(featured image credit: Thomas Hawk)
Much of what we do, we don’t really question. That is a mixed blessing
Last Friday evening I was driving back home on the M20 towards London. In the distance I could see a small white car reversing on the hard shoulder. As I approached, I realized what the driver was trying to do: having missed his exit, he was backtracking to back to the junction. By the time I reached him, he had succeeded in his endeavour (to the sound of honking of the other drivers on the slip road).
Just half an hour earlier I had left Nudgestock, the annual behavioural jamboree in Folkestone, and I could not help reflecting on what might have been the driver’s thought process leading to his hazardous manoeuvre. When you miss a junction, there are really only two options: either you stop and reverse (let’s not even entertain the possibility of turning around), or you carry on to the next junction and make your way to your destination from there.
The first option is by far the most convenient. Continuing your journey as originally planned seems the easiest and quickest. The alternative will not only take you longer, but you also may find yourself on unfamiliar terrain – more inconvenience. However, the second one is undoubtedly much safer than reversing on the hard shoulder, where you run the risk of inadvertently steering your car into the path of the traffic on the main carriageway. If you manage avoid that, you still have to weave into the high-speed stream of vehicles that is leaving the motorway.
Earlier this week, the Belgian Railways Infrastructure company launched a campaign around safety at level crossings. In my native country, there were 51 level crossing accidents in 2017, in which a total of 9 people were killed (up from 4 the year before, and just under the long running average). Few accidents are as avoidable as those at level crossings: in almost all cases they are the result of a deliberate choice to ignore signals and barriers – as a newspaper also just last week illustrated with pictures posted on Facebook, of a group of cyclists riding around the closed barriers.
For some people, it seems, waiting for a closed barrier to let a train pass through is inconvenient – so unbearably inconvenient that they decide it is worth running the risk of being hit and smashed to bits, much like the choice of the reversing driver on the motorway.
Convenience is a powerful force. In a post last Sunday my friend David observes that most of us are full of willingness and good intent to do the right thing – standing up for the weak whenever we can, challenging inequality every single day, diverting any excess income to worthy causes and so on. As long as it is not too inconvenient. Convenience prevails.
The unmade trade-off
It looks as if we, like the driver and the cyclists, we consciously weigh up the effort of doing something that has merits against the ‘convenient’ alternative. But is that really what happens? Did the cyclists deliberately consider whether or not to weave around the barriers to avoid an annoying wait? Did the M20 driver weigh up the risks he was taking against the time he would be saving?
I am not so sure. Convenience can be seen as a heuristic for efficiency. And efficiency is vital for us people (as it is for everything that lives). Nature tends to take the path of least resistance, and for living organisms that means being efficient: not wasting resources on that which does not provide a commensurate benefit. Being efficient has helped us survive and prosper, generation after generation. But if we had to constantly work out in detail whether effort is beneficial, we’d be doing little else. So long ago, in our ancient ancestors, a tendency emerged to err on the side of the least effort when the benefit of an action is unclear without the need for much thinking. Over the centuries, this thinking shortcut, this mental habit has become a prominent factor in our day-to-day decision-making.
That is why “convenience prevails”. More often than not, we don’t make any trade-offs at all. We just follow the heuristic.
And heuristics are things we rarely question – if only because they generally seem to serve us so well. But being beyond questioning is a characteristic they share with another principle that influences decision-making: the dogma. That can be problematic for a heuristic as broad as “do what is convenient”, because there are too many situations where following it blindly is not in our interest.
If heuristics are so strong, though, how come it is rare for people to reverse on the motorway, jump closed barriers on level crossings or do otherwise stupid things in the name of convenience? How come I (and I would hope you too) would never dream of doing anything like that?
A more powerful (rule of) thumb
I guess the reason is simple: another heuristic. When I miss a junction on the motorway I carry on until the next junction. When the bell is ringing, the red lights are flashing and the barriers are closing or down, I just wait. I don’t do so because I make a conscious trade-off, I do so because my “Don’t do stupid crazy dangerous shit” rule of thumb is not negotiable.
Perhaps that makes it look like a dogma – well so be it. Maybe, ideally, we should stay away from such immutable rules that take away our freedom to choose, and assert our right to weigh up all the options at all times. But we cannot possibly do that, so we have to rely on rules of thumb that we can follow without thinking. They are part of how we function for good reasons.
That doesn’t mean we cannot use them to our advantage. We cannot get rid of the dogma of the “convenience” heuristic, but we can override it with other ones. By developing and adopting additional rules of thumb, we stop ourselves doing stupid crazy unsafe shit, saving ourselves a great deal of trouble. With a bit of effort (yes I know, it’s not convenient), maybe we can also forge personal dogmas that helps us do the right thing whenever the convenience of inaction and postponement beckons.
We are all hardwired to obey our personal dogmas. But it’s up to each of us to determine what they are.