Catastrophe


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It means that an investor, say, could be rewarded for a lucky streak in their performance even if there is clear evidence of incompetent or unethical behaviour, since their boss is unable to disconnect their decision-making from their results. Conversely, it shows how a failure can subtly harm your reputation even if there is clear evidence that you had acted appropriately based on the information at hand.

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The outcome bias may even affect our understand of sport. They could simply bask in the victory of others.

It found that pilots were more likely to underestimate the dangers of the flight if they had just heard that another pilot had successfully made it through the same route. In reality, there is no guarantee that their success would mean a safe passage for the second flight — they may have only made it through by luck — but the outcome bias means that the pilots overlooked this fact.

If someone weathers one storm unscathed, they become less likely to purchase flood insurance before the next disaster, for instance.

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The foam had broken from the insulation on many previous flights, however — but due to lucky circumstance it had never before created enough damage to cause a crash. The participants were also more conscious of the latent danger if they were told they would have to explain their judgement to a senior manager.

Savani agrees that we can protect ourselves from the outcome bias. He has found, for instance, that priming people to think more carefully about the context surrounding a decision or behaviour can render them less susceptible to the outcome effect. The aim should be to think about the particular circumstances in which it was made and to recognise the factors, including chance, that might have contributed to the end result.

What factors might have caused that different outcome? And would you still rate the decision or process the same way, if that had occurred? Consider that case of the scientist who was fudging their drug results. Even if the drug was safe in the end, imagining the worst-case scenario — with patient deaths — would make you more conscious of the risks he was taking.

Similarly, if you were that pilot who chose to fly in unsuitable conditions, you might look at each flight to examine any risks you were taking and to think through how that might have played out in different circumstances. Whether you are an investor, a pilot or a Nasa scientist, these strategies to avoid the outcome bias will help prevent a chance success from blinding you to dangers in front of your eyes.

Life is a gamble, but you can at least stack the odds in your favour, rather than allowing your mind to lull you into a false sense of security.

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David Robson is a writer based in London and Barcelona. We often judge the quality of a decision or behaviour by its endpoint, while ignoring the many mitigating factors that might have contributed to success or failure. The end, not the means Like much of our understanding of human irrationality, the outcome bias was first observed in the s, with a seminal study of medical decision-making.

Negative results lead us to blame someone for events that were clearly beyond their control, even when we know all the facts that excuse their decision-making. If someone weathers one storm unscathed, they become less likely to purchase flood insurance before the next disaster. The fear of such imminent catastrophes leads to a state of hypervigilance: where we are permanently on the alert, permanently worried, permanently scared, and permanently really very unhappy.

People may try to reassure us, but reassurance goes nowhere; the terror remains.


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If the future is to get brighter, we will need to remember the catastrophe and locate it where it really belongs: safely but also poignantly and tragically in the past. It is strange that we should have forgotten the catastrophe. It is too painful to be held in active consciousness, to be processed and verbalised — and it therefore gets pushed into the unnameable unknown zones of the mind, where it creates ongoing havoc.

The best clue to our past lies in our fears of the future. Imagine filling in a simple table.

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Bringing this to the surface is liable to be immensely difficult. It requires time, very relaxed circumstances, perhaps music, a long train or plane journey, a chat with a friend or therapist, a night or two when one stays up very late with a pad and paper and no phone and just thinks while the rest of the world sleeps.

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The logic of the exercise dictates that we should, for every entry in the left, be able eventually to think of an entry in the right. But eventually, some memories are likely to resurface, along with a lot of sadness and ideally compassion for oneself. But we have to draw a distinction between abject terror and fear.

We can take action, were bad things to occur to us, in a way that children who were traumatised never could.

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Life may yet get very tricky for us, but we never need be as terrified of it we were when the original catastrophe occurred. Most likely, nothing as bad as we have feared will ever occur, not because we are lucky but because we were very unlucky in the past — and it is this bad luck, rather than something in the real world, that is leading us to be so unjustly and so cruelly afraid of living today. With sufficient exploration of the past, the terror of what is ahead could — just — be relocated to the category of historic trauma where it truly and cathartically belongs.

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