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The psychology of legal relations

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Because even stupid people need pregnancy detector kits. They need them more.

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If you are wholly predictable, people learn to hack you.

Rory Sutherland[1]

If there was certainty, ninety-five percent of you wouldn’t show up for work.

—The Jolly Contrarian

If there was certainty, ninety-five percent of you wouldn’t have any goddamn work.

—Also the Jolly Contrarian

Be careful what you wish for. A world of certainty is a world of no doubt, no mystery, no je ne sais pas; no contingency, no disclaimers that past performance is no indicator of future results, not because suddenly the past is an indicator: everything that is to come can be extrapolated from what has already been. Our accursed inductive mode of reasoning is obsolete. We can deduce the future from the data we have to hand, from first principles, the same way that one can deduce rice pudding and income tax from “cogito, ergo sum”.[2]

A certain universe, then, is a determined universe, where each stem in the great fractal bloom of evolution; every infinitesimal causal chain twisting madly through evolutionary design space, is fully taxonomised, catalogued, worked out and mapped. We can plot where when and how every crisp packet will kick and tumble across St Mark’s square, as all those that didn’t, but might have tumbled across that palazzo, had the circumstances been different, even through, by immovable presumption of your philosophy, they cannot have been.

We can predict the Madagascan hurricane, the Brazilian butterfly whose flapping wings set it off, and all the myriad intervening causes in between.

A certain workplace is one in which all decisions are made, all outcomes knowable by derivation, all misconceived strategies, all branding misadventures, governance shortcomings, trading disasters and promotion outrages of the future are as inevitable and unstoppable now as the countless ones that have already happened. Our hopes, piled against hope, that there is something, anything, we can do, however feeble or oblique, to influence the world and our place in it for the better — surely as profound a human aspiration as there is — is forlorn. We are on a rail. We are clockwork soldiers.

It’s relative

If only you knew. “Oh, JC, you silly old duffer,” you say and punch me on the arm. “I know certainty is an impossible state — everyone knows see that — but, like a prisoner shackled to a cave seeing shadows on the wall, it is an idea we can apprehend and aspire to; our advantage is pressed not by finding certainty but getting nearer to it than the competition. Isn't that the definition of a competitive advantage?

Bounded rationality

Per Gerd Gigerenzer:

  • Risk ≠ Uncertainty: the best decision under risk is not the best decisions under uncertainty. Probabilities work for risk situations (where the system is closed and predictable and all potential outcomes are known); heuristics work best for situations of uncertainty (where all facts, outcomes etc are not known).
  • Simplicity: complex problems do not necessarily require complex solutions.
  • The power of heuristics: heuristics are indispensable for good decision-making in uncertain situations. They are not a suboptimal solution.
  • Less is more: More information, time and computation is not always an advantage.

See also