3: Wittingness and Unwittingness of Uncertainty and Risk


This post will shift from considering how our thinking about uncertainty and risk (U&r) is sometimes misleadingly informed by statistical concepts of distribution and probabilities to how we and our mindsets can influence our exposure to U&r events and consequences. We will also begin to introduce some tools for helping us better manage our exposure to U&r. (N.B., some corrections and inclusion of a citation added 21 Feb.2014)

Exposure is a matter of being in the wrong (right) place at the wrong (right) time. Consider we are in a car going on a trip. We suddenly come upon a severe accident, one that happened mere minutes before we arrived. As we pass, we are reminded that the only reason we might not have been involved with this accident is we had to return to our house to collect something we had forgotten. This five minute delay may have saved us from being part of the carnage. We could also consider a more positive event. We happened to enter into a store when they chose to implement a significant discount on something that you had been thinking you would have to purchase in the near future.

In these two examples it was a matter of personal circumstances that we were/were not exposed directly to a U&r event. In both cases we were unwitting beneficiaries of these events.

What I want to consider is how our mindsets including biases and emotional predispositions towards considering some topics (e.g., denial) can influence our likelihood of being exposed to U&r events. These are the “witting” habits and behaviours. I was reminded of this perspective when talking to an old friend who had a history of failed relationships with women. It was clear to me that he never really grasped that there was a pattern and he was the cause of it. When I gently touched on how hie repeatedly set himself up for such outcomes, he became quite agitated. Needless to say I quickly moved the conversation onto another topic.

The first “rule of thumb” I have is: If it happens once, it might be about you. If it happens a second time it might very well be about me. If it happens a third time it is about me. It is understandable that painful events are ones we want to forget or put behind us. Yet if we are to learn from them we have to examine them so that we can learn what we have control or influence over,and hence reduce the likelihood of a repeated experience.

This rule of thumb is “wittingness” behaviour. Being deliberate in not repeating unwelcome events (and of course repeating ones that seem useful).

But we can be witting about not examining things that bear examining. Recall the famous line by Scarlett in Gone With The Wind: “I’ll think about it tomorrow”. This is an example of deliberately engaging (hence witting) in behaviour the will not improve the chances of avoidance of undesired fates. At best, the chances will remain about the same, at worst, they can even increase the likelihood of exposure swell as consequence.

If Scarlett’s avoidance behaviour had been “unwitting” she would have been oblivious to her propensity to procrastinate on dealing with unpleasant matters. She would never have uttered this famous line – it wouldn’t have occurred to her.

The above rule of thumb has the benefit of prompting effort to increase awareness of the implications of U&r exposure to either the witting or unwitting behaviour.

Another common circumstance where we can influence our exposure is when we are emotionally engaged with the situation. Emotions can affect us several ways: they can predispose us to acting rashly (increase exposure to danger), they can predispose us to figuratively running away (expose us to missing opportunities), they can lead us to focus on some matters to the exclusion of others (expose us to unbalanced considerations and choices), etc.

Being witting about emotions may include using the following rule of thumb (courtesy of Jeremy Yip):

  1. Question: How do I feel now?
  2. Question: What is causing me to feel that way?
  3. Question: Are my feelings relevant to the decision I need to make?

Of course being wittingly oblivious is to pointedly ignore how one is feeling and how it might be relevant to the matter at hand. In observable terms, this likely means knowingly not bothering to ask question 2 (hence 3 either).

Being unwitting, is to be oblivious to the possibility that feelings have an role in making choices and acting upon them. unfortunately some people seem incapable of being aware of this state, they are perpetually higher levels of U&r than those who draw upon and utilize the above rule of thumb.

The third rule of thumb is that of doing Premortems (courtesy of Bob Sutton http://www.businessinsider.com/how-to-making-better-decisions-2014-1). This is process of considering what could happen (in the form of outcomes) and why. A witting person will adopt this rule of thumb or pointedly ignore it. An unwitting person will again be oblivious that anything other than what they set to do could happen (and likely find someone else to blame when things go badly).

A Premortem is the enquiry of considering how a decision could turn out under two scenarios before implementation. The two scenarios are: if the decision turns out right, if the decision turns out poorly.

For either scenario the Premortem is the exercise of considering all the intervening events and circumstances that came into play that needed to be dealt with that in the end contributed to success or failure. It is this envisaging on what could go wrong that is key. If these happen, we are better positioned to respond properly (we’re not as surprised for one thing). If they don’t happen, it did not matter. Premortems better prepare us in two ways: they help us deal faster and better from shocks and they help us get to and utilize better solutions.

What is the value of Post-mortems then? they give us the “feedstock” of ideas on what could possibly happen in the future. Those that show no disposition (witting blindness) to doing post-mortems will not be inclined to do Premortems either.

Would I be inclined to do pre-mortums on every decision? No, only those that matter. Furthermore, they need not, nor should they be treatises.

Conceptually the act of being positively witting is that of making grey swan like uncertainties out of black like  uncertainties and risks out of grey swans. How? The positive act of being witting is that of increased awareness and understanding. The act of negative wittingness is the act of intentional blindness and turning away from what could be useful.

The implications of being unwitting or negatively witting is to make risks into grey swan like uncertainties and grey swan uncertainties into black swan like uncertainties.

From a psychological perspective, witting or unwitting blindness is to make the explicable inexplicable and to make such events appear random when they are not (I was just unlucky as opposed to incompetent). So we increase our sense of chaos and I suspect we are then more predisposed to blame someone else for our often avoidable misfortune or lack of success in with opportunity.

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About 123stilllearning456

As a management consultant I am passionately interested in talent management and risk/uncertainty issues. In the area of talent management I propose that we seek strategies that look beyond the staffing/employee centric frames of reference. I have been frustrated at the "closing down on possibilities" by these more conventional staffing/employee centric approaches. I have been impressed where people have found systematic solutions to their talent management issues by going beyond the conventional approaches. In the area of risk and uncertainty, I am interested in making this topic relevant to more normal decision making situations. My conceptual foundation is to use the micro-economist's fixed/variable cost theme. I also think it is important to look at these issues for people through their emotional and psychological lens. As a premise I think risk and uncertainty only exist where there is a person who cares about possible events and its consequences. Hence, risk and uncertainty are social based concepts (no sentience, no risk and uncertainty). A major influence on my thinking in this area is Nassim Taleb of "Black Swan" fame. This BLOG provides me with an opportunity to express my thoughts on topics that interest me. As this is an online diary, content is more important to me than polish. I apologize if this distracts from readers' enjoyment and learning. Still I find this a useful way to live up to my namesake, learn more from others and hopefully provoke creative thoughts and ideas in others.
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