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When Safety Proves Dangerous

Not everything we do with the aim of making ourselves safer has that effect. Sometimes, knowing there are measures in place to protect us from harm can lead us to take greater risks and cancel out the benefits. This is known as risk compensation. Understanding how it affects our behavior can help us make the best possible decisions in an uncertain world.

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The world is full of risks. Every day we take endless chances, whether we’re crossing the road, standing next to someone with a cough on the train, investing in the stock market, or hopping on a flight.

From the moment we’re old enough to understand, people start teaching us crucial safety measures to remember: don’t touch that, wear this, stay away from that, don’t do this. And society is endlessly trying to mitigate the risks involved in daily life, from the ongoing efforts to improve car safety to signs reminding employees to wash their hands after using the toilet.

But the things we do to reduce risk don’t always make us safer. They can end up having the opposite effect. This is because we tend to change how we behave in response to our perceived safety level. When we feel safe, we take more risks. When we feel unsafe, we are more cautious.

Risk compensation means that efforts to protect ourselves can end up having a smaller effect than expected, no effect at all, or even a negative effect. Sometimes the danger is transferred to a different group of people, or a behavior modification creates new risks. Knowing how we respond to risk can help us avoid transferring danger to other more vulnerable individuals or groups.

Examples of Risk Compensation

There are many documented instances of risk compensation. One of the first comes from a 1975 paper by economist Sam Peltzman, entitled “The Effects of Automobile Safety Regulation.” Peltzman looked at the effects of new vehicle safety laws introduced several years earlier, finding that they led to no change in fatalities. While people in cars were less likely to die in accidents, pedestrians were at a higher risk. Why? Because drivers took more risks, knowing they were safer if they crashed.

Although Peltzman’s research has been both replicated and called into question over the years (there are many ways to interpret the same dataset), risk compensation is apparent in many other areas. As Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy write in Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, children who play sports involving protective gear (like helmets and knee pads) take more physical risks, and hikers who think they can be easily rescued are less cautious on the trails.

A study of taxi drivers in Munich, Germany, found that those driving vehicles with antilock brakes had more accidents than those without—unsurprising, considering they tended to accelerate faster and stop harder. Another study suggested that childproof lids on medicine bottles did not reduce poisoning rates. According to W. Kip Viscusi at Duke University, parents became more complacent with all medicines, including ones without the safer lids. Better ripcords on parachutes lead skydivers to pull them too late.

As defenses against natural disasters have improved, people have moved into riskier areas, and deaths from events like floods or hurricanes have not necessarily decreased. After helmets were introduced in American football, tackling fatalities actually increased for a few years, as players were more willing to strike heads (this changed with the adoption of new tackling standards.) Bailouts and protective mechanisms for financial institutions may have contributed to the scale of the 2008 financial crisis, as they led to banks taking greater and greater risks. There are numerous other examples.

We can easily see risk compensation play out in our lives and those of people around us. Someone takes up a healthy habit, like going to the gym, then compensates by drinking more. Having an emergency fund in place can encourage us to take greater financial risks. Wearing a face mask during a pandemic might mean you’re more willing to hang out in crowded places.

Risk Homeostasis

According to psychology professor Gerald Wilde, we all internally have a desired level of risk that varies depending on who we are and the context we are in. Our risk tolerance is like a thermostat—we take more risks if we feel too safe, and vice versa, in order to remain at our desired “temperature.” It all comes down to the costs and benefits we expect from taking on more or less risk.

The notion of risk homeostasis, although controversial, can help explain risk compensation. It means that enforcing measures to make people safer will inevitably lead to changes in behavior that maintain the amount of risk we’d like to experience, like driving faster while wearing a seatbelt. A feedback loop communicating our perceived risk helps us keep things as dangerous as we wish them to be. We calibrate our actions to how safe we’d like to be, making adjustments if it swings too far in one direction or the other.

What We Can Learn from Risk Compensation

We can learn many lessons from risk compensation and the research that has been done on the subject. First, safety measures are more effective the less visible they are. If people don’t know about a risk reduction, they won’t change their behavior to compensate for it. When we want to make something safer, it’s best to ensure changes go as unnoticed as possible.

Second, an effective method to reduce risk-taking behavior is to provide incentives for prudent behavior, giving people a reason to adjust their risk thermostat. Just because it seems like something has become safer doesn’t mean the risk hasn’t transferred elsewhere, putting a different group of people in danger as when seat belt laws lead to more pedestrian fatalities. So, for instance, lower insurance premiums for careful drivers might result in fewer fatalities than stricter road safety laws because it causes them to make positive changes to their behavior, instead of shifting the risk elsewhere.

Third, we are biased towards intervention. When we want to improve a situation, our first instinct tends to be to step in and change something, anything. Sometimes it is wiser to do less, or even nothing. Changing something does not always make people safer, sometimes it just changes the nature of the danger.

Fourth, when we make a safety change, we may need to implement corresponding rules to avoid risk compensation. Football helmets made the sport more dangerous at first, but new rules about tackling helped cancel out the behavior changes because the league was realistic about the need for more than just physical protection.

Finally, making people feel less safe can actually improve their behavior. Serious injuries in car crashes are rarer when the roads are icy, even if minor incidents are more common, because drivers take more care. If we want to improve safety, we can make risks more visible through better education.

Risk compensation certainly doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea to take steps to make ourselves safer, but it does illustrate how we need to be aware of unintended consequences that occur when we interact with complex systems. We can’t always expect to achieve the changes we desire first time around. Once we make a change, we should pay careful attention to the effects on the whole system to see what happens. Sometimes it will take the testing of a few alternate approaches to bring us closer to the desired effect.

Mental Models For a Pandemic

Mental models help us understand the world better, something which is especially valuable during times of confusion, like a pandemic. Here’s how to apply mental models to gain a more accurate picture of reality and keep a cool head.

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It feels overwhelming when the world changes rapidly, abruptly, and extensively. The changes come so fast it can be hard to keep up—and the future, which a few months ago seemed reliable, now has so many unknown dimensions. In the face of such uncertainty, mental models are valuable tools for helping you think through significant disruptions such as a pandemic.

A mental model is simply a representation of how something works. They are how we simplify complexity, why we consider some things more relevant than others, and how we reason. Using them increases your clarity of understanding, providing direction for the choices you need to make and the options you want to keep open.

Models for ourselves

During a pandemic, a useful model is “the map is not the territory.” In rapidly changing situations like a global health crisis, any reporting is an incomplete snapshot in time. Our maps are going to be inaccurate for many reasons: limited testing availability, poor reporting, ineffective information sharing, lack of expertise in analyzing the available information. The list goes on.

If past reporting hasn’t been completely accurate, then why would you assume current reporting is? You have to be careful when interpreting the information you receive, using it as a marker to scope out a range of what is happening in the territory.

In our current pandemic, we can easily spot our map issues. There aren’t enough tests available in most countries. Because COVID-19 isn’t fatal for the majority of people who contract it, there are likely many people who get it but don’t meet the testing criteria. Therefore, we don’t know how many people have it.

When we look at country-level reporting, we can also see not all countries are reporting to the same standard. Sometimes this isn’t a matter of “better” or “worse”; there are just different ways of collating the numbers. Some countries don’t have the infrastructure for widespread data collection and sharing. Different countries also have different standards for what counts as a death caused by COVID-19.

In other nations, incentives affect reporting. Some countries downplay their infection rate so as to not create panic. Some governments avoid reporting because it undermines their political interests. Others are more worried about the information on the economic map than the health one.

Although it is important to be realistic about our maps, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek to improve their quality. Paying attention to information from experts and ignoring unverified soundbites is one step to increasing the accuracy of our maps. The more accurate we can get them, the more likely it is that we’ll be able to unlock new possibilities that help us deal with the crisis and plan for the future.

There are two models that we can use to improve the effectiveness of the maps we do have: “compounding” and “probabilistic thinking.”

Compounding is exponential growth, something a lot of us tend to have a poor intuitive grasp on. We see the immediate linear relationships in the situation, like how one test diagnoses one person, while not understanding the compounding effects of that relationship. Increased testing can lead to an exponential decrease in virus transmission because each infected person usually passes the virus onto more than just one other person.

One of the clearest stories to illustrate exponential growth is the story of the man who asked to be paid in rice. In this story, a servant is to be rewarded for his service. When asked how he wanted to be paid, he asks to be paid in rice, using a chessboard to determine the final amount. Starting with one grain, the amount of rice is to be doubled for each square. One grain on the first square looks pathetic. But halfway through the chessboard, the servant is making a good yearly living. And after doubling the rice sixty-four times, the servant is owed more rice than the whole world can produce.

Improving our ability to think exponentially helps us understand how more testing can lead to both an exponential decrease in testing prices and an exponential increase in the production of those tests. It also makes clear just how far-reaching the impact of our actions can be if we don’t take precautions with the assumption that we could be infected.

Probabilistic thinking is also invaluable in helping us make decisions based on the incomplete information we have. In the absence of enough testing, for example, we need to use probabilistic thinking to make decisions on what actions to pursue. We ask ourselves questions like: Do I have COVID-19? If there’s a 1% chance I have it, is it worth visiting my grandparents?

Being able to evaluate reasonable probability has huge impacts on how we approach physical distancing. Combining the models of probabilistic thinking and map is not the territory suggests our actions need to be guided by infection numbers much higher than the ones we have. We are likely to make significantly different social decisions if we estimate the probability of infection as being three people out of ten instead of one person out of one thousand.

Bayesian updating can also help clarify the physical distancing actions you should take. There’s a small probability of being part of a horrendous chain of events that might not just have poor direct consequences but also follow you for the rest of your life. Evaluating how responsible you are being in terms of limiting transmission, would you bet a loved one’s life on it?

Which leads us to Hanlon’s Razor. It’s hard not to get angry at reports of beach parties during spring break or at the guy four doors down who has his friends over to hang out every night. For your own sanity, try using Hanlon’s Razor to evaluate their behavior. They are not being malicious and trying to kill people. They are just exceptionally and tragically ignorant.

Finally, on a day-to-day basis, trying to make small decisions with incomplete information, you can use inversion. You can look at the problem backwards. When the best way forward is far from clear, you ask yourself what you could do to make things worse, and then avoid doing those things.

Models for society

Applying mental models aids in the understanding the dynamics of the large-scale social response.

Currently we are seeing the counterintuitive measures with first-order negatives (closing businesses) but second- and third-order positives (reduced transmission, less stress on the healthcare system). Second-order thinking is an invaluable tool at all times, including during a pandemic. It’s so important that we encourage the thinking, analysis, and decision-making that factors in the effects of the effects of the decisions we make.

In order to improve the maps that our leaders have to make decisions, we need to sort through the feedback loops providing the content. If we can improve not only the feedback but also the pace of iterations, we have a better chance of making good decisions.

For example, if we improve the rate of testing and the speed of the results, it would be a major game-changer. Imagine if knowing whether you had the virus or not was a $0.01 test that gave you a result in less than a minute. In that case, we could make different decisions about social openness, even in the absence of a vaccine (however, this may have invasive privacy implications, as tracking this would be quite difficult otherwise).

As we watch the pandemic and its consequences unfold, it becomes clear that leadership and authority are not the same thing. Our hierarchical instincts emerge strongly in times of crisis. Leadership vacuums, then, are devastating, and disasters expose the cracks in our hierarchies. However, we also see that people can display strong leadership without needing any authority. A pandemic provides opportunities for such leadership to emerge at community and local levels, providing alternate pathways for meeting the needs of many.

One critical model we can use to look at society during a pandemic is Ecosystems. When we think about ecosystems, we might imagine a variety of organisms interacting in a forest or the ocean. But our cities are also ecosystems, as is the earth as a whole. Understanding system dynamics can give us a lot of insight into what is happening in our societies, both at the micro and macro level.

One property of ecosystems that is useful to contemplate in situations like a pandemic is resilience—the speed at which an ecosystem recovers after a disturbance. There are many factors that contribute to resilience, such as diversity and adaptability. Looking at our global situation, one factor threatening to undermine our collective resilience is that our economy has rewarded razor-thin efficiency in the recent past. The problem with thin margins is they offer no buffer in the face of disruption. Therefore, ecosystems with thin margins are not at all resilient. Small disturbances can bring them down completely. And a pandemic is not a small disturbance.

Some argue that what we are facing now is a Black Swan: an unpredictable event beyond normal expectations with severe consequences. Most businesses are not ready to face one. You could argue that an economic recession is not a black swan, but the particular shape of this pandemic is testing the resiliency of our social and economic ecosystems regardless. The closing of shops and business, causing huge disruption, has exposed fragile supply chains. We just don’t see these types of events often enough, even if we know they’re theoretically possible. So we don’t prepare for them. We don’t or can’t create big enough personal and social margins of safety. Individuals and businesses don’t have enough money in the bank. We don’t have enough medical facilities and supplies. Instead, we have optimized for a narrow range of possibilities, compromising the resilience of systems we rely on.

Finally, as we look at the role national borders are playing during this pandemic, we can use the Thermodynamics model to gain insight into how to manage flows of people during and after restrictions. Insulation requires a lot of work, as we are seeing with our borders and the subsequent effect on our economies. It’s unsustainable for long periods of time. Just like how two objects of different temperatures that come into contact with each other eventually reach thermal equilibrium, people will mix with each other. All borders have openings of some sort. It’s important to extend planning to incorporate the realistic tendencies of reintegration.

Some final thoughts about the future

As we look for opportunities about how to move forward both as individuals and societies, Cooperation provides a useful lens. Possibly more critical to evolution than competition, cooperation is a powerful force. It’s rampant throughout the biological world; even bacteria cooperate. As a species, we have been cooperating with each other for a long time. All of us have given up some independence for access to resources provided by others.

Pandemics are intensified because of connection. But we can use that same connectivity to mitigate some negative effects by leveraging our community networks to create cooperative interactions that fill gaps in the government response. We can also use the cooperation lens to create more resilient connections in the future.

Finally, we need to ask ourselves how we can improve our antifragility. How can we get to a place where we grow stronger through change and challenge? It’s not about getting “back to normal.” The normal that was our world in 2019 has proven to be fragile. We shouldn’t want to get back to a time when we were unprepared and vulnerable.

Existential threats are a reality of life on earth. One of the best lessons we can learn is to open our eyes and integrate planning for massive change into how we approach our lives. This will not be the last pandemic, no matter how careful we are. The goal now should not be about assigning blame or succumbing to hindsight bias to try to implement rules designed to prevent a similar situation in the future. We will be better off if we make changes aimed at increasing our resilience and embracing the benefits of challenge.

Still curious? Learn more by reading The Great Mental Models.

Rethinking Fear

Fear is a state no one wants to embrace, yet for many of us it’s the background music to our lives. But by making friends with fear and understanding why it exists, we can become less vulnerable to harm—and less afraid. Read on to learn a better approach to fear.

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In The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence, author Gavin de Becker argues that we all have an intuitive sense of when we are in danger. Drawing upon his experience as a high-stakes security specialist, he explains how we can protect ourselves by paying better attention to our gut feelings and not letting denial lead us to harm. Our intuition, honed by evolution and by a lifetime of experience, deserves more respect.

By telling us to value our intuition, de Becker isn’t telling anyone to live in fear permanently, always alert for possible risks. Quite the opposite. De Becker writes that we misunderstand the value of fear when we think that being constantly hypervigilant will keep us safe. Being afraid all the time doesn’t protect us from danger. Instead, he explains, by trusting that our gut feelings are accurate and learning key signals that portend risk, we can actually feel calmer and safer:

Far too many people are walking around in a constant state of vigilance, their intuition misinformed about what really poses danger. It needn’t be so. When you honor accurate intuitive signals and evaluate them without denial (believing that either the favorable or unfavorable outcome is possible), you need not be wary, for you will come to trust that you’ll be notified if there is something worthy of your attention. Fear will gain credibility because it won’t be applied wastefully.

When we walk around terrified all the time, we can’t pick out the signal from the noise. If you’re constantly scared, you can’t correctly notice when there is something genuine to fear. True fear is a momentary signal, not an ongoing state. De Becker writes that “if one feels fear of all people all the time, there is no signal reserved for the times when it’s really needed.”

What we fear the most is rarely what ends up happening. Fixating on particular dangers blinds us to others. We focus on checking the road for snakes and end up getting knocked over by a car. De Becker writes that it matters that we’re receptive to fear, not that we’re watching out for what scares us the most (though of course, different things pose different risks to different people, and we should evaluate accordingly.) After all, “we are far more open to signals when we don’t focus on the expectation of specific signals.”

Fear vs. anxiety

Fear is not the same as anxiety. Although people experiencing anxiety are often afraid of both the anxiety and what they presume to be its cause, these two states have different triggers. De Becker explains one of the key factors that differentiates the two:

Anxiety, unlike real fear, is always caused by uncertainty. It is caused, ultimately, by predictions in which you have little confidence. When you predict that you will be fired from your job and you are certain the prediction is correct, you don’t have anxiety about being fired. You might have anxiety about the things you can’t predict with certainty, such as the ramifications of losing the job. Predictions in which you have high confidence free you to respond, adjust, feel sadness, accept, prepare, or to do whatever is needed. Accordingly, anxiety is reduced by improving your prediction, thus increasing your certainty.

Understand that when we’re anxious, it’s because we’re uncertain. The solution to this, then, isn’t worrying more—it’s doing all we can to either find clarity or working to accept that uncertainty is part of life.

Using fear

What can we learn from de Becker’s call to rethink fear? We learn that we’ll be in a better position if we can face possible threats with a calm mind, alert to our internal signals but not anticipating every possible bad thing that could happen. While being told to stop panicking never helped anyone, we benefit by understanding that being overwhelmed by fear will hurt us more. Our imaginary fears harm us more than reality ever does.

If this approach sounds familiar, it’s because it echoes ideas from Stoic philosophy. Much like de Becker, the Stoics urged us to be realistic about the fact that bad things can and will happen to us throughout our lives. No one can escape that. Once we’ve faced that reality, some of the shock goes away and we can think about how to prepare. After all, catastrophe and tragedy are part of the journey, not an unexpected detour. Being aware and accepting of the inevitable terrible things that will happen is actually a critical tool in mitigating both their severity and impact.

We don’t need to live in fear to stay safe. A better approach is to be aware of the risks we face, accept that some are unknown or unpredictable, and do all we can to be prepared for any serious or imminent dangers. Then we can focus our energy on maintaining a calm mind and trusting that our intuition will protect us.

“We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.”

— Seneca

 

The Stoics also taught us that we should view terrible events as survivable. It would do us well to give ourselves more credit—we’ve all survived occurrences that once seemed like the worst-case scenario, and we can survive many more.

Bad Arguments and How to Avoid Them

Productive arguments serve two purposes: to open our minds to truths we couldn’t see — and help others do the same. Here’s how to avoid common pitfalls and argue like a master.

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We’re often faced with situations in which we need to argue a point, whether we’re pitching an investor or competing for a contract. When being powerfully persuasive matters, it’s important that we don’t use bad arguments that prevent useful debate instead of furthering it. To do this, it’s useful to know some common ways people remove the possibility of a meaningful discussion. While it can be a challenge to keep our cool and not sink to using bad arguments when responding to a Twitter troll or during a heated confrontation over Thanksgiving dinner, we can benefit from knowing what to avoid when the stakes are high.

“If the defendant be a man of straw, who is to pay the costs?” 

— Charles Dickens

 

To start, let’s define three common types of bad arguments, or logical fallacies: “straw man,” “hollow man,” and “iron man.”

Straw man arguments

A straw man argument is a misrepresentation of an opinion or viewpoint, designed to be as easy as possible to refute. Just as a person made of straw would be easier to fight with than a real human, a straw man argument is easy to knock to the ground. And just as it might look a bit like a real person from a distance, a straw man argument has the rough outline of the actual discussion. In some cases, it might seem similar to an outside observer. But it lacks any semblance of substance or strength. The sole purpose is for it to be easy to refute. It’s not an argument you happen to find inconvenient or challenging. It’s one that is logically flawed. A straw man argument may not even be invalid; it’s just not relevant.

It’s important not to confuse a strawman argument with a simplified summary of a complex argument. When we’re having a debate, we may sometimes need to explain an opponent’s grounds back to them to ensure we understand it. In this case, this explanation will be by necessity a briefer version. But it is only a straw man if the simplification is used to make it easier to attack, rather than to facilitate clearer understanding

There are a number of common tactics used to construct straw man arguments. One is per fas et nefas (which means “through right and wrong” in Latin) and involves refuting one of the reasons for an opponent’s argument, then claiming that discredits everything they’ve said. Often, this type of straw man argument will focus on an irrelevant or unimportant detail, selecting the weakest part of the argument. Even though they have no response to the rest of the discourse, they purport to have disproven it in its entirety. As Doug Walton, professor of philosophy at the University of Winnipeg, puts it, “The straw man tactic is essentially to take some small part of an arguer’s position and then treat it as if that represented his larger position, even though it is not really representative of that larger position. It is a form of generalizing from one aspect to a larger, broader position, but not in a representative way.”

Oversimplifying an argument makes it easier to attack by removing any important nuance. An example is the “peanut butter argument,” which states life cannot have evolved through natural selection because we do not see the spontaneous appearance of new life forms inside sealed peanut butter jars. The argument claims evolutionary theory asserts life emerged through a simple combination of matter and heat, both of which are present in a jar of peanut butter. It is a straw man because it uses an incorrect statement about evolution as being representative of the whole theory. The defender of evolution gets trapped into explaining a position they didn’t even have: why life doesn’t spontaneously develop inside a jar of peanut butter.

Another tactic is to over-exaggerate a line of reasoning to the point of absurdity, thus making it easier to refute. An example would be someone claiming a politician who is not opposed to immigration is thus in favor of open borders with no restrictions on who can enter a country. Seeing as that would be a weak view that few people hold, the politician then feels obligated to defend border controls and risks losing control of the debate and being charged as a hypocrite.

“The light obtained by setting straw men on fire is not what we mean by illumination.”

— Adam Gopnik

 

Straw man arguments that respond to irrelevant points could involve ad hominem points, which are sort of relevant but don’t refute the argument—for example, responding to the point that wind turbines are a more environmentally friendly means of generating energy than fossil fuels by saying, “But wind turbines are ugly.” This point has a loose connection, yet the way wind turbines look doesn’t discredit their benefits for power generation. A person who made an ad hominem point like that would likely be doing so because they knew they had no rebuttal for the actual assertion.

Quoting an argument out of context is another tactic of straw man arguments. “Quote mining” is the practice of removing any part of a source that proves contradictory, often using ellipses to fill in the gaps. For instance, film posters and book blurbs will sometimes take quotes from bad reviews out of context to make them seem positive. So, “It’s amazing how bad this film is” becomes “Amazing,” and “The perfect book for people who wish to be bored to tears” becomes “The perfect book.” Reviewers face an uphill battle in trying not to write anything that could be taken out of control in this manner.

Hollow man arguments

A hollow man argument is similar to a straw man one. The difference is that it is a weak case attributed to a non-existent group. Someone will fabricate a viewpoint that is easy to refute, then claim it was made by a group they disagree with. Arguing against an opponent which doesn’t exist is a pretty easy way to win any debate. People who use hollow man arguments will often favor vague, non-specific language without explicitly giving any sources or stating who their opponent is.

Hollow man arguments slip into debate because they’re a lazy way of making a strong point without risking anyone refuting you or needing to be accountable for the actual strength of a line of reasoning. In Why We Argue (And How We Should): A Guide to Political Disagreement, Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse write that “speakers commit the hollow man when they respond critically to arguments that nobody on the opposing side has ever made. The act of erecting a hollow man is an argumentative failure because it distracts attention away from the actual reasons and argument given by one’s opposition. . . . It is a full-bore fabrication of the opposition.”

An example of a hollow man argument would be the claim that animal rights activists want humans and non-human animals to have a perfectly equal legal standing, meaning that dogs would have to start wearing clothes to avoid being arrested for public indecency. This is a hollow man because no one has said that all laws applying to humans should also apply to dogs.

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.”

— Noam Chomsky

 

Iron man argument

An iron man argument is one constructed in such a way that it is resistant to attacks by a challenger. Iron man arguments are difficult to avoid because they have a lot of overlap with legitimate debate techniques. The distinction is whether the person using them is doing so to prevent opposition altogether or if they are open to changing their minds and listening to an opposer. Being proven wrong is painful, which is why we often unthinkingly resort to shielding ourselves from it using iron man arguments.

Someone using an iron man argument often makes their own stance so vague that nothing anyone says about it can weaken it. They’ll make liberal use of caveats, jargon, and imprecise terms. This means they can claim anyone who disagrees didn’t understand them, or they’ll rephrase their contention repeatedly. You could compare this to the language used in the average horoscope or in a fortune cookie. It’s so vague that it’s hard to disagree with or label it as incorrect because it can’t be incorrect. It’s like boxing with a wisp of steam.

An example would be a politician who answers a difficult question about their policies by saying, “I think it’s important that we take the best possible actions to benefit the people of this country. Our priority in this situation is to implement policies that have a positive impact on everyone in society.” They’ve answered the question, just without saying anything that anyone could disagree with.

Why bad arguments are harmful

What is the purpose of debate? Most of us, if asked, would say it’s about helping someone with an incorrect, harmful idea see the light. It’s an act of kindness. It’s about getting to the truth.

But the way we tend to engage in debate contradicts our supposed intentions.

Much of the time, we’re really debating because we want to prove we’re right and our opponent is wrong. Our interest is not in getting to the truth. We don’t even consider the possibility that our opponent might be correct or that we could learn something from them.

As decades of psychological research indicate, our brains are always out to save energy, and part of that is that we prefer not to change our minds about anything. It’s much easier to cling to our existing beliefs through whatever means possible and ignore anything that challenges them. Bad arguments enable us to engage in what looks like a debate but doesn’t pose any risk of forcing us to question what we stand for.

We debate for other reasons, too. Sometimes we’re out to entertain ourselves. Or we want to prove we’re smarter than someone else. Or we’re secretly addicted to the shot of adrenaline we get from picking a fight. And that’s what we’re doing—fighting, not arguing. In these cases, it’s no surprise that shoddy tactics like using straw man or hollow man arguments emerge.

It’s never fun to admit we’re wrong about anything or to have to change our minds. But it is essential if we want to get smarter and see the world as it is, not as we want it to be. Any time we engage in debate, we need to be honest about our intentions. What are we trying to achieve? Are we open to changing our minds? Are we listening to our opponent? Only when we’re out to have a balanced discussion with the possibility of changing our minds can a debate be productive, avoiding the use of logical fallacies.

Bad arguments are harmful to everyone involved in a debate. They don’t get us anywhere because we’re not tackling an opponent’s actual viewpoint. This means we have no hope of convincing them. Worse, this sort of underhand tactic is likely to make an opponent feel frustrated and annoyed by the deliberate misrepresentation of their beliefs. They’re forced to listen to a refutation of something they don’t even believe in the first place, which insults their intelligence. Feeling attacked like this only makes them hold on tighter to their actual belief. It may even make them less willing to engage in any sort of debate in the future.

And if you’re a chronic constructor of bad arguments, as many of us are, it leads people to avoid challenging you or starting discussions. Which means you don’t get to learn from them or have your views questioned. In formal situations, using bad arguments makes it look like you don’t really have a strong point in the first place.

How to avoid using bad arguments

If you want to have useful, productive debates, it’s vital to avoid using bad arguments.

The first thing we need to do to avoid constructing bad arguments is to accept it’s something we’re all susceptible to. It’s easy to look at a logical fallacy and think of all the people we know who use it. It’s much harder to recognize it in ourselves. We don’t always realize when the point we’re making isn’t that strong.

Bad arguments are almost unavoidable if we haven’t taken the time to research both sides of the debate. Sometimes the map is not the territory—that is, our perception of an opinion is not that opinion. The most useful thing we can do is attempt to see the territory. That brings us to steelman arguments and the ideological Turing test.

Steel man arguments

The most powerful way to avoid using bad arguments and to discourage their use by others is to follow the principle of charity and to argue against the strongest and most persuasive version of their grounds. In this case, we suspend disbelief and ignore our own opinions for long enough to understand where they’re coming from. We recognize the good sides of their case and play to its strengths. Ask questions to clarify anything you don’t understand. Be curious about the other person’s perspective. You might not change their mind, but you will at least learn something and hopefully reduce any conflict in the process.

“It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.”

— Joseph Joubert

 

In Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, the philosopher Daniel Dennett offers some general guidelines for using the principle of charity, formulated by social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  1. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  1. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  1. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

An argument that is the strongest version of an opponent’s viewpoint is known as a steel man. It’s purposefully constructed to be as difficult as possible to attack. The idea is that we can only say we’ve won a debate when we’ve fought with a steel man, not a straw one. Seeing as we’re biased towards tackling weaker versions of an argument, often without realizing it, this lets us err on the side of caution.

As challenging as this might be, it serves a bigger picture purpose. Steel man arguments help us understand a new perspective, however ludicrous it might be in our eyes, so we’re better positioned to succeed and connect better in the future. It shows a challenger we are empathetic and willing to listen, regardless of personal opinion. The point is to see the strengths, not the weaknesses. If we’re open-minded, not combative, we can learn a lot.

“He who knows only his side of the case knows little of that.”

— John Stuart Mill

 

An exercise in steel manning, the ideological Turing test, proposes that we cannot say we understand an opponent’s position unless we would be able to argue in favor of it so well that an observer would not be able to tell which opinion we actually hold. In other words, we shouldn’t hold opinions we can’t argue against. The ideological Turing test is a great thought experiment to establish whether you understand where an opponent is coming from.

Although we don’t have the option to do this for every single thing we disagree with, when a debate is extremely important to us, the ideological Turing test can be a helpful tool for ensuring we’re fully prepared. Even if we can’t use it all the time, it can serve us well in high-stakes situations.

How to handle other people using bad arguments

“You could not fence with an antagonist who met rapier thrust with blow of battle axe.”

— L.M. Montgomery

 

Let’s say you’re in the middle of a debate with someone with a different opinion than yours. You’re responding to the steel man version of their explanation, staying calm and measured. But what do you do if your opponent starts using bad arguments against you? What if they’re not listening to you?

The first thing you can do when someone uses a bad argument against you is the simplest: point it out. Explain what they’re doing and why it isn’t helpful. There’s not much point in just telling them they’re using a straw man argument or any other type of logical fallacy. If they’re not familiar with the concept, it may just seem like alienating jargon. There’s also not much point in using it as a “gotcha!” point which will likewise foster more tensions. It’s best to define the concept, then reiterate your actual beliefs and how they differ from the bad argument they’re arguing against.

  1. Edward Damer writes in Attacking Faulty Reasoning, “It is not always possible to know whether an opponent has deliberately distorted your argument or has simply failed to understand or interpret it in the way that you intended. For this reason, it might be helpful to recapitulate the basic outline . . . or [ask] your opponent to summarize it for you.”

If this doesn’t work, you can continue to repeat your original point and make no attempt to defend the bad argument. Should your opponent prove unwilling to recognize their use of a bad argument (and you’re 100% certain that’s what they’re doing), it’s worth considering if there is any point in continuing the debate. The reality is that most of the debates we have are not rationally thought out; they’re emotionally driven. This is even more pertinent when we’re arguing with people we have a complex relationship with. Sometimes, it’s better to walk away.

Conclusion

The bad arguments discussed here are incredibly common logical fallacies in debates. We often use them without realizing it or experience them without recognizing it. But these types of debates are unproductive and unlikely to help anyone learn. If we want our arguments to create buy-in and not animosity, we need to avoid making bad ones.

Muscular Bonding: How Dance Made Us Human

Do we dance simply for recreation? Or is there a primal urge that compels us to do it? Historian William McNeill claims it saved our species by creating community togetherness and transforming “me” into “we.”

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“Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.”  

— Voltaire

Why do we dance? To most, it might seem like a trivial topic. But if you contemplate the sheer pervasiveness of dance across all of human society, it becomes apparent that it is anything but.

It’s more useful to learn foundational principles that won’t go out of date than it is to go all in on the latest fad. When it comes to understanding people, we can learn a lot by studying human universals that exist across cultures and time. These universals give us insight into how to create connections in a way that fosters social cohesion and cooperation.

Once such universal is dance. At every point throughout history, all over the world, people from every walk of life have come together to dance; to move in unison alongside music, singing, and other rhythmic input, like drumming or stomping. The specifics and the names attached vary. But something akin to dance is an ever-present cultural feature throughout human history.

Soldiers perform military drills and march in time. People in rural communities carried out community dances at regular events, like harvests. Hunters in tribal communities dance before they go off to catch food and have likely done so for thousands of years. We dance during initiation rites, like coming-of-age ceremonies. We dance before going to war. We dance at weddings and religious festivals. Countercultural movements, like hippies in the United States, dance. Fanatical leaders force their followers to perform set movements together. Calisthenics and group exercise are popular worldwide, especially in parts of Asia.

The more you look for it, the more examples of dance-like activities appear everywhere. From a biological perspective, we know species-wide costly activities that are costly in terms of time, energy and other resources must have a worthwhile payoff. Thus, the energy expended in dance must aid our survival. In his 1995 book, Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History, historian William H. McNeill made a bold claim: he argued that we owe our success as a species to collective synchronized movements. In other words, we’re still here because we dance.

***

In the 1940s, the U.S. Army drafted William H. McNeill. With limited supplies, there was little to occupy him and his peers during training. So, whenever things got boring, they performed marching drills. For hours, they walked in circles under the hot Texas sun. On paper, it was dull and pointless. What were they even achieving? When McNeill reflected, it seemed strange that drills should be an integral part of training. It also seemed strange that he’d quite enjoyed it, as had most of his peers. McNeil writes:

Marching aimlessly about on the drill field, swaggering in conformity with prescribed military postures, conscious only of keeping in step so as to make the next move correctly and in time somehow felt good. Words are inadequate to describe the emotion aroused by the prolonged movement in unison that drilling involved . . . marching became an end in itself.

Upon further thought and study, McNeill came to identify the indescribable feeling he experienced during army drills as something “far older than language and critically important in human history, because the emotion it arouses constitutes an indefinitely expansible basis for social cohesion among any and every group that keeps together in time.”

What exactly did he experience? At the time, there was no term for it. But McNeill coined one: “muscular bonding.” This refers to a sense of euphoric connection that is sparked by performing rhythmic movements in unison to music or chanting. Few people are immune to the influence of muscular bonding. It played a role in the formation and maintenance of many of our key institutions, such as religion, the military, and politics. We can all relate to the endorphin hit that comes from strenuous dancing, as with other forms of exercise. If you’ve ever danced with a group of people, you may have also noticed a remarkable sense of connection and unity with them. This is the effect of muscular bonding.

Seeing as there has been little study into the phenomenon, McNeill puts forward a theory which is, by his own admission, unprovable. It nonetheless offers one perspective on muscular bonding. He argues that it works because “rhythmic input from muscles and voice, after gradually suffusing through the entire nervous system, may provoke echoes of the fetal condition when a major and perhaps principal external stimulus to the developing brain was the mother’s heartbeat.” In other words, through dancing and synchronized movement, we experience something akin to what we did at the earliest point of existence. While most likely impossible to prove or disprove, it’s an interesting proposition.

Since the publication of Keeping Together in Time, new research has lent greater support to McNeill’s theories about the effects of muscular bonding, although studies are still limited.

***

How exactly has muscular bonding aided us in more recent times? To explore the concept, let’s look at the type McNeill was closest acquainted with: the military drill. It enables collective organization through emotional connections facilitated by synchronous movement.

Drills have obvious, tangible benefits. They encourage obedience and compliance with orders, which are valuable attributes in the fog of war. They can fit in with maneuvers and similar group efforts on the battlefield. In ancient times, it helped units stay together on the field and work together cooperatively when communication was difficult, and all fighting took place on the ground.

But drills are also a powerful form of muscular bonding. According to McNeill’s theory, they assist in creating strong connections between soldiers, possibly because the physical movements promote the experience of being a small part of a large, cohesive unit.

While we cannot establish if it is causation or correlation, it is notable that many of the most successful armies throughout history emphasized drills. For example, the ancient Greeks and Romans both incorporated drills into their military training. And around the sixteenth century, drills became the standard in European armies. McNeill explains how this helped soldiers develop intense ties to each other and their cause:

The emotional resonance of daily and prolonged close order drill created such a lively esprit de corps among the poverty-stricken peasant recruits and urban outcasts who came to constitute the rank and file of European armies that other social ties faded into insignificance beside them.

These armies were cohesive, despite the different backgrounds of members. What made this possible was the allegiance soldiers had to each other. Loyalty to the army replaced former loyalties, such as prior alignments with the church or their families. Many soldiers report experiencing the sense that they fought for their peers, not for their leaders or their country or ideology. And it was moving together that helped break down barriers and allowed the group to reconstruct itself as a single unit with a shared goal.

***

“You can’t dance and be sad. You can listen to music and cry, you can read and cry, you can draw and cry but you can’t dance and cry. The body wont let you.”

Esther Perel

Today, a growing percentage of people find themselves alienated from any particular community, without strong bonds to any discernible group. Loneliness is on the rise. More people live alone, remain single or childless, move to new geographical locations on a regular basis, and otherwise fail to develop close ties. This is a shift that is unprecedented in human history.

What that means is that there is tremendous value in considering how we can bring connection back into our lives; we must figure out how to help alleviate the dangerous effects of isolation and alienation from each other. There is an incredible precedent in history for using dance to create a sense of community and intimacy. Physical movement helps us forge connections that can override our differences. For instance, countercultural movements of those people rejected by mainstream society have often danced to create their own distinct community, as was the case during the hippy movement in 1960s America.

Giving thought to what it takes to unify people is even more important now as we face problems that affect humanity as a whole and require wide-scale collaboration to resolve. Again and again, history has shown us that keeping together in time forms groups that have a power greater than the sum of their parts. The emergent properties of moving together can be achieved even if we are not physically in the same space. As long as we know we are moving in a way that is being done by others, the bonding effects happen.

McNeill writes: “It is and always has been a powerful force at work among humankind whether for good or ill. . . . Our future, like our past, depends on how we utilize these modes of coordinating common effort for agreed purposes.”

Muscular bonding is not a panacea. It cannot instantly heal deep rifts in society, nor can it save individuals from the effects of social isolation. But it will pay off for us to look at history and see the tools we have at our disposal for bringing people together. Dance is one such tool. Whether you’re able to attend a concert or club, or simply have a dance party in your living room with your kids or over video chat with loved ones you can’t be near, when we move together we have an experience that deepens our connection to one another and gives us the openings for unity and cooperation.

Why We Focus on Trivial Things: The Bikeshed Effect

Bikeshedding is a metaphor to illustrate the strange tendency we have to spend excessive time on trivial matters, often glossing over important ones. Here’s why we do it, and how to stop.

***

How can we stop wasting time on unimportant details? From meetings at work that drag on forever without achieving anything to weeks-long email chains that don’t solve the problem at hand, we seem to spend an inordinate amount of time on the inconsequential. Then, when an important decision needs to be made, we hardly have any time to devote to it.

To answer this question, we first have to recognize why we get bogged down in the trivial. Then we must look at strategies for changing our dynamics towards generating both useful input and time to consider it.

The Law of Triviality

You’ve likely heard of Parkinson’s Law, which states that tasks expand to fill the amount of time allocated to them. But you might not have heard of the lesser-known Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, also coined by British naval historian and author Cyril Northcote Parkinson in the 1950s.

The Law of Triviality states that the amount of time spent discussing an issue in an organization is inversely correlated to its actual importance in the scheme of things. Major, complex issues get the least discussion while simple, minor ones get the most discussion.

Parkinson’s Law of Triviality is also known as “bike-shedding,” after the story Parkinson uses to illustrate it. He asks readers to imagine a financial committee meeting to discuss a three-point agenda. The points are as follows:

  1. A proposal for a £10 million nuclear power plant
  2. A proposal for a £350 bike shed
  3. A proposal for a £21 annual coffee budget

What happens? The committee ends up running through the nuclear power plant proposal in little time. It’s too advanced for anyone to really dig into the details, and most of the members don’t know much about the topic in the first place. One member who does is unsure how to explain it to the others. Another member proposes a redesigned proposal, but it seems like such a huge task that the rest of the committee decline to consider it.

The discussion soon moves to the bike shed. Here, the committee members feel much more comfortable voicing their opinions. They all know what a bike shed is and what it looks like. Several members begin an animated debate over the best possible material for the roof, weighing out options that might enable modest savings. They discuss the bike shed for far longer than the power plant.

At last, the committee moves onto item three: the coffee budget. Suddenly, everyone’s an expert. They all know about coffee and have a strong sense of its cost and value. Before anyone realizes what is happening, they spend longer discussing the £21 coffee budget than the power plant and the bike shed combined! In the end, the committee runs out of time and decides to meet again to complete their analysis. Everyone walks away feeling satisfied, having contributed to the conversation.

Why this happens

Bike-shedding happens because the simpler a topic is, the more people will have an opinion on it and thus more to say about it. When something is outside of our circle of competence, like a nuclear power plant, we don’t even try to articulate an opinion.

But when something is just about comprehensible to us, even if we don’t have anything of genuine value to add, we feel compelled to say something, lest we look stupid. What idiot doesn’t have anything to say about a bike shed? Everyone wants to show that they know about the topic at hand and have something to contribute.

With any issue, we shouldn’t be according equal importance to every opinion anyone adds. We should emphasize the inputs from those who have done the work to have an opinion. And when we decide to contribute, we should be putting our energy into the areas where we have something valuable to add that will improve the outcome of the decision.

Strategies for avoiding bike-shedding

The main thing you can do to avoid bike-shedding is for your meeting to have a clear purpose. In The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, Priya Parker, who has decades of experience designing high-stakes gatherings, says that any successful gathering (including a business meeting) needs to have a focused and particular purpose. “Specificity,” she says, “is a crucial ingredient.”

Why is having a clear purpose so critical? Because you use it as the lens to filter all other decisions about your meeting, including who to have in the room.

With that in mind, we can see that it’s probably not a great idea to discuss building a nuclear power plant and a bike shed in the same meeting. There’s not enough specificity there.

The key is to recognize that the available input on an issue doesn’t all need considering. The most informed opinions are most relevant. This is one reason why big meetings with lots of people present, most of whom don’t need to be there, are such a waste of time in organizations. Everyone wants to participate, but not everyone has anything meaningful to contribute.

When it comes to choosing your list of invitees, Parker writes, “if the purpose of your meeting is to make a decision, you may want to consider having fewer cooks in the kitchen.” If you don’t want bike-shedding to occur, avoid inviting contributions from those who are unlikely to have relevant knowledge and experience. Getting the result you want—a thoughtful, educated discussion about that power plant—depends on having the right people in the room.

It also helps to have a designated individual in charge of making the final judgment. When we make decisions by committee with no one in charge, reaching a consensus can be almost impossible. The discussion drags on and on. The individual can decide in advance how much importance to accord to the issue (for instance, by estimating how much its success or failure could help or harm the company’s bottom line). They can set a time limit for the discussion to create urgency. And they can end the meeting by verifying that it has indeed achieved its purpose.

Any issue that invites a lot of discussions from different people might not be the most important one at hand. Avoid descending into unproductive triviality by having clear goals for your meeting and getting the best people to the table to have a productive, constructive discussion.