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💯 How To Be PERFECT 💯
🚎 Trolleys, Twitter, and the Omission Bias 🚎
“The omission of good is no less reprehensible than the commission of evil.” -Plutarch
Pop quiz, hotshot.
Pretend you work in an incredibly hostile workspace.1 Many good staff members have left in a short time and the ones who stay report high psychological distress. Thus far, nothing indicates that the culture will change.
While you share your colleagues’ distaste for the culture, thus far, you have not complained because you escaped most of the toxic behaviors. After a few months, one colleague tells you they have been receiving many hostile actions from a manager, and they decided to get a lawyer and file a workplace harassment complaint. This colleague asks you to file a complaint jointly, as it will hold more weight if multiple people proactively corroborate allegations. You tell this colleague that while you share their feelings 100%, you do not feel it is the right step for you to escalate.
Looking into the future, how culpable will you feel about whatever happens to this colleague, good or bad, based on your decision not to participate?
You may completely identify with this experience and thus already know how you handled it in the past. Or you may have a strong initial reaction to the hypothetical. Either way, this hypothetical is a classic example of the choice between the effects of omission vs. commission. Whatever you choose, your choice will impact you and others.
Show me a leader who never made a tough choice, and I will show you someone who is not a leader. From the halls of power in Israel to the conference rooms of our workplaces, action and inaction has consequences. As we learned last week, much as we’d like to make a purely rational decision all the time, regret aversion is a powerful force that impacts all our decisions. Choosing between doing vs. not doing something is no different.
TP is a thought experiment that introduces many people to ethical theory. If you’ve never heard of the TP, watch this academic summary. Generally,3 the first use of the TP is attributed to either Phillipa Foot4 in 1967 or Judith Jarvis Thomson5 in 1976.
If you’d prefer a quicker and more amusing summary, watch this clip from The Good Place (I’ve made my preference clear):
The TP forces us to choose when there are only bad options and will help us think about this week’s heuristic, the omission bias.
The omission bias is our tendency to judge people more harshly for harmful actions than harmful inactions, even if the results of action or inaction are roughly the same. Returning to the TP, let’s pretend that you get to view two people dealing with the TP, only they make different choices:
Person 1 chooses to allow the trolley to kill five people rather than redirect the trolley to kill one person. This choice is an act of omission; an alternative was available that would kill fewer people, but Person 1 chose not to take it
Person 2 chooses to pull the lever to kill one person rather than five people. This choice is an act of commission; Person 2 chose to act in a way that caused someone harm because they believed that it was better for one person to die rather than five
In a 2003 paper, Mark Spranca, Elisa Minsky, and Jonathan Baron (SMB) found that people “often rated harmful omissions as less immoral, or less bad as decisions, than harmful commissions.”6 To put it another way,
Let’s imagine that Person 3 has a slightly different choice: A trolley is going down the track and will kill one person, but there is a way to redirect the trolley onto another track and kill five people
If Person 3 chooses to redirect the trolley to kill five people, how would you judge their moral choice vs. Person 1, where five people die as a result of that person doing nothing?
If you’re like me, Person 3 committed a morally reprehensible act by hurting more people when a less harmful option was available. However, if we only judge decisions based on results, shouldn’t we judge Person 3 and Person 1 as equally culpable because both decisions had the same result?
In SMB’s research (which does not concern the trolley problem), they find that people tend to charge people who engage in acts of commission like Person 3 more harshly than people who engage in acts of omission like Person 1.
As with any heuristic, this is not necessarily a bad thing. SMB notes that because “harmful omissions tend to be less intentional than commissions”7 which is undoubtedly the case when judging Person 3 vs. Person 1. In most cases, when we choose not to act, the consequences of inaction remain slightly opaque, whereas the consequences of action seem more predictable. While we can empathize with the person who doesn’t pull the trolley lever to kill one person instead of five, the person who intentionally chooses to kill more people made a harmful choice when all they had to do was do nothing for fewer people to be killed.
Now, let’s return to my example.
Helping your colleagues will have consequences for them and you, but so will choosing to remain silent. No answer is “correct,” so no matter your answer, you “passed.” But remember the larger context when you judge someone else’s choice in a similar situation.
How to Be Perfect
I was a latecomer to The Good Place despite my love of philosophy.8 Don’t judge me too harshly. But I was hooked once I watched it, so I also read producer Michael Shur’s How to Be Perfect. If you need a break from business professors and economists, read it. Shur knows his philosophy, and he’s super funny.
Returning to the hypothetical, as someone who loves not accepting the premise of a question, my reaction to this hypothetical is that, no matter what I choose, the worst moral actors in this example are the people creating the hostile work environment (commission), and the organization’s leadership for doing nothing about it (omission). You and your colleague should not have to make either choice in a functional organization.
Shur’s ethics analysis goes in many directions, but in some sense, he embraces my instinct. Few philosophical questions have perfect answers, but desiring to improve is just as important. He writes:
“The very act of engaging with these ideas and asking these questions means we’ve already taken a crucial step: we’ve simply decided to care about whether or not we do good or bad. Which means: We’ve decided to try and be better…A quick glance around will reveal a ton of people who have clearly decided they don’t care about being ethical…”9
Unlike the TP, most workplace dilemmas do not only contain bad options; appropriate options exist if people are willing to care about a moral compass.
Momofuku Moral Philosophy
According to a study from the University of Washington's Center For An Informed Public, just seven Twitter accounts accumulated 1.6 billion views over three days during the Israel/Hamas War.
The authors found that these seven accounts generally do not “follow traditional journalistic norms” regarding sourcing, citations, etc.
(And, in case you were wondering, these accounts represent views across the political spectrum.)
What I Read This Week
Why It Matters What We Post After Atrocities: I’ve been saving this article, but now it’s time for everyone to read it. We are playing with live ammo online (and I’m using metaphor very intentionally.)
Why Be Product-First: Some people don’t like describing what Jewish organizations do as “product lines.” I get it. But I embrace the word “product,” here’s why you should, too.
How Baseball Built An Innovation Machine: Notwithstanding the sad ending to a magical Orioles season (I blame Jeffrey Maier), baseball remains the place to learn primers on the theme discussed in our newsletter (although soccer is catching up.) Read more.
The Quiet Workflow Revolution: Cal Newport is still crushing it.
Remember the Whole Earth Catalog?: Now, you can read old issues online.
Maybe you don’t have to pretend?
Add this to my book “Reasons To Get a B.A. in Philosophy.”
Politics aside, it blew my mind when I first realized that the origins of the Trolley Problem come from debates about abortion.
What does this photo have to do with the book recommendation? Watch this: