Off their trolley

Published: Sep 05 , 2013
Author: Stephen White

In the week when the UK Government failed to secure the agreement of Parliament to take military action against the use of chemical weapons in Syria, I read about an interesting phenomenon which might help explain this failure, and which should worry President Obama who remarkably has gone for the same high-risk strategy, in his case asking Congress before taking military action.

 The phenomenon is called ‘Omission Bias’, and was quoted by Daniel Finklestein in an op-ed piece he wrote for the London Times on August 28th. He illustrated it with the following example: imagine there is an epidemic of a children’s disease. The disease causes fatalities - 10 children die out of each 10,000 who catch it. Then someone comes up with a vaccine against this disease. But the vaccine has a known side effect which leads to the death of 5 children of each 10,000 who are vaccinated.  Would you vaccinate your child?

Omission Bias suggests that many people will refuse to vaccinate their child, because they feel that not doing something (even though they are guaranteeing that there will be a tragedy as a result) is better than doing something and feeling that they have actively participated in a tragedy, albeit on a smaller scale. So, amongst the abundance of explanations politicians gave as their reason for not wanting the UK to get militarily involved in Syria, it is probable that Omission Bias played its part.  Not doing anything might produce a disaster scenario, they said, but at least our hands are clean, whereas if we participate and then there is a disaster, we might be perceived, or perceive ourselves, as culpable.

 In fact, Omission Bias is a subset of an ethical dilemma called the Trolley Problem. In this scenario there is a trolley on a railway line hurtling towards 5 people who are tied to the tracks. If the trolley gets to them, they will die. But you are standing next to a lever which, if you pull it, will divert the trolley onto another track. Unfortunately, there is one person tied to that track, who will die if you divert the train. Do you pull the lever? 

Again the issue is perceived culpability. Inaction leads to 5 deaths, but they are not of your making – they were predestined. Your action pulling the lever leads to only one death, but you were involved. Will you be able to live with the guilt? Many negotiators suffer from Omission Bias. It might happen at the end of a tough negotiation, where every concession has been fought over, and every move made reluctantly. But eventually the parties close the gaps between them, and an agreement is made. Then one of the parties recognizes that their back office people have made a terrible mistake in their calculations, the result of which is that their margin is decimated. The obvious thing to do? Admit the mistake, and restart the negotiation.  But they don’t! They walk away with the rubbish deal, very miserable.  

 Why their reticence to speak up? Probably at least in part it is Omission Bias. Taking action and reopening the negotiation might produce a disaster – the whole deal could fall apart. So they keep quiet and live with what is probably a much bigger disaster – a profitless deal -  but one that was not their fault. Crazy! Maybe this is where the expression ‘off your trolley’ originates. (Non-UK readers might like to look  here).

Stephen White


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