Annie Duke’s excellent book Thinking in Bets is an applied case study on decision-making. Now that Canada’s 44th federal election has ended, the postmortems are rolling in. Almost all of them involve a narrative akin to it having been an exercise in futility. I’ve heard people reference the movie Groundhog Day, the TV show Seinfeld (“an election about nothing”) and the Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again (meet the new boss – same as the old boss). I get it, but I think the “analysis” is a bit trite.
In her book, Duke invites reader to think of a decision that they made that, in the reader’s opinion, was good. She does this often when speaking and consulting. Heck, let’s do it now. Before reading on, think about a decision that you made that, in your opinion, was “good” or “shrewd”. Have you got an example in mind? Don’t read on until you do…..
Once readers of her book and participants at her presentations had an idea firmly in their mind, Duke noted that, in her experience, the decision that they thought of was merely an example of something that worked out. How things work out in the end is simply called the result. The observation, which few of us would be willing to admit unless pressed, is that we humans often succumb to the heuristic where good outcomes act as after the fact narratives for good decisions. In reality, they are quite different. Basically, we make decisions (about spouses, schools, careers and what to have for dinner) based on several considerations and factor inputs. We weigh our options based on these inputs and, on a balance of probabilities basis, we decide on a course of action.
The decision to call an election was obviously made only after careful consideration of the pros and cons associated with what would come next. The outcome could have been better for the government and it could have been worse. In the end, the outcome was nearly identical to the status quo. That’s the result. Political people, vested interests and armchair pundits will be sure to weigh in on “what it all means”, as if the re-upping of a mandate that is nearly the exact same as the one that ended must surely mean something. Maybe.
Here’s a thought exercise. What if the election produced a Liberal Majority? What if we got a Conservative Minority? What if we got a Conservative Majority? All these potential results were considered plausible at some point during the 36-day campaign that just ended. If you’re a partisan, you would have clear preferences for the outcomes that might have been. The point, however, is that the decision to call an election in the first place was carefully considered and acted upon. The chips fell where they fell. The meaning of that outcome is just a convenient narrative to make certain analysts seem smart and insightful. In reality, many of the talking heads that now offer supposed insights into the campaign’s outcome are merely guilty of resulting.