Limiting The Damage From Bad Ideas

I’ve never tried to implement a bad idea in my life. No one has. If we didn’t think the idea was good, and sound, we would have abandoned it. Yet plenty of bad ideas have taken root. And damaged our society, institutions and companies. And each other and ourselves. Here are just a few of the obvious societal ones in my lifetime:

  • Offshoring of so many of our working-class jobs
  • Gutting our town centers in exchange for suburban sprawl
  • Roe v. Wade (but perhaps not for the reason you think)
  • Subsidizing fossil fuel exploration, production and use
  • Repealing the Glass-Steagall Act
  • Invading Iraq
  • Citizens United
  • Allowing drivers to text and talk on hand-held phones while driving
  • Heaping a mountain of debt on college students and their parents
  • Electing Donald Trump
  • Spending billions on a wall
  • Digging a debt hole so deep (both public and private) there are only injurious ways out
  • Promoting gambling

Undoubtedly, some people disagree: they think certain or all of the above-mentioned ideas were good. Personally, I don’t think any of them are even a close call. But in any case, we’re all entitled to our own opinions. (We’re just not entitled to our own facts.)

The above are sins of commission. I haven’t even touched upon the bad ideas not to do something. At the top of my list of bad ideas of omission are our failure to:

  • deal with the gross inequity in our country by addressing the bad public policies that helped cause it;
  • ensure access to affordable quality health care for everyone;
  • reform our corrupt system of campaign finance;
  • put an end to gerrymandering, whereby incumbents essentially rig the elections; and
  • invest in our future (infrastructure, children, etc.).

In my book, these represent moral failures. And all are products of bad ideas (or what we more commonly call ideology or politics). There is much deeply flawed ideology in the world today.

When you get older, Vera, you’ll be able to come up with your own list of bad ideas. Your list may look very different from mine.

It’s important to remember though that bad ideas aren’t found only in the public forum. Each of us has bad ideas as well. And each of us acts on them from time to time — to our detriment.

I’ve mentioned some of my bad ideas in previous posts, and I’ll probably mention some others in future posts. But I may overlook some because I don’t even realize they were bad. Often, we yield to attribution bias, blaming outside causes over which we had no control rather than face up to our own bad ideas.

Of course life would be better, and easier, if we could simply avoid the bad ideas and only embrace the good ones. So the question is, what can we do to become better at discerning the difference between a good and bad idea? Stated differently, how can we spot the bad ideas before implementing them and suffering the consequences?

I suppose it’s impossible to avoid all bad ideas. I suppose that’s the case because I haven’t seen it done. From what I’ve observed, even the smartest and wisest in our midst embrace bad ideas from time to time. Perhaps there’s a perfect decision maker out there some where. But I haven’t seen him or her yet.

That’s not to say, however, that we can’t become better at distinguishing good from bad — that we can’t become better at spotting the bad ideas before it’s too late.

I think we can. And here are some of the ways that I’ve found can work:

  • Strive for rationality and not to allow your emotions to rule your decision making. I’m reminded of what Charlie Munger has said: his goal is to become the more rational person he can become. Charlie gets it. He understands how our emotions and biases can make bad ideas seem good. And don’t allow anyone to convince you to rely on your gut. Guts are good at producing some things, but good ideas aren’t one of them.
  • Take your time; don’t rush a decision. When in doubt, go off by yourself for a weekend and ponder it without interruption. Take longer if necessary. Meditate. Pray. And don’t become wedded to an option early. If you do, confirmation bias will set in and all objectivity will be lost.
  • Understand probabilities. Appreciate that certainty is an illusion and that most of the time we’re making our best guess. Nothing more. So don’t delude yourself into believing there are right decisions and wrong decisions, or inherently good and bad ideas. Context matters. So does timing. We have to judge most ideas without all the information we need. Go with the best odds given the relevant context.
  • Don’t rely too much on the opinions of others. Few people are willing or able to be totally honest with you. Many people will tell you what they think you want to hear. Or simply convey the conventional wisdom. Or stroke your ego. They mean well. But they can lead you astray. Take advice with a grain of salt (including mine!).
  • Be honest with ourselves. Test our true motives. Don’t allow our mind (or gut) to con ourself.

Bad ideas, good ideas. Who’s to know? All we can do is make our best guess. But it’s worth taking the time and care to make it our best.

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