tends to favour categories over degrees on a continuum, and the way other people demand certainty from us.
Unreasonable demands for certainty: There are at least three ways to use unreasonable demands for certainty to get your way:
"What do you mean you think they have insurance? Don't you know?" The demand is used to undermine someone's credibility. Fear of such attacks may be one of the reasons politicians and business leaders make so many statements of unreasonable absolute certainty. They want to look strong and confident. The problem is they can end up looking deluded and out of touch.
"I want a firm quote and a delivery date, and I don't want any more excuses about your suppliers. Surely you can do that?" The demand is used to push risk onto someone else. Employers use this method via budgets and personal objectives to push the risk of failure down onto employees. In effect, discussions about targets are the first part of pay negotiations. No wonder they take so long and people strive to get set the slackest targets possible.
"There's no conclusive evidence that our product harms the environment, and until such evidence is provided we see no reason for making changes whose costs would have to be passed on to our customers." The demand is used to avoid having to act. This has been used to argue that smoking isn't bad for you and global warming is not being accelerated or caused by fossil fuel burning.
Unreasonable expectations of certainty: Honest but mistaken expectations of complete certainty or of a high level of certainty on all things, not just those where it is feasible, are another form of mistake. Sometimes these expectations may have been created when people took seriously the tricks described above. The problems this can cause include:
Mistaken judgements of others: If a person has an unreasonable expectation of certainty of another person he/she may lose confidence in that other person if they do not express the certainty expected. This is a mistake and could lead to well considered analysis and advice being ignored. For example, organisations often lay down requirements for "business cases" to support significant expenditure. The rules about what the business case should cover tend to push for a high level of certainty regardless of the project and how predictable it is. In response, most people wanting funding try to hide their guesses and move quickly on to impressive spreadsheets to avoid being found out.
Delayed action: Trying to get more certainty when it is not feasible to do so in the time available is another possible mistake.
Unrewarded efforts to reduce uncertainty: Where uncertainty can be reduced efficiently it usually should be, but it is possible to waste a lot of time trying to reduce uncertainty in situations that are inherently very difficult to predict. It is vital to recognise how predictable different things are.
Not expecting consideration of alternative outcomes: If your expectation is of certainty you will not expect to have to consider alternative outcomes. You will not require this of others or set aside time yourself to consider those alternatives. When events unfold differently from your expectation you will be unprepared.
Talk of optimisation: Another consequence of bounded rationality is that we can almost never know that we have taken the best course of action. We can find what looks like a better course of action, or select what we think is the best from the plans we have thought of, or keep working on the plan until it seems good enough, but in real life optimisation is not possible. Business leaders often say things like: "This will enable us to optimise our customer service processes and provide the best rewards for our people." This sort of statement is a mistake or a lie.© 2002 Matthew Leitch