Survival dictates that we each make thousands of decisions every day. Most are wholly benign with little in the balance. Some are matters of life or death. Some seem benign, but hold life or death consequences.
We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures. In some instances, we are Bayesian and in others, we’re swept along by incalculable anomic passions. Even so, we seem to find comfort in the notion that we have used rationality to guide us.
We act in an environment that bombards us with information. In recent years we have achieved the ability to virtually drown ourselves in seemingly limitless information. Every new datum begs a new question. As Emile Durkheim suggests, this leads us to anomic tendencies — we advance toward the infinite, which is by definition unobtainable and therefore a source of pain.
The Dutch criminologist Henk Elfers uses the term "bounded rationality" to describe humans’ most common method of decision-making. Despite the limitless ocean of information, every decision we make, we make with incomplete information. All acts are "bounded" in their reason. They require at least a modicum of faith.
Using bounded rationality, we make decisions with the information we have on hand at the time. Even so, as Pieter Van Baal observes, "This does not mean that everybody includes the same parameters as costs and benefits or that they evaluate those parameters in the same way."
This variability is precisely the point where morality intervenes. Not only are there differences in what inputs any given person might include, those factors may be given a disparate weighting depending upon an underlying moral filter. In other words, different people might arrive at conflicting "rational" decisions because we use different criteria to make them.
The 19th century cavalryman, Lt. Col. George Custer, provides an excellent example of this. On Aug. 5, 1873, Custer had his first encounter with the Sioux while his 7th Cavalry was camping along the Tongue River in southeastern Montana.
As the cavalrymen were encamped, a large band of Sioux warriors suddenly attacked. The Indians were led by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, but the two young leaders appear to have attacked with little planning — perhaps hubris of their own. Custer, who had been napping, reacted quickly and repelled the attack. After a brief skirmish, the Sioux withdrew.
Herein lies the critical variable — the rub, as it were, for Custer. He would later base his whole approach to the Sioux on this one encounter, one in which inexperienced leaders were forced to hastily retreat.
Three years later, when Custer again encountered Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse at the Little Big Horn River, his greatest fear was that they would withdraw before he could attack. Swept along by his own hubris and incomplete information, he rushed in without proper reconnaissance.
This time, the Sioux were of a different mind. They stood their ground and fought, leaving Custer and more than 200 of his men dead.
In something more recent and admittedly esoteric, Christoph Adami, a Michigan State University biologist, and Arend Hintze, his research associate, just published a paper titled, "Evolutionary instability of Zero Determinant strategies demonstrates that winning isn’t everything."
In this tome, the pair use a classic game theory puzzle (the Prisoners’ Dilemma) to demonstrate that selfish decisions may yield short-term gains — even great ones — but selfishness as an exclusive strategy is ultimately a loser.
"We found evolution will punish you if you’re selfish and mean. For a short time and against a specific set of opponents, some selfish organisms may come out ahead. But selfishness isn’t evolutionarily sustainable," Adami observes.
He goes on to clarify, "In an evolutionary setting, with populations of strategies, you need extra information to distinguish each other."
As above, that’s exactly the crux of the problem: We usually don’t know all we really need to know. As such, a little cooperation, even if it’s a bit forced, stands to foster better outcomes for all involved.
Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. He writes from Pine Bluff, Ark. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org