A Grand Vision… or tunnel vision?

Recently, I attended a live discussion-cum-interview with the two authors of the best-selling books “Freakonomics” and “Super Freakonomics“, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, who were promoting their latest book, “Think Like A Freak.”

Now while “thinking like a freak” seems to me to be just a new name for the long-established traditions of thinking differently, thinking counter-intuitively and thinking outside the box, something that Steven Levitt, the Freakonomist, said during the discussion caused me to think a little differently about visions. Steven Levitt said, not exactly in these words:

When considering a situation, initially, put your morality to one side and look at the facts in an unbiased way. See what the evidence really says about the situation. Later, when you are determining what to do, you can bring your morality back into the picture.”

In other words, while it’s important that we are clear on our vision and our values, our morality, and that we make decisions that are aligned to our vision and values, we should make sure that we don’t become so focused on our Grand Vision that we develop tunnel vision and stop seeing the world as it really is.

Tunnel vision

If tunnel vision is our tendency to become fixated on a single idea, option or belief to the exclusion of other ideas, options or beliefs, it can arise and be sustained in a number of ways.

First, our natural default is to consider only a single option when making a decision. Psychologists call this “selective hypothesis testing” and in their book about managerial decision making, “Think Again: Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions and How to Keep it From Happening to You”, Sydney Finkelstein, Andrew Campbell and Jo Whitehead refer to this psychological phenomenon as: “one plan at a time.”

The reason that we’ve evolved to consider just ‘one plan at a time’ is that thinking about more than one option at a time is difficult for us; considering just one option at a time is much easier. However, the ‘one plan at a time’ approach is a form of tunnel vision and problems with it can arise easily.

Evidence from scientific studies shows that when we consider just a single option, we perceive that option to be better, and as a result we are more likely to choose it, than if we considered the same option as just one of a number of different options.

So we typically consider one plan or option at a time and we usually over-estimate how good the first option that we consider is. But how often is the first option that we consider going to be the best option available? In fact, the first option that we consider might not even be a very good option, yet we tend to go with our first option unless we identify a really big problem with it. Only if we identify a big problem with the first option do we look for an alternative.

It’s a lo-o-o-o-ong tunnel…

Once we’ve focused on a single idea or option or made a choice about something, other aspects of our psychology tend to stop us from properly considering alternatives or from changing our mind. A key factor in sustaining tunnel vision is confirmation bias.

How many people, whether in politics, in business or in other fields, develop visions or beliefs or make decisions that they hold onto so strongly that they develop tunnel vision and stop seeing the world as it really is?

Consider the circumstances under which Tony Blair, then the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, led the UK into the Iraq War (or second Gulf War) in 2003. Peter Mandelson, one of Tony Blair’s closest and most trusted advisors at the time, wrote in his memoirs that Tony Blair “developed tunnel vision” regarding Iraq and the idea of deposing Saddam Hussein. He wouldn’t accept any challenge to his belief in the rightness of going to war in Iraq, despite plenty of evidence that existed at the time that it was both unnecessary and a bad idea.

More than ten years after the Iraq War, at a time when Iraq has effectively collapsed as a nation state, Tony Blair still believes that it was the right thing to do. The tunnels of our tunnel vision can be very long indeed.


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Breaking out of the tunnel

How can we avoid the pitfalls of tunnel vision in our decision-making?

The ELECTIA approach to decision-making helps us to avoid tunnel vision when we make decisions in the following ways:

  • It directs us to Describe and frame the decision by defining clearly what is the decision to be made, by considering the broader context within which the decision exists, and by determining why it is relevant to make the decision. These last two points, considering the broader context and the decision’s relevance, help us to avoid the narrow focus of tunnel vision.
  • It guides us to make decisions that are Well grounded because they are based on relevant evidence. As Steven Levitt said, we should “initially, put [our] morality to one side and look at the facts in an unbiased way.”
  • It directs us to first Generate ideas and options and to then Rule options in or out, thereby ensuring that we consider more than just ‘one plan at a time’.
  • It asks us to identify our assumptions and our beliefs and to consider whether or not they are reasonable in order to ensure that our decisions are Free of bias.

So it is right that we have a vision and values and it is right that we check the alignment of the choices that we make to these. As Steven Levitt said: “…when you are determining what to do, you can bring your morality back into the picture.”

However, we should also take steps to ensure that our vision hasn’t become tunnel vision, by testing the validity of our vision and being open to evidence that contradicts it. We should be cautious about considering just one plan or option in isolation and instead identify and also consider possible alternatives. We should remember the image of the tunnel, be alert to when we might be suffering from tunnel vision, and take whatever steps are necessary to break out.

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