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Why Leaders Overreact

“It’s easy to second-guess decision makers when you don’t have to live with the consequences of the decision. These decisions are not something you get to do over again if you turn out to be wrong.”

Los Angeles Chief of Police Charlie Beck, hours after it was announced that the shutdown of the Los Angeles Unified School District was due to a hoax message that the FBI determined was ‘not credible.’

When we make a determination about risk based on incomplete information, two kinds of error can occur.  In Type I errors, we characterize a situation as active, significant or dangerous when it really isn’t. In Type II errors, we characterize a situation as calm, insignificant and safe when it really isn’t.   Leaders who don’t want to lose their positions are more inclined to make Type I errors because the personal cost to politicians for Type II errors is more severe.  Type I politicians who sound the alarm about danger in safe situations can always retreat to the position that they were simply being careful or cautious, or make vague references to secret evidence that the circumstances were actually more dire than the public knows.  But Type II politicians who reassure their constituents that they are safe shortly before some of their constituents are harmed will be forever hounded by the media and the public for not knowing better.  They’ll lose their office, their power, their reputation.  They might even get sued.  From a self-centered point of view, it almost always pays for public officials to follow the Type I path and overreact to dangers.

The problem with an overemphasis on Type I decision-making is that there are costs beyond the fate of any single politician.  Security and defense budgets drain us of billions of dollars every day at the federal, state and local level to combat miniscule risks, billions of dollars that could build schools, find cures for deadly diseases, or otherwise help suffering people.  Hype-provoked fear among members of the public leads to rejection of outsiders and reinforcement of biases that, paradoxically, keep us from making peace with others in the world.  Our leaders may conclude it personally prudent to habitually press the panic button, but if the public kept them accountable for more subtle damage, they might come to a different conclusion entirely.

8 thoughts on “Why Leaders Overreact”

  1. John says:

    “Billions of dollars”? Where’s the link to that info?

    1. Jim Cook says:

      To get to billions of dollars a day, we need at least 365 billion a year. The federal “homeland security” budget alone, spread across 29 agencies, is by the White House’s own reckoning some $71 billion this year. Source: . The direct cost of Iraq and Afghanistan activities, just for the ongoing “mop-up,” adds another $66 billion this year. Source: . Indirect costs, including human resources, extended benefits and interest on the national debt accumulated from past anti-terrorist actions, fall over 200 bilion dollars a year. Source: . White House estimates of state-level spending indicate a rate of $71 billion annually across 50 states and DC. Source: . This is just the start of the expenses, which don’t include spending at the county, city, town, school district or corporate levels, and which don’t include intelligence budgets or the classified “black budget.”

      1. Korky Day says:

        Jim Cook, why do you think that changing from Type 1 to Type 2 would reduce those costs by 2 billion $ / day?

        Whatever it costs, you think the public should vote for politicians who want to gamble a little more on everyone’s safety. Like those wild cyclists who save on bicycle weight by removing the brakes. Good luck.

        1. Jim Cook says:

          Like those people who wrote the Constitution. Like the Green Party you purport to admire.

          1. Korky Day says:

            Of course, Jim Cook, when we go from theory to specifics, even more differences in opinion and application can arise. The Constitution writers and my fellow Green Partiers would agree on some decisions, not on others. I don’t know what the balance would be exactly, and I doubt that you do, either.

            When they closed the L.A. schools (I once lived there) maybe more of the experts were saying the threat might be credible. We’d have to be in that room to make an assessment more fairly, eh?

  2. Theboy says:

    Very true.

    We praise ourselves constantly for being a brave, courageous people, yet behave as craven children. We damn our leaders for not keeping us safe from things that are unpreventable and even the harms we inflict on ourselves.

    A person in NYC asked me a couple days ago if she should go to the Star Wars movie “with everything that’s been going on.” I’m afraid Ii gasped at her, boggled for a moment.

    1. J Clifford says:

      If she means by “everything that’s been going on” the dramatic decline in the quality of Star Wars movies with every new sequel, then yes, she should avoid the movie theater.

      1. Korky Day says:

        I’ve never seen any of them. The name is juvenile. I read the Bible already. That was boring enough. I don’t need a Bible in outer space.

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