Two men balancing on a wall with the sea in the background
Featured image: UlyssesThirtyOne CC BY 2.0

Where’s your tipping point?

Almost all decisions we face have a tipping point — the point where we would change our mind. Good decision-making means working out where it is.

his is a time of tough decisions. Many governments face rapidly rising COVID-19 infection rates, and are desperate to bring the outbreak back under control. A lockdown, with only shops considered of vital importance are allowed to open, and the default for everyone is to stay at home — even if only for a limited time, to act as a so-called circuit breaker — is perhaps the most effective way of stemming the alarming increase in COVID-19 cases.

But even three or four weeks of lockdown would come with considerable costs. It would further damage economic sectors already very badly hurt by the pandemic so far, such as retail, hospitality and entertainment. It would also have adverse public health consequences (notably for mental health) and impair social interaction with friends and family (including with vulnerable people).

In many countries the debate between proponents and opponents of lockdowns is deeply polarized. And we can see similar profound divisions around questions like whether or not schools and universities should be kept open or the effectiveness of curfews, not to mention the issue of facemasks.

Hiding behind science

There is little room for nuance in most of the voices on either side of these divides, and both sides tend to claim their position is supported by science. But does science really tell us what to do — can science tell us what to do?

Science can certainly inform us about the likely outcomes of a lockdown, and it about the consequences if there is no lockdown and alternative measures are taken instead. It can tell us what might happen to the education of children, adolescents and young adults if the schools are closed, and what we might expect if they are kept open.

Mad-looking scientists holding a string of lit lightbulbs
Mad-looking scientists holding a string of lit lightbulbs
Science sheds light, but it doesn’t decide (image: Bryan Jones CC BY 2.0)

However, unless we are selective in what we do, and do not take into account, what science cannot tell us is which option is the best. Science does not provide judgements between competing or conflicting options, although there is one science (albeit one with the reputation of being dismal) that can tell us how we can approach this challenge and evaluate the trade-offs: economics.

But once you’ve aligned strongly with one side of a polarized debate it seems very hard to do so. In the UK, the government decided not to follow the recommendations to impose a short, nationwide lockdown its scientific advisers, while the Labour opposition is calling for precisely this measure. On Wednesday 14 October, Rachel Reeves, a member of Labour’s shadow cabinet was interviewed (on BBC Radio 4, on this subject, and the reporter repeatedly asked her (listen from 1:53:54) what such a lockdown would cost the country. The response was evasive at first, and when pressed she claimed that “if we don’t take this action the costs are going to be greater.” Further attempts to get a more precise answer failed.

We should be pleased that Ms Reeves at least acknowledged (albeit not quite wholeheartedly so) that a comparison of the costs of two alternative options is a sensible, if not an essential thing to do. Typically, we see people who have chosen a camp asserting their position as if it were an unassailable truth.

Most of them are intelligent politicians, scientists, journalists, commentators and so on, who are otherwise perfectly capable of nuanced reasoning. But when one is under the spell of a passionate belief, it becomes impossible to apply the economic way of thinking and consider the costs and benefits of both options — “on the one hand… on the other hand…” Edwin Nourse, one of US president Harry Truman’s economic advisers, was apparently particularly fond of this balanced approach. His unwillingness to present a clear policy the president could simply adopt, instead choosing to offer the pros and cons of the different options, made Truman shout out, “Can’t somebody bring me a one-handed economist?” (As so often, the authenticity of this wonderful citation is not quite proven, but hey, se non vero, e ben trovato.)

What one-handed economists, and people who are led by beliefs, rather than rational thinking, fail to see is that a decision between two mutually exclusive options is determined by the costs and benefits of either possibility, and by the weight one attributes to them. It evokes the image of an old-fashioned beam balance, on which the net benefit of our preferred option appears to weigh much more than that of the alternative, tilting the balance firmly in our favour.

A balancing problem

Such a balance is intended to show equilibrium, not how much more one side weighs than the other. That difference could be large: the net benefit (or the net cost) of one side could be much higher than that of the other side. Or both sides could be very close, and the balance may be near its tipping point. What should worry us is that, if we don’t even know what the costs and benefits are of each option, it’s easy to hold on to the belief that our preferred option is unconditionally the only right one. But we may be this close to being completely wrong.

A better way of approaching such choices is to ask ourselves not whether we would ever consider switching to the alternative option (our answer is, of course, no), but when we would do so.

An old-fashioned beam balance
An old-fashioned beam balance
Looking for the tipping point (image: MamaClown via Pixabay)

Instead of maintaining that a lockdown should never be considered, that it is unthinkable, we should ask ourselves under what circumstances we would see it is a sensible choice. Or instead of obstinately upholding the belief that a lockdown is the only right option, we should wonder when we might change our mind and conclude that a lockdown is in fact not the best way forward. If we believe schools must remain open, no matter what, we ought to imagine what would need to be the case for us to consider that perhaps shutting them would be the lesser of two evils; if we are convinced schools should close, we should reflect on the long-term damage this might do to young people, and how large it needs to be for us to decide it is too big a sacrifice.

Taking this approach has two advantages. It compels us to leave behind the comfortable illusion that we are right and look not only for confirming, but disconfirming evidence for our position. It makes us aware of the complex dynamics surrounding the choice, and enables us to be alert to changing circumstances so that, when needed, we can adjust our perspective.

Perhaps even more importantly, it also helps combat the destructive polarizing thinking that is so widespread. It enables us to acknowledge alternative opinions, which may come as natural to others who are of a different age than us, who are less wealthy than we are, who live in different circumstances, as our opinion comes to us. It engenders respect, and opens the door to constructive dialogue.

And this is the case not just for big policy decisions about lockdowns and schools. The festive season is approaching, and we may well be facing tough decisions of our own. Whatever the decisions we are facing, choosing a position based on partial (in both senses!) information and then clinging on to it, as if that then fixes the position of the balance, is not the best way of deciding what to do.

Instead, we should locate our tipping point. Do you know where yours is?

Originally published at on October 16, 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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