Evaluating Governors’ Reopening Decisions

Was it a good decision, or was he just lucky? Shaun couldn’t decide which used car to buy. It was all too confusing. The lot had 17 in his price range. He just picked a number and counted down the list till he got to that number and bought it. It turned out to be a great car for him. Good decision? or just lucky?

Bad decision, or just unlucky? Mia consulted with a consumer rating service for brand and model reliability. She found a highly rated car and had it looked over by a mechanic. She got a green light and bought it. In the first 6 months, the car had one problem after another. Bad decision? or just unlucky?

We tend to evaluate decisions based on their outcomes; a process that does not actually help us learn to make better decisions. This is such a problem, it even has a name, outcome bias, and has been studied. This is important now because our nation’s governors are making decisions about reopening activities. They vary somewhat in the decisions they have already made to deal with the pandemic. What is the best way to evaluate those decisions?

People who are experts in decision making stress the importance of the process of making a decision more than the outcome. Outcomes are not totally within our control, but process is.

On the face of it, some governors seem to have decided by wishful thinking. “I would like to think we are the kind of people who don’t need government to tell us what to do,” for example.

Or, “I decide by my gut. I don’t need a matrix.” Unfortunately, the research on gut decisions only shows it to have value in people with a lot of experience in what the decision is about, true experts. They have a lot of data and experience they draw from unconsciously. For the rest of us, the gut just tends to serve biases, likes and dislikes and self-interest. But gut feelings can carry a strong sense of certainty. “I just have a good feeling about this.” Certainty, it turns out, is not an indicator of being right. Certainty is just a feeling. The relationship between certainty and being right is no more than chance. I wish it weren’t so.

Other governors consult experts, research and data and do so every day. They say things like “the virus will tell us when it is safe.” They mean the data on the virus. They are systematic. They have decision trees. They set criteria in advance for what the numbers need to look like for a certain step to be taken. They also realize that there are too many variables to be certain of an outcome to their decisions. They expect to open, close, open, make adjustments – who knows how many times in the process of adjusting to what is happening with the virus. But also, what is happening with our behavior that helps or hinders the spread of the virus.

While we will feel compelled to judge the decisions governors are making, the only fair way to do so requires knowing the soundness of the decision-making process they used. Some may be lucky, while others may not. That said, we must remember that much of the success or failure rests with our behavior, not just theirs.