Most years, at about this time, a chain of events is set off that is guaranteed to chip away just a little bit more of my faith in my fellow man. The process goes something like this: 1. It snows in London; 2. London grinds to a halt (or at least travel is affected); 3. Someone notes that in Moscow, say, despite the city labouring under five times as much snow, transport is running as normal; 4. There is a general consensus that in light of 3, 2 is a pretty poor show; 5. No one challenges 4 despite it being an obviously flawed conclusion.
It’s not that I don’t like snow: growing up in Southern England it was rare enough that I’ve never got tired of it; now I have a young daughter to build a snowman with it’s even more fun. I even quite like the fact that it doesn’t take much snow to bring parts of London to a standstill (albeit a little guiltily given the inconvenience it causes to those such as nurses who absolutely have to get to work). This is partly because there is something particularly joyous about the ‘snow days’ this creates – parents and children having snowball fights in the park, the wonderful sense of authorised transgression as you warm yourself in the pub at lunchtime when you’d normally be stuck at your desk at work or school – but mostly it’s because I rather suspect that it’s in London’s interest for it to be this way.
The fact is snow is rare in London – a winter with more than one significant snowfall is unusual – and this has to be taken into account when deciding how to allocate resources. In Moscow by contrast snow is the norm in winter – it is vital that the infrastructure can cope with it or the city would be shut down for weeks. In other words Moscow continues to operate not despite much more snow but because of it. To compare London’s response to snow with Moscow’s is to compare apples with oranges – it is in Moscow’s interest to cope better with snow precisely because they get more snow; in contrast I rather suspect it is in London’s interest to occasionally be found wanting rather than spending fortunes on precautionary measures that will rarely be used. The situation requires a cost-benefit analysis not the ‘nothing must ever go wrong’ kneejerk reaction it invariably seems to get.
A few years ago during a particularly lengthy snowy spell, amid much talk in the media about the possibility that councils might be about to run out of grit and salt, ‘Moscow comparisons’ were everywhere. I, meanwhile, sat there and inwardly seethed, wondering why no one else seemed to share my opinion that at the very least it was worth considering the possibility that, in an unpredictable world characterised by many small events and the odd big event, if you never run out of grit then you’re spending too much money on grit.
A poker cliché comes to mind: “if you never lose a bluff then you’re not bluffing enough”. It’s no exaggeration to say that grasping the logic behind this somewhat counter-intuitive statement is an essential part of any poker player’s education; it’s not an encouragement to make losing bluffs but rather an acknowledgement that the fear of making a losing bluff is counter-productive. One of the classic mistakes a novice gambler tends to make – be they poker player, horse punter or sports bettor – is to worry too much about having losing bets. As a result the question ‘will this bet win?’ figures too highly in their thinking when in reality the only question should be ‘will this bet pay off over time?’ The winning bluffs you forego if you only ever bluff when you’re all but certain of success would likely pay for the losing bluffs you avoid through your caution many times over; moreover if players know you hardly ever bluff they’re much less likely to pay you off when you do get a good hand.
In my opinion just as the optimum amount of bluffing is considerably greater than the safe amount so the optimum amount of grit is far smaller than the safe amount. Caution comes at a price, to establish the right amount of caution we have to weigh the costs against the benefits. I like to arrive at the train station with ten minutes to spare, others aim to get there with 25 minutes to spare; very occasionally I might miss a train but there tends to be another one half an hour later and meanwhile most times I spend 15 minutes less sitting in a train station. Some people, when they go away, pack for every eventuality, I’d much rather carry less and spend less time packing; this occasionally results in me having to endure some discomfort or buy something I already have at home but for me the benefits of travelling light far outweigh this.
I may be a little extreme in my disregard for the attractiveness of ‘certainty’ but it does seem to me that most people concentrate far too much on the possibility of things going wrong and not enough on the cost of making sure they don’t. The existence of a highly profitable insurance industry, of bafflingly expensive fixed rate mortgages, of gamblers who hedge knowing they’re getting bad value, testifies to the fact that many are willing – without even realising that’s what they’re doing I suspect – to pay a large premium for peace of mind, for smoothing out the randomness and reducing uncertainty about the future. This may help explain why in the face of possible grit shortages alongside the predictable grumbles – ‘it’s a scandal, a national disgrace, if Moscow can get it right why can’t we’, we Brits love a good moan – there was barely a murmur about the fact that maintaining large grit supplies, not to mention a fleet of gritting lorries, costs money, that to have enough grit to cover any eventuality requires either extra taxes or cuts elsewhere in the council budget. Costs, particularly hidden costs, can get forgotten amidst the wailing and gnashing of teeth that accompanies uncertainty.
To turn to another, considerably less flippant example, when British reality TV star Jade Goody died of cervical cancer at the tragically young age of 27 in 2009 there was a media campaign, led by the likes of the Sun and the Daily Mail, to lower the age at which women in England were invited to have their first cervical cancer screening from 25 to 20 (which had been the policy in England until 2003 and still was in the rest of the UK). The general tenor of the argument– why aren’t women screened until they’re 25, this is costing lives and so on – predictably focused almost exclusively on the benefits with barely a mention of the possible costs.
A cost-benefit analysis had, of course, already been done by the NHS and it was this that had prompted their decision to increase the age in the first place. Research had suggested that because natural, harmless changes to the cervix are common in 20-25 year olds there was a very high rate of false positives from the screening which in turn led to a lot of unnecessary interventions some of which increased the risk of premature births in the future and all of which cost money. So while inviting 20 year olds for screenings would, by diagnosing the problem early, almost certainly have saved the lives of some young cervical cancer sufferers it would also, almost certainly, have cost more lives elsewhere, both in terms of premature births and because all the resources being unnecessarily expended on following up the false positive results would have had to come from somewhere else in the NHS.
It would be nice to live in a world where the extra screening and its consequences could be funded without harming care elsewhere but unfortunately in the real world recourses are scarce and all we can aim to do is allocate those resources as effectively as we can. This is not to make light of the heartbreak involved in the death of a 20-something, not to dismiss the tragedy of a mother losing her daughter or a toddler losing his mother, but to accept that working out how best to minimise premature death involves factoring in the hidden costs and benefits as well as the obvious ones.
Daniel Kahneman has described the human brain, rather brilliantly, as ‘a machine for jumping to conclusions’. It is our amazing capacity to focus on what seems important and to disregard the rest that allows us to process information so quickly but occasionally this can also lead us astray. A failure to see the whole picture – whether concentrating too much on the benefits (or too much on the costs), letting the obvious consequences of an action overwhelm our consideration of the hidden consequences or letting a strong emotional response get the better of our reason – can lead to questionable, but unquestioned, conclusions.
Doubtless I will continue to get my annual airborne reminder of the fallibility of the human brain, doubtless I will continue to make exactly the same mistakes I despair of in others but hopefully, by being aware of my failings, I can at least do something to protect myself from them. Now who’s up for a game of poker?