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You're Experimenting Right Now

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken



You may be familiar with the trolley problem in ethics:

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the correct choice?

The latter option is better from a purely utilitarian perspective, but many people lean towards the first option, which absolves them of participation or responsibility in the outcome.

The current public administration zeitgeist would more likely point to behavioural economics to prove the power of defaults to provide a level of comfort and confidence in people’s decisions (see: How Nudges Work for Government). But the point stands: we are unduly comfortable with the status quo, and we wrongly absolve ourselves of culpability for outcomes generated through the status quo. In the trolley problem, doing nothing is a big decision*.


Duty and Responsibility

Let's say you're debating a pivot in your career. You've been working in a field for a few years, and you're considering trying something new. It could just be a different job within your organization, or it could be throwing everything out the window, including yourself, and taking a leap of faith. Everything along that spectrum comes with uncertainty, discomfort, and perhaps a degree of fear.

Or, let's say you're an politician debating a policy change: it could be a minor adjustment or something major like mandatory voting or a guaranteed basic income, both of which have been proposed in Canada lately. It's not the sort of thing you can pilot in a vacuum; you have to change the way things things work to gauge how people react. Like the career pivot, it's  uncertain, uncomfortable, and scary.

Who knows how such experiments will work out? Will they be worth the risk? It's impossible to say with 100% certainty, which is the nature of experiments.

It’s tempting to think that those changes are experiments, whereas the course we are on is not. But the status quo is not a valueless, neutral starting point. It’s an experiment. It represents a plethora of design decisions, all of which influence how people behave and make decisions. And you are — we all are — complicit. As Richard Thaler, co-author of Nudge has put it, “There’s no avoiding nudging. Like in a cafeteria: You have to arrange the food somehow. You can’t arrange it at random. That would be a chaotic cafeteria.”

You’re Experimenting Right Now

You've never gone through a career on your current track before. No one ever has, in today's particular environment. Are you in digital media, for instance? Exactly zero people ever have put in a 30-year career in that field.

Likewise for policy. Canada has never entered the 21st century before, our policies have never stood up in the economic, demographic, or technological context they're about to face.

You're experimenting right now. We all are. And we have to weigh the costs and benefits of both the changes we’re considering and the track we’re already on.

* If you find yourself finding holes and rationalizations, Michael Sandel will cure that in his amazing lecture on ethics.