On not punishing those who make reasonable decisions that turn out to be wrong

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On not punishing those who make reasonable decisions that turn out to be wrong

Sometimes, after an analysis of the facts, people make reasonable decisions that turn out to be wrong, with unintended and even unfortunate consequences. There is a tendency among many to either punish or simply fire those responsible.

As an example, we know of a doorman who thought some young women lived in the building, and let them in. As it turned out, the women did not live there, and violently robbed a resident (according to the police, they had murdered a robbery victim the day before, and were very cunning impersonators indeed), causing injuries that will trouble the resident for the rest of her life. The doorman was fired, and replaced with someone totally unaware of the incident.

In another case, an intelligence officer estimated, based on past experience and current information, that a crowd would be of a certain size at an event. Due to several unanticipated and others that could not have been anticipated, the calculation was wrong by a sizable amount. Although any other equally-skilled analyst would have, based on the information at hand, come up with exactly the same estimate, this officer’s career was sidetracked by the event, and the person who replaced him will sadly not have learned from his experience.

While this sort of response is undoubtedly soul-satisfying to those assessing blame, and probably has some CYA benefit, we might ask if it is either fruitful or appropriate. In general, the answer is probably no, it is neither fruitful nor appropriate.

On the surface these actions seem reasonable: You are punishing the guilty, plus teaching them a lesson they will never forget. On the other hand, you are also removing the people who have probably learned most from the incident, are least likely to make the same mistake again, and replacing them with a tabla rasa, a person who is likely to do something similar in the future. Note that we are talking here of a reasonable decision which turns out to be wrong, rather than negligence. Thus, recently, two unknown men in nice suits walked into a police station, said “FBI,” and walked by the desk sergeant. To their annoyance, they were stopped by another officer who asked to see their credentials. The desk sergeant was negligent in letting them past when he did not know them, but would not have been negligent if he believed (even wrongly) that he indeed did know them. The officer would have made a mistake if their credentials had been good forgeries, but would not have been negligent.

In another case, an elderly woman fell in her home, pressed her prudently installed emergency button, and was asked by a disembodied voice over the loudspeaker whether she was ok. She responded that she had fallen and could not get up, and needed a neighbor on the emergency list called to come pick her up. She was asked if she needed an ambulance, and responded that she wasn’t sick, merely old and frail. She was told that if she wasn’t sick there was nothing they could do. “Click” went the loudspeaker as the emergency contact person hung up. The person, in this case with some justification, was fired, and the response policy re-written to take into account those (either employee or injured) with poor judgment.

There is a tendency to over-react when a mistake has been made, with the over-reaction producing negative consequences. The most striking example is, of course, post September 11th security. As we now know, the September 11th crime was not caused by a failure of security. Rather, it was caused by a paradigm shift on the part of the criminals, which is extremely difficult, and probably actually impossible, to prevent.

The direct result has been a flurry of generally senseless activity, accompanied for many of our acquaintance by a gratifying amount of overtime. Most professionals with whom we have spoken agree that virtually all of what has been done has been aimed at giving the public a sense of comfort (which is good), but that it has increased cost and inconvenience for no particular valid reason, and will, in fact, produce more travel deaths than we would have if we closed down all airport checkpoints completely. This is, all in all, probably not a good tradeoff.

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