The curse of two hands

Is ambidexterity a mixed blessing?

When I started blogging almost four years ago, one of my first pieces(*) was entitled “A set of scales has two arms”. It was a reaction to a few instances of one-sided reasoning: the draining of a water reservoir in Portland, Oregon after a teenager had been spotted urinating in it, and a national campaign in Belgium to ‘Go for Zero’ deaths on the road.

This kind of thing had been intriguing me for a long time before. You could even say that it was instrumental in attracting me to the domain of economics. We are faced with numerous choices in our private life and at work, large and small, between few or many options. Even at the very simplest, we still have to decide between doing and not doing, buying and not buying, going and not going, eating and not eating and so on.

Each has pros and cons — “on the one hand, and on the other”, the phrase that drove US president Harry Truman to exasperation when his economic advisers kept on using it, and he wished for a one-handed economist.

It’s not that we never reason about pros and cons. Cost-benefit analysis is a widely used method in business and public investment — even though those carrying it out don’t always get it right. Cass Sunstein, the legal scholar, co-author of Nudge and polymath of the behavioural sciences has written several papers on its application, and is a great fan, as he explains in this Bloomberg article. We ordinary mortals may not always follow the formalities of public expenditure, but when it concerns decisions in which emotions don’t play a big role, we are often pretty good at weighing up things and making a good trade-off.

Emotions on the scales

When emotions enter the frame, however, that seems to become a lot more difficult. The two examples from the early piece — pee in drinking water, bleh! — and the image of a loved one killed in a traffic accident speak to our imagination. And that often prevents us making more calculated decisions. The concentration of urine in the water was extremely low (1/3 that of the safe limit for toxic arsenic), and the only way we can really achieve zero traffic deaths is by not having any traffic at all. We are not talking reasoned choices here.

Sometimes our one-sidedness is inspired by a particular affiliation. This week the Belgian Society of Cardiologists said it wants to see the number of diesel-engined vehicles in the country scaled back dramatically. The dust particles and the nitrous oxides they produce cause an increase of 15–20% in heart attacks — even if the concentrations are below the European smog limit. What the consequences would be of such a reduction is not being considered in this unconditional plea, though. As a cardiologist, you worry about people’s hearts, not about the economy or about climate change.

But often, one-sidedness has its roots in emotions. Southern Railway is a British train company with, shall we say, a less than stellar reputation. A couple of weeks ago, they started a social media campaign to remind passengers to leave their feet on the floor, not on the seats. This is a good thing, some people thought, irrespective of the company’s failures. But for others, the emotions of the daily confrontation with the railway operator’s ghastly service appeared to inspire a rather more one-sided view of the campaign.

Emotion and (perhaps even more) partisanship are undoubtedly also implicated in many people’s assessment of the two biggest political events of recent times: the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump as US president. In the UK, Brexiteers are counting down the days until the country will leave this ‘dreadful EU superstate’, dismissing forecasts that predict doom and gloom ahead as nonsense from discredited experts. But Remainers can be one-sided too: most of the talk on the pro-EU side of the tribal divide is about the looming economic disaster after Brexit. Here it is the opportunities that a country unbound by the rules of the EU can pursue that are ignored or minimized. In the US (and beyond), fans of Donald Trump happily disregard his questionable statements and his untruthfulness, and praise the policy decisions that they approve of. Critics tend to focus on the worst of the man (admittedly, there is plenty they can choose from). They find it hard to find anything positive, even in a grand infrastructure renewal plan (with the odd exception, like Cass Sunstein in “Trump did something good this week”).

Fake balance

One of the processes at play here is motivated reasoning, a mechanism that allows us to pretend we are being balanced and detached, while in reality we are being inspired, guided and nudged by our beliefs and desires. If we firmly believe that our side is the right side, we are not really being one-sided if we ignoring the other side: we are simply giving it its fair weight (namely zero).

But even trying our best to be two-handed and look at both sides does not guarantee better decision-making. Philip Tetlock is the author of Superforecasting, in which he sets out how approaching the world in a cool, calculated manner leads to more accurate forecasts. “One-siderism is the weakness of the dogmatic”, he says, but “both-siderism is the weakness of the open-minded.”

A fundamental issue with being two-handed is that there are almost always subjective as well as objective elements on either side. Emotions, preferences and belief systems also put weight on the scales, and they are different from one person to the next. That makes it hard to determine whether a choice is good or bad. Is it a good decision for someone to stick with a lousy, poorly paid job because they are scared of having to look for another one? Is it a bad decision for someone to resign after a few weeks because they have developed a deep dislike to a particular colleague, and they’re optimistic they’ll quickly find a new one?

It seems so much easier to follow your gut all the time, and not bother too much with what is on the other side of the scales. You will certainly avoid wasting any undue time weighing up pros and cons. The risk of a two-handed approach is that you end up in an interminable ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ loop, and become utterly equivocal and indecisive.

Two-handedness and both-siderism can be a curse. But once you’ve experienced the pleasure of taking the opposite view, of enhancing your understanding by playing devil’s advocate, it’s hard to let go of it.

Maybe I am engaging in motivated reasoning too, but hey, so be it: it suits me fine.

(*) It was written in Dutch and never got translated — if you fancy a go with Google Translate, you’ll find it here.

Originally published at on February 9, 2018.

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