Confusing the Unfamiliar with the Improbable

“There is a tendency in our planning to confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable.  The contingency we have not considered seriously looks strange; what looks strange is thought improbable; what is improbable need not be considered seriously.”

— Game theorist and Nobel laureate Thomas C. Schelling’s Introduction to, (p. vii, Wohlstetter, Roberta. Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1962, p. vii).

 

The unfamiliar.  Just because we have not seen something before does not mean that it is not relevant or that it cannot be seen.  There are a few possibilities for why it might be unfamiliar.  To start with, it could be because of different capabilities, intentions, or attention.

Different capabilities.  I am different today than I was yesterday, last week, last month, last year, and many years ago.  As I have changed, so have my capabilities.  Developmentally, I am able to perceive, understand, and work with things I could not earlier in my life.  I have grown.  Maybe what is unfamiliar now has always been there, and I was just not able to perceive, understand, or work with it before.  Maybe I can now.

Different intentions. What I give my intentions to today might be different than what was important to me in the past.  I have changed what I am in service to over the years.  My calling in the past had me pay attention to that intention and the different things that influenced it and that it influenced.  There was a system around that intention, and I paid attention to that system.  Maybe what is unfamiliar now had little to do with that earlier intention.  Maybe it is relevant in the system around my current intention.  Maybe now I care.

Different attention.  What I give my attention to is greatly influenced by how I see the world.  My worldview, in great part, influences where I put my attention.  What is unfamiliar now might sit outside of my earlier worldview, so I have never given it attention before.  That does not mean that it is not relevant or seeable, only that it was not in my earlier worldview, so it didn’t get my attention, before.  It could now.  I could change my worldview and what gets my attention.

Three reasons, to start with, for why something might be unfamiliar to me.  I couldn’t see it, I wouldn’t see it, I didn’t see it.  I can now.  If I do now, then it isn’t unfamiliar, any more.

The improbable.  Something that is improbable is unlikely to happen, within a specific context.  We often assume that a context is given, as if it is a fact that it is that way, and that it will never change.  And, it turns out that everything changes, eventually.  Everything.  So, it is not whether the context will change, rather when.  If the context can change, then something that was unlikely to happen might become more likely to happen, when the context changes.  It can also remain very unlikely, in a different context.  The challenge here is to see what the context is that makes it unlikely now.  How will the context change?  Will the change in context change the probability that the improbable will happen?

It might seem easier to just assume that something that is unfamiliar is strange and therefore unlikely to happen, it is improbable.  And, if it does happen and impacts us negatively, that is our fault.  We could have paid attention, and we didn’t.  With a little effort, we can consider the contingency we normally would not, the change in context that will definitely happen, and seriously consider the consequences.  At least, then, we are making it familiar, and easy to pay attention to, now.

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