Tag: Iatrogenics

Do Something Syndrome: When Movement Trumps Results

Petronius_Arbiter_by_Bodart_1707

Solving problems almost always starts with ensuring you’re solving the actual problem. When the actions we should take are not obvious, or the problem is difficult, it’s easy to feel the need to do something … anything. We convince ourselves that motion is better than inaction. The choice, however, isn’t between action and inaction. This is a false duality. There is a third option that often makes the most sense.

“We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form into teams, we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing, and what a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.”

— Roman satirist Petronius Arbiter

There is something almost poetic in the way that Petronius (27 AD — 66 AD) so succinctly captures a phenomenon that most of us have been through.

Poorly performing organizations or divisions reorganize all the time. Sometimes the source of the problem is the organization, more often than not, however, reorganizations offer little impact on the results.

Consider taking charge of a poorly performing division at work. The pressure to deliver is high. You’re told this is your big opportunity. You’re advised to take charge and lead. You’ve been taught that doing something is the same as results, so you naturally mistake movement for results. So it’s only natural that you come up with a plan to move the boxes around and reorganize the division.

Movement offers shelter from failure. When you’re in motion, you feel like you’re doing something. We convince ourselves that as long as we’re in motion, we can’t fail. As long as we’re doing something, anything, failure can’t really find us.

Movement feeds our ego. Our evolutionary programming craves the validation of others. In a world that values action and short soundbites, nuanced conversations are hard. Others don’t have time to really listen to your nuanced story as they run to their next meeting. And telling people that you’re doing nothing results in disapproving looks. Movement offers the drug of validation to the outside world. It is far easier to tell others that we’re doing something than doing nothing. And so we do.

Perhaps a few examples will help illustrate the concept. First, consider the person we all know that is always planning to start a business. Planning is doing something. It’s action. We can tell others about our dreams, and as long as we’re planning we never risk failure. Second, consider the person who has been writing a book for years. The movement of editing and refining serve a purpose, of course, but when that purpose becomes an end we never get results.  There is no risk of failure if you don’t publish your work. Finally, consider the person that wants to get a promotion at work. They take on so many new projects they are always too busy to apply for that promotion. They’re busy but they aren’t getting the results they want.

Movement teases us with the illusion of progress. However, action for the sake of action that results in success is nothing more than dumb luck. And Confusing movement with results often makes things worse, not better.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather make success a little less about luck every day.

Motion is easy. Results are hard.

Preparations are necessary but not sufficient for achieving results. The actions we take are often just preparations for what we really want to accomplish. We read a diet book instead of dieting. We learn how to use Shopify or Woo commerce instead of starting a store. When we confuse preparations with the end instead of the means, we really trick ourselves.

Maybe Pascal was right when he said, “The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” And yet this inability to sit quietly serves us as well. You wouldn’t be reading this right now if the people who made your device sat quietly in a room. As with everything, it’s not black and white. We have to learn when sitting quietly in a room serves us and when it hurts us.

Doing something isn’t the same as getting results. The problem is we convince ourselves that our only options are to do something or do nothing. We forget the third option, gathering more information. While there will always be pressure to do something immediately with urgency, most of the time that action will be wasted. We’d be much better off if we stop for a moment and gather more information before acting.

The next time you feel the urge to do something for the sake of doing something remember what Thoreau said: “It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”

Iatrogenics: Why Intervention Often Leads to Worse Outcomes

Iatros

 

Iatrogenics is when a treatment causes more harm than benefit. As iatros means healer in Greek, the word means “caused by the healer” or “brought by the healer.”  Healer, in this sense, need not mean doctor, but anyone intervening to solve a problem. For example, it could be a thought leader, a CEO, a government, or a coalition of the willing. Nassim Taleb calls these people interventionistas. Often these people come armed with solutions to solve the first order consequences of a decision but create worse second and subsequent order consequences. Luckily, for them at least, they’re never around to see the train wreck they created.

Today we use the phrase iatrogenics to refer to any effect resulting from an intervention in excess of gain. Some examples are easier recognized than others. For example, when the negative effects are immediate and visible and appear to be a direct cause-effect, we can reasonably conclude that the intervention caused the negative effect. However, if the negative effects are delayed or could be explained by multiple causes, we are less likely to conclude the intervention caused them.

A great example of iatrogenics in action is the death of George Washington. In 1799, as he lay dying from a bacterial infection, his well-intentioned doctors aided or hastened his death using the standard treatment at the time, which was bloodletting (at least five pints, according to Ron Chernow).

More controversial examples exist as well, such as military interventions in the Middle East. In these cases, linkages are clouded by narratives, moral arguments, and clear cause and impact. (A great book to read on this is Perilous Interventions.) And when the linkages between cause and effect are murky, the very people who caused the harm are often the people rewarded for improving the situation.

The key lesson here is that if we are to intervene, we need a solid idea of not only the benefits of our interventions but also the harm we may cause—the second and subsequent order consequences.  Otherwise, how will we know when, despite our best intentions, we cause more harm than we do good?

Intervening when we have no idea of the break-even point is “naive interventionism,” a phrase first brought to my attention by Nassim Taleb. In Antifragile, Taleb writes:

In the case of tonsillectomies, the harm to the children undergoing unnecessary treatment is coupled with the trumpeted gain for some others. The name for such net loss, the (usually bitten or delayed) damage from treatment in excess of the benefits, is iatrogenics.

***

Why would people do something even when the evidence points out that doing something is actually causing more harm?

I can think of a few reasons as to why otherwise well-intentioned people continue to intervene where consequences outweigh the benefits.

Some of the flaws include 1) an inability to think through problems, 2) separation from consequences, 3) a bias for action, and 4) no skin in the game. Let’s flesh these out a little.

The first flaw is the inability to think through second and subsequent order consequences. They fail to realize that the second and subsequent order consequences exist at all or could outweigh the benefits. Most things in life happen at the second, third, or nth steps.

The second flaw is a distance from consequences. When there is a time delay between an action and its consequences (feedback) it can be hard to know that you’re causing harm. This allows, even encourages, some self-delusion. Given that we are prone to confirming our beliefs—and presumably we took action because we believed it to be helpful—we’re unlikely to see evidence that contradicts our beliefs.

The third flaw is a bias for action. This is also known as, to paraphrase Charlie Munger, do something syndrome. If you’re a policy advisor or politician, or heck, even a modern office worker, social norms make it hard for you to say “I don’t know.” You’re expected to have an opinion on everything.

The fourth flaw is one of incentives, they have no or little skin in the game. They win if things go right and suffer no consequences if things go wrong.

Hippocrates

Hippocrates created the first principle of medicine era-primum non nocere (“first do no harm”), which is to avoid iatrogenic effects. This is a great example of inversion. Outside of medicine, however, this concept is little known.

Think about how a typical meeting starts. In response to a new product from a competitor, for example, the first question people usually ask is “What are we going to do about this?” The hidden assumption that goes unexplored is that you need to do something. Rarely do we even consider that the cost of doing something outweighs the benefits. 

And the optics of doing nothing are not without consequences. It will appear to your boss that you’re not doing anything. You have an incentive to be seen as doing something even if the costs of taking action are high.

What We Can Learn

Intervention—by people or governments—should only be used when the benefits visibly outweigh the negatives. A great example is saving a life. “Otherwise,” Nassim Taleb writes in Antifragile, “in situations in which the benefits of a particular medicine, procedure, or nutritional or lifestyle modification appear small—say, those aiming for comfort—we have a large potential sucker problem (hence putting us on the wrong side of convexity effects).”

A simple rule for the decision maker is that intervention needs to prove its benefits and those benefits need to be orders of magnitude higher than the natural (that is non-interventionist) path. We intuitively know this already. We won’t switch apps or brands for a marginal increase over the status quo. Only when the benefits become orders of magnitude higher do we switch.

We must also recognize that some systems self-correct; this is the essence of homeostasis. Naive interventionists, or the interventionista, often deny that natural homeostatic mechanisms are sufficient, that “something needs to be done” — yet often the best course of action is nothing at all.


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