Death Squads and Decision-Making

Two authors whose work I admire, Dan and Chip Heath, have a book coming out called Decisive, about the way in which we make decisions. It begins:

Shannon, the head of a small consulting firm, is agonizing about whether to fire Clive, her IT director. Over the past year, Clive has consistently failed to do more than the minimum required of him. He’s not without his talents—he’s intelligent and has a knack for improvising cheap solutions to technical problems—but he rarely takes any initiative. Worse, his attitude is poor. In meetings, he is often critical of other people’s ideas, sometimes caustically so.

Unfortunately, losing Clive would cause problems in the short- term. He understands how to maintain the company’s database of clients better than anyone else.

What would you advise her to do? Should she fire him or not? 

IF YOU REFLECT on the past few seconds of your mental activity, what’s astonishing is how quickly your opinions started to form. Most of us, reflecting on the Clive situation, feel like we already know enough to start offering advice. Maybe you’d advise Shannon to fire Clive, or maybe you’d encourage her to give him another chance. But chances are you didn’t feel flummoxed.

This lack of uncertainty is a major finding by psychologists working in the discipline of judgment and decision-making. When given certain pieces of information, our mind tends to immediately form an opinion. More troublesome, we often don’t realize how incomplete our opinion is. The work of some of these psychologists that our level of confidence in our opinion is based on the coherence of the narrative we have in our head, rather than how strong the evidence is, or whether all of our evidence points the same way.

Jeffrey Gettleman, the NYTimes’ Foreign Correspondent for East Africa (someone who seems to be universally praised by any Americans living in America for his “straightforward, non-cynical approach” and mocked by those living in Africa for being an elitist, out of touch guy who nominates himself for Pulitzer prizes) began a story on the Kenyan elections, and Uhuru Kenyatta’s early lead, in the following way:

“He has been charged with heinous crimes, accused of using a vast fortune to bankroll death squads that slaughtered women and children. His running mate also faces charges of crimes against humanity, and as Kenya’s election drew closer, the Obama administration’s top official for Africa issued a thinly veiled warning during a conference call about the vote, saying that Kenyans are, of course, free to pick their own leaders but that “choices have consequences.”

From my exposure to the Kenyan elections, a lot of foreigners seem to feel that way. “Uhuru Kenyatta is a horrible, horrible man and Kenya is making a horrible mistake in electing him.” Many Kenyans seem to have a completely different opinion. The ICC is a Western Institution, and trying Kenyatta is their way of keeping Kenya down. Kenyatta is simply a victim of the West’s efforts to keep Africa under control.

At the end of the day, either Uhuru Kenyatta is guilty of having hired death squads to rape and murder political opponents following the last election. However, when asked about my opinion about the charges against Uhuru, my answer is always firmly that I don’t know. Simply put, I have no idea if he is guilty of the charges for which he is accused. Furthermore, I suspect I have gone to greater lengths than most proffering their opinion to ascertain the truth. I have read some of the ICC documents for his case, and plan on seeing what the witness testimonies have to say. However, until the trial takes place (and perhaps even afterwards), my opinion is that given how little information is readily available, it seems absurd to say whether or not I think he is guilty.

However, it doesn’t seem as though my sentiment is shared by many. Most people, when asked about him, seem to have strong and decisive opinions about his innocence or guilt. It bothers me to no end. While my opening to this post begins with our natural tendency to immediately feel confident in our opinions, this is one case where I wish people’s views better reflected the uncertainty that should be present. There are very few people in the world right now who truly know whether or not Uhuru is innocent. Those prepared to start a news story with discussion hinting at how horrible he is, or those who are angered by the mere suggestion of his participation in my mind aren’t forming their opinions based on evidence. They are using a few unclear details to develop a fully-formed, confident opinion, rather than recognizing that few of us have any sense of Uhuru’s innocence or guilt.

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One Response to Death Squads and Decision-Making

  1. N P says:

    excellent thinking, Nate! Our political discourse in America is polluted by rash, hasty decision making based on fragmentary information. The willingness to say “I don’t know” is an important part of intellectual maturity. Keep on!

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