Big-endian and little-endian choices

Common dilemmas often pitch the small picture against the big picture, and the right choice is not necessarily obvious

ave you ever had a really bad hangover? If so, did, at the time, the thought cross your mind that you’d never drink again (or at least that you’d do so in moderation henceforth)? And how did that work out? Consuming too much alcohol is a great example of a decision where we do not have the same perception of the short-term and long-term consequences at different moments.

On the night (excessive alcohol consumption seems to be primarily a nocturnal phenomenon) itself, the utility of having another glass of wine or just one more double G&T looms large. We’re having a great time, and this is just what is needed, if not to have an even greater time, then at least to keep the great time going for another half hour or so. (Repeat as required.) Eventually, after too little sleep, we experience the negative utility of waking up with a piece of sanding paper in our mouth (which turns out to be our tongue after all), and with a headache from John O’Groats to Land’s End that will be our unwanted companion for the rest of the day.

Tension in the decision

A bar full of bottles of booze
A bar full of bottles of booze
Who can say no to so much of the good stuff? (photo via Pixabay)

Both the positive utility of the joyous, inebriated evening and the negative utility of the painful suffering of the morning after are direct consequences of the decisions we made. Yet one now seems insignificant and distant, and the other unbearable and very present.

This kind of decision is not uncommon.

Some such choices even have quite minor negative consequences. If we crack open another pack of biscuits, and stuff ourselves while lazing on the couch watching whatever is showing on the Discovery Channel rather than go for a jog, we might gain perhaps 100g in weight — which nobody will notice of course. If we spend £200 on a gadget or an item of clothing that we don’t remotely need, rather than put it in our pension fund, we reduce our retirement income by something like £1 a month. Let’s be honest, that is not going to make a big difference to our lifestyle.

However, if — as is likely — we don’t stop at the one evening of biscuit-scoffing, or at just that one frivolous purchase, before long we’ll have gained so much weight that half our clothes won’t fit us anymore, and we’ll be looking at a pension that is several hundreds of pounds a month less.

Other choices may have a disproportionate downside, even if we do it only once — like overindulging on the booze. (Of course, if we make a habit of it, we risk amplifying it well beyond the mother of all hangovers.) A little while ago, I caught an episode of the TV show Police Interceptors. It follows road policing units across the UK seeking to ‘intercept’ cars that are stolen, uninsured, driven by people who are disqualified or over the alcohol limit and so on. One evening intervention involved the high-speed pursuit of a van that had failed to stop, ending when the vehicle collided with a parked car. The reason the driver gave for not stopping at first was that he thought he might be over the limit (he wasn’t), and that his passenger was in possession of cannabis (which turned out to be such a small quantity that it would have just led to a caution). Had he chosen to stop, there would have been no consequence; now, being charged with failing to stop and driving dangerously, and having crashed into another car, in his works van, the driver not only faced a stiff penalty and fine, but also a lengthy driving ban and the loss of his job. Another example you may recall is the case of the girl who, in 2009, woke up with 56 stars tattooed on her face.


Not surprisingly, the kind of tension between an spontaneous choice and a corresponding adverse long-term consequence has its place in some popular phrases. Act (or sin) in haste, repent at leisure expresses how the later, more lasting effects may lead to regret over an earlier impulsive decision. It is probably a development of an earlier, more specific version, Marry in haste, repent at leisure (which needs no explanation).

Engraving of Pyrrhus and his elephants at the battle of Asculum
Engraving of Pyrrhus and his elephants at the battle of Asculum
Fine to win a battle, but falls short for winning the war (source)

We see a similar perspective in a proverb referring to a Pyrrhic victory, Winning the battle, but losing the war. This widens the notion from the time dimension: the inherent tension is not necessarily between immediacy and longer term, but can also be between the magnitude of the consequences of the possibilities. We may be drawn to an option because it appears to deliver something that is important to us at the moment we make the decision. But by selecting it we may be neglecting the bigger picture, and the wider consequences of this option. Being tactical may win us the battle, but in order to win the war we need act strategically.

The trade-off is ours

One reason to be attracted by the tactical option may be that we respond to an impulse driven by expected pleasure (another biscuit, or another glass of wine). But it can also be because we are following a principle, a conviction or a belief, rather than making a cold, calculated trade-off. Imagine, for example, that, while watching a fundraising TV show like Comic Relief or Children in Need, you are moved by a particular clip. When you whip out your credit card and decide to make a donation, you’re probably not considering the opportunity cost (what else could you buy with the donated amount), but acting on a belief that it is important to you to support this good cause.

This reminds me of the war between the Big-endians and the Little-endians in Jonathan Swift’s superb book, Gulliver’s Travels. Decisions can be seen to have consequences both at the big end and at the little end, with the little end representing the immediate benefit, the principles and convictions, the deontological view, and the tactical choices, while the big end represents the utilitarian perspective, the broader consequences, and the strategic reasoning of the big picture.

The dilemma is not just something individuals face. The British government is presently facing a particular big-endian/little-endian choice regarding its handling of Brexit. It wants to avoid a de facto internal border between the province of Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom (the part that is known as Great Britain) if there is no UK-EU trade deal when the transition period ends at the end of 2020. For this reason it has put forward an Internal Market Bill, which breaks international law (and jeopardizes the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland). The little-endian principle of not having borders within a country is in conflict with the big-endian consequence of gaining a reputation of untrustworthiness, which could be unhelpful to a country that must negotiate new bilateral trade agreements (not least with the US, which has a particular interest in the UK-Irish relationship).

Does this mean that we should always favour the big-endian option, that the bigger picture should always prevail, that we should never be principled and always calculating? No. The little-endian choice may well represent what we value most (like donating to charity), and it is by no means inherently stupid to focus on the small picture. But what is not so clever is to ignore, or deny, that there is a trade-off.

Trade-offs always matter.

Originally published at on September 18, 2020.

Thanks for reading this article — I hope you enjoyed it. Please do share it far and wide — there are handy Twitter and Facebook buttons nearby, and you can click here to share it via LinkedIn, or simply copy and paste this link. See all my other articles featuring observations of human behaviour (I publish one every Friday) here. Thank you!

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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