Table of Contents

 

Panic and Blunder Thinking: Expanding the Theory

A nation experiences a terrorist attack on internationally important buildings. After driving the responsible group out of their safe haven, the attacked nation conquers another country for fear it has weapons of mass destruction. Afterward it is determined not only that there were no WMDs, but that the evidence of them was … “flimsy” is perhaps an unduly kind word.

Anything about that sequence remind you of the story I told you in Book One, of the mother running back into the burning house yelling “My baby!” while it’s safe in her husband’s arms on the front lawn?

Yes, both are examples of Blunders caused by Panic thinking.

The goal of this section is to help you identify when Panic thinking is being engaged in around you, and just perhaps help avoid a Blunder. Or if you can’t avoid it, at least get where you can duck and cover.

Unfortunately, nothing here can or will help you much in predicting the Blunder’s exact nature.

Definitions

In the Thinking Stack section of Book One, I defined Panic thinking as occurring when a situation is both new and threatening, so that Judgment thinking has to imitate Morality thinking’s speed. Judgment narrows down its focus and concentrates on getting just one thing done fast, ignoring all sensory input that isn’t recognized as directly related.

That can mean paying no attention to one or more things that actually are important to solving the crisis at hand and thus making a Blunder—a mistake that would not have been made if the decision maker had not Panicked.

Whether you avoid falling into a Blunder while Panicked depends partly on your experience, partly on what you’re thinking about as the Panic rises, and largely on dumb luck. (Whether you avoid Panicking in the first place depends on whether your Morality and/or Habit layers find enough familiar in the particular emergency that they can cope.)

Blunders are inherently impossible to recognize while you’re making them, even if obvious to a non-Panicked outside observer (alias a “cooler head”), although they may become obvious to you afterward—in the most disastrous cases, immediately afterward. But because a choice made under Panic has a lot of emotion packed into it, even after you have had time to settle down and look back you may sometimes fail to recognize a Blunder.

However, regardless of whether a Panicked action is objectively brilliant or stupid in retrospect, it looks and feels very, very right at the time to the person making the choice. This is the hallmark of Panic thinking.

Communities Can Panic-Think, Too

As you will remember from Book One, besides the adrenaline-rush short-term Panic mode thinking, a long-term mode is possible, when dealing with a continuing threat like being in a war zone or dealing with long-term economic crisis. Either mode can happen to a whole community or to its decision-making bodies.

In such cases, Panic’s over-tight focus manifests as “group think”: Quickly reaching consensus without critically weighing pros and cons or adequately considering alternatives. If the group is lucky they’ll do something rational. But they can all too easily Blunder, agreeing on a course of action that, in retrospect, it seems should have been clearly identifiable as very risky or downright wrong.

The next section considers when and how community-level Panic thinking is likely to take place.

The Stages of Community Panic-Thinking Blunders

In this section I analyze the community Blunder-making process as consisting of four or five stages:

1. A significant continuing stress on the community.

2. A novel threatening event that starts Panic thinking.

3. One or more Blunders caused by Panic thinking.

4. Optionally, a Blunder Chain, in which the community’s new mode of acting becomes a new threat that creates more Panic and one or additional Blunders. This can repeat for a longer Chain.

5. One or more long-lasting scars to the community, which can affect its fortunes for decades or even a century. This stage is the biggest reason that understanding Panic thinking is important.

1. The Continuing Stress

Panic thinking can happen when a community is afraid and under stress.

In normal times, normal community processes under the normal community leadership solve a community’s problems satisfactorily. Every day, roads and buildings are wearing down, people are growing older, weeds and trees are growing … a thousand-and-one things are happening, and the community takes care of most of them in the same old ways. Business as usual can be a good thing!

But the world is not constant. Things change. There are new business opportunities, there are natural disasters, there are business cycles and political changes. If the community can adapt to these changes, community stress stays low and it is unlikely local leadership will Panic. But if a problem becomes large and chronic, stress level in the community rises.

For instance, if half a dozen coal miners in Grantville, West Virginia, can no longer work because of black lung disease, that’s regrettable. But it doesn’t raise Grantville’s stress, because everybody in the community knows that it happens all the time. Community Panic does not ensue.

But if half the coal mines in commuting distance of Grantville close and lots of people become unemployed, it’s a frightening stress that makes the town more susceptible to Panic thinking.

Some common continuing community stresses include:

Note that a community can become gravely stressed but still not fall into Panic thinking. Another factor is needed. That second factor is a novel threat.

2. The Novel Threat

The novel threat must be not only frightening but brand new in order to kick the stressed community into Panic thinking. When an earthquake, even a “big one”, hits San Francisco, it is unlikely to Panic because that threat is neither new nor strange there. But a large earthquake in Detroit, Michigan, which sits in a virtually earthquake-free zone (although it occasionally feels the effects of distant quakes), would be a novel threat.

On September 11, 2011, the US was undergoing major stress from an economic slowdown. The Bush Administration’s attention was on engineering a “soft landing” after the dot-com bust and the post-Enron accounting scandals. The 9-11 disaster was a highly novel threat in multiple ways. No one had ever before experienced:

… and probably a few more novelties—some of which scared only the experts who knew what just couldn’t happen, like a modern steel-reinforced American skyscraper collapsing in a fire.

All of this, stemming from the same disaster, was so new and so terrifying that it’s not surprising the US government and people went more than a little loopy. That loopiness was Panic thinking and the acts that followed were Blunders.

Panic thinking doesn’t happen every time a community is stressed and encounters a new and unexpected threat. Particularly if some elements of the threat are perceived as familiar, Practiced thinking may kick in. The community responds with a familiar solution, modified to fit the novel elements, or a well thought-out new solution. But the more a community is stressed, and the more terrifying a new threat is, the more likely Panic thinking is, and the more likely Blundering is to occur.

3. The Blunder

The Hallmarks

The first hallmark of a Panic-thinking Blunder is that it looks like a very right solution to the people who are implementing it at the time. The Panic-stricken leader might say, “We have to do something, and this is a good solution! The best! Anyone who thinks otherwise is badly mistaken!”

Here is an example of some real words used by an insider who had been Panicked:

Wed July 9, 2003 11:16 AM ET WASHINGTON (Reuters)—Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on Wednesday the United States did not go to war with Iraq because of dramatic new evidence of banned weapons but because it saw existing information on Iraqi arms programs in a new light after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

“The coalition did not act in Iraq because we had discovered dramatic new evidence of Iraq’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction”, Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “We acted because we saw the evidence in a dramatic new light—through the prism of our experience on 9-11.”

To contemporary cooler heads, the course chosen looked strange. Assessments ranged from too risky to just plain bonkers to actively fraudulent.

Only two days after Rumsfeld testified, Ruben Arvizu of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation wrote, “Top officials of the Bush administration are now making statements that are exposing the deceit to have a pretext for the urgency of this war.” He cited a 9 July BBC account of Rumsfeld’s testimony above, which also reported that “Weeks earlier, his deputy Paul Wolfowitz said the U.S. decision to stress the weapons’ threat as a reason for war was taken for ‘bureaucratic’ reasons,” and that an unnamed “recently retired State Department intelligence official said on Wednesday the Bush administration gave an inaccurate picture of Iraq’s military threat before the war and that intelligence reports showed Baghdad posed no imminent threat.”

When cooler heads try to point out problems with a plan that is about to become a Blunder, the Panicked insiders, and the Panicked community supporting them, either shout them down or ignore them. (Some of the insiders may later concede that the plan was a bad one, but that will be long after. At the time the decision is made and implemented, all insiders will back it enthusiastically.) That was the case with the Second Gulf War, aka Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The second hallmark of a Panic-thinking Blunder is that it becomes immensely expensive. Where the plan is poorly thought out, the provisions for what to do in case of failure are even more poorly thought out or absent entirely. Without good fallbacks available, the Blunder’s expense mushrooms and becomes huge.

When the Blunder involves huge expense, spectacular failure, and/or novelty, it may acquire huge fame—or infamy—particularly because in a Panic emotions always run high.

Repairing Blunders

Fixing a Blunder can be difficult. It is usually corrected slowly, quietly, and incompletely.

A community will often support a Blunder for a long time, even though it is expensive and it doesn’t work, because they don’t want to be afraid again. Those who try to put it right often get nowhere. When they say, “Our current solution is a rotten fix. Instead, let’s …”, they’re met with, “Let sleeping dogs lie. We don’t want to go through that Hell again!”

On the other hand, Blunders often repair themselves. When Germany and Japan lost World War II, they also lost the fears that had led them into it. (Contrast these with Germany after World War I, unnecessarily put under continuing stress by the Blunders of that war’s victors.)

However, repair rarely eradicates the long-lasting scars.

4. Chains of Blunders

If a Blunder’s failure leads to a new novel threat, it sets the stage for yet another Panic-thinking episode, too often resulting in another Blunder. And the pattern may repeat.

Such Blunder Chains are common in history. Here is a depressingly long one, at least parts of which will be familiar to many readers:

Please understand that I don’t claim every single government decision during the period, nor even all the major ones, were Blunders. But at each stage historians and political scientists see more than enough governmental choices that were not only huge mistakes but, as they played out, became new kinds of threats to their own and/or other peoples—serious threats that led to more Panic-thinking Blunders during what has been sarcastically but accurately called “the continuing crisis”.

5. The Scar

Blunders change history by causing huge social scars—lasting changes in how a community feels about some issues or how it moves through history. When people are deeply afraid and the conventional solutions already tried haven’t stopped the fear, Blunders happen. They don’t solve the problem, but they can change circumstances enough to distract people from their previous fear.

Here are some examples.

Prediction Method

To see a Blunder coming, look for a community that is under higher stress than normal, then watch for it to suffer a novel threat. In trying to cope, chances are the community will come up with a Blunder plan.