Panic Thinking Blunders

a new way to identify when an organization is going to make a really big mistake

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright March 2007


A mother wakes up in the middle of the night and smells thick smoke. The mother successfully runs out of the burning house and is standing on the front lawn. She suddenly yells, "My baby!" and runs back into the house. But, as she was yelling "My Baby!", her baby was in the arms of her husband standing beside her!

A nation experiences a terrorist attack on a public landmark. In response it conquers another nation because it fears that other nation has weapons of mass destruction. After the conquest it is determined that there were no weapons of mass destruction, and the evidence used to justify the attack was... "flimsy" is perhaps the kindest word to describe it.

These are examples of huge blunders cased by panic thinking.

This essay will be about identifying the linkage between panic thinking and huge blunders. This model of identifying when a community is susceptible to panic thinking can perhaps become useful in predicting when huge blunders (called Blunders in this essay) are likely to happen in the future.


Panic Thinking (as the term will be used in this essay) is a very specific condition that I describe in my essay on The Thinking Stack. It is a condition that occurs when Judgment Thinking has to imitate Morality Thinking's speed. (see the essay for definitions of these terms) This happens when a person experiences a situation that is both new and threatening. (If the situation is a repeat situation and threatening, it's not the same. It has to be a new situation.) When this happens, Judgment must act quickly, which is something it is not designed to do. To act quickly, Judgment thinking narrows down its focus and concentrates on getting just one thing done, and getting it done fast. Because Judgment focuses down, it pays no attention to a lot of things that are going on around it, including things that are very important to solving the crisis at hand. As a result of that, the actions that a person takes while Panic Thinking often look like huge blunders when viewed from a third party point of view, or even by the panicked person once they have had time to settle down and look back on the situation. But, regardless of how stupid an action looks in retrospect, it looks and feels very, very right at the time. This is the hallmark of Panic Thinking.

Panic Thinking is usually identified with the thinking that happens in a fast, personal crisis, such as escaping a burning building. It can happen in two other situations, too. It can happen in a long term personal crisis situation, such as when a person becomes a soldier and goes to war, and it can happen to a whole community. When a whole community agrees to do things that look seriously stupid in retrospect, it was in the grip of Panic Thinking when the decisions were being made. (Group think is a term that deals with this same phenomenon, the phenomenon of a group of people agreeing on a course of action that turns out to be a huge blunder, and, in retrospect, was clearly identifiable as very risky at the time the choice was made.)

This essay is about identifying when community level Panic Thinking is likely to take place.

How to think about Panic Thinking Blunders

One way of thinking about Panic Thinking Blunders is to separate the process into five parts:


It is this last item, the long lasting scars, that is the reason understanding Panic Thinking is important. The huge blunders and the long lasting scars can affect a community's fortunes for decades to a century.

1. The underlying stress

First off, Panic Thinking happens because a community is afraid -- the community is under stress. In normal times, the normal community processes and the normal community leadership solve the community's problems satisfactorily. Every day in a community: roads and buildings are wearing down, people are growing older, weeds and trees are growing... a thousand and one things are happening. Every day in a community a thousand and one things are being taken care of. But the world is not constant: things change. There are new business opportunities, there are natural disasters, there are political changes and business cycles. If the local leadership can adapt to these changes, then community stress stays low. If a problem becomes large and chronic, such as growing unemployment because the community has invested heavily in a declining industry, then stress level in the community rises. If a retired coal miner dies of black lung disease in West Virginia, that's regrettable, but not stress raising because it's a well-known hazard of coal mining in West Virginia. Every person who goes into coal mining in West Virginia has seen people who are suffering from black lung, and everyone knows it's a risk they face. This is a normal stress and does not contribute to community panic.

If, on the other hand, many coal mines in West Virginia close and lots of people become unemployed, that stresses the community in a scary way. The people of the community become more susceptible to Panic Thinking.

Underlying stress can come from many sources. Some common ones are:

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 is the trigger that will kick a stressed community into Panic Thinking. A novel threat is something that is both scary and a brand new way of threatening the community. San Francisco, for instance, is not going to panic if an earthquake hits it. It has experienced earthquakes, and it expects to have a "big one" again. An earthquake is not a new and strange threat in San Francisco. But, that same earthquake would be something brand new, and very scary, to a place such as Detroit, Michigan, which sits in a virtually earthquake-free zone. Currently the biggest and most famous example of a Novel Threat kicking a community into Panic Thinking is the US response to the 9-11 Disaster. The 9-11 disaster was novel because before 9-11 no one had ever experienced:

... and probably a few more. And this all came from the same disaster. It was all so new, and so scary!... It's not surprising that the US government and US community went more than a little "loopy" after experiencing this. That loopiness was Panic Thinking and the acts that followed were Panic Thinking Blunders.

Panic Thinking doesn't happen every time a community is stressed, nor does it happen every time a community encounters a new threat. But, the more a community is stressed, and the more scary a new threat is, the more likely Panic Thinking Blundering is to occur.

An example of an non-Panic response to a novel situation is the world's response to North Korea's testing of a nuclear bomb. North Korea had been threatening to do this for a decade, and the world believed for at least half a decade before it happened that North Korea could do it. So, it was a novel event that was planned for. The world response to the North Korean announcement has been a textbook case of Sports Thinking rather than Panic Thinking (a well-reasoned, appropriate response).

Once again, to get into a case of Panic Thinking it is important that the threat be perceived as new and unexpected. If the threat is perceived as something that has happened before, then Sports Thinking kicks in instead of Panic Thinking. The community will respond with a tried and true solution, or a well thought-out new solution, rather than come up with a Blunder.

3. The Blunder

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 it is being implemented.

The words of a Panic Stricken leader might be something such as, "We have to do something, and this is a good solution! It is the best solution! And anyone who thinks otherwise is badly mistaken!"

Here is an example of some real words used (from my editorial article, "Mr. Bush's Oops"):

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."

However, to contemporary outside observers the course chosen will look like a strange choice. (Outside in the sense that they are not panicked. Another term for non-panicked observers is "cool heads".) To the outsider the plan of action being agreed upon will look too risky at best, and "just plan bonkers" at worst. When these outside observers try to point out the problems with the plan-that-is-about-to-become-a-Blunder, they are shouted down by the insiders who are panicked. (Some of the insiders may later agree that the plan was a bad one, but that agreement will come long after the decision is made and implemented. At the time the decision is made, all the insiders will back it enthusiastically.)

The second hallmark of a Panic Thinking Blunder is that the Blunder becomes hugely expensive. Not only is the original plan not well thought out, but the provisions for what to do if the plan doesn't work right, are even more poorly thought out. When the plan doesn't go right, there are no good fallbacks available. The mistake mushrooms and becomes hugely expensive.

The Blunder will often become hugely famous as well. This happens because the mistake is expensive, usually spectacular, and because emotions are always running high when Panic Thinking is involved.

4. Chains of Blunders

A Panic Thinking Blunder is spectacular, which means that it is novel, too. If it is also threatening, it sets the stage for yet another Panic Thinking episode... and yet another Panic Thinking Blunder. Chains of Panic Thinking Blunders are common in history. One such chain of blunders would be:

All of these Blunders have in common that they were huge mistakes, and that as the Blunder played out, it became a serious threat to other people -- a new kind of threat. Because each was a new threat, the response to each was poorly thought out (a Panic Thinking response) and the new response became yet another Blunder.

5. The long-lasting scar

Blunders change history. They change history by causing huge social scars -- lasting changes to how a community feels about some issues or how a community moves through history. The Blunders happen because people are deeply afraid, and conventional solutions tried before the Blunder haven't stopped the fear. The Blunder doesn't solve the problem, but it changes circumstances so much that it can distract people from the fear.

Fixing a blunder can be difficult. Even though it is expensive and it doesn't work, a community will often support a Blunder solution for a long time. They do so because they don't want to be afraid again. This presents a huge challenge to those who try to fix the Blunder. They get nowhere if they say, "The solution we have in place now is a rotten fix to the problem, lets try fixing it a new way..." They get nowhere because the community says, "Let the sleeping dog lie. We don't want to go through that hell again." On the other hand, Blunders often fix themselves: Germany and Japan fixed their fears by losing wars.

These are the five steps of a Panic Thinking Blunder. Lets look at some historical examples.

Historic examples of Panic Thinking

The 9-11 Disaster

The 9-11 Disaster is the most vivid example of Panic Thinking. It is the one that started me down this line of thought. America's response to 9-11 has been a textbook example of community Panic Thinking.

The Base Stress:

In 2001 America was attempting a "soft landing" in the wake of the Dot-Com Bust and the post-Enron Accounting scandals. There was economic stress and technological stress. Americans were also recovering from fear of the "Y2K" Non-Disaster. (The high emotions of impending Non-Disasters, by the way, are some of the fastest forgotten parts of human history, so this part of the emotional package of 9-11 is often forgotten about.)

The Novel Event:

As mentioned earlier, never before had America or the world witnessed many jet planes being flown into many skyscrapers by suicidal terrorists. By my reckoning, it will be the most famous disaster of the 21st century. We will still be memorializing the event in 2199.

The Blunder:

We have all watched as Americans enthusiastically

Whew! This is a serious set of blunders. This was the Novel Threat of the Century, and it seems to have started America on the Blunder Chain of the Century.

The Blunder Chain:

These are places where America's Blunder is adding novel threats to communities. These are places were Panic Thinking and Blunders are becoming more probable.

The long-lasting scars:

The long-lasting scars from the post 9-11 Blunders are deep and numerous. They have affected America a lot, and the rest of the world a little less. Here are a few that have come to mind quickly:

All-in-all. 9-11 and the post 9-11 actions are text book examples of unadulterated Community Panic Thinking and Blundering. The scars from 9-11 will still be with us when we are watching 9-11 Remembrance Videos in 2199.



The American Civil War Era (1850's-1870's)

Underlying stress:

The regional differences between North and South in America date back to colonial times. As the North became more industrialized those differences became sharper. This lead to big differences in desirable economic, social and legal policies between the North and the South. There had been dispute for decades before the Civil War, and many successful solutions to the disputes. The problem was not new, and solving the problem was not new.

Novel Event:

The old Whig Party dissolved in the 1850's, and the power vacuum it left behind was filled suddenly and aggressively in the late 1850's by the newly founded Republican Party (founded 1854). The surge to power of the Republicans was a novel event in the politics of America, and The Southern leaders saw it as threatening.


The Southern leaders responded to the Republican threat by declaring that they would secede from the Union if a Republican were elected president. That happened in 1860 with the election of Abraham Lincoln, and the Southern leaders made good on their threat.

Blunder Chain:

Secession was something new to America, and so it was not responded to well, either. Lincoln and the Republicans saw it as a threat, and the Civil War as we know it ensued. That was far from the end of this Blunder Chain. Other elements include: The surprisingly long and damaging Civil War itself (1860-65), The Reconstruction Era (1860's through 1870's) and Jim Crow South which lasted into the 1920's.

Long-lasting Scars:



The Winter 2007 Cartoon Sign Scare in Boston

Underlying stress:

Boston city government has been in the throes of dealing with a controversial public works project called "The Big Dig" (an automobile tunnel under downtown Boston). The Big Dig cost billions, and it was late and over-budget. In 2006 it became a high profile scandal because parts of it fell down, killing a person driving through it. The event was stressful enough to the city that it called in outside help to do damage control.

Novel Event:

On the night of Sunday January 30th, two young marketers put up about twenty battery powered odd-looking plastic signs in high traffic areas of downtown Boston. It was part of a low-budget guerrilla marketing campaign for a movie based on a cable TV cartoon show.


In twelve other major US cities the signs were looked upon as a curiosity and no unusual action was taken. In Boston the first reaction of city officials was that these novel signs could be a terrorist bomb threat. Traffic was shut down in many high volume parts of the city for a half day as the signs were checked out by bomb squads.

Blunder Chain:

Long-lasting Scars:

Boston gained a reputation is a city with a touchy, provincial-minded government, that would hurt people who did strange things in their town. The people of Boston would now live with a lot less novelty in their lives, and a lot more paperwork. Anyone planning on doing something "strange" in Boston would now look for some government official to give them an OK. As is usual with such things, this would affect low-budget experimental projects much more than high-budget, low-risk projects.

As of April 2007, the mayor of Boston was still standing solidly behind the blunder. In a press conference he urged the people of Boston to boycott the movie, which was scheduled to open in the Boston area that weekend. Other Boston officials were asked by the media about their feelings on the matter and they responded with, "No comment." This is an indication of how long lasting a blunder scar can be. As of April, the mayor was still a worried man.



The War on Drugs

Thirty Eight years ago (in 1969) President Nixon started The War on Drug Abuse. Well... it still hasn't passed the English-French Hundred Years War in length, but it is surely a long running US social Blunder.

Underlying stress:

In 1969 President Nixon was still trying to extricate America from the Vietnam War. Inflation from Johnson's "we will have both guns and butter" fiscal policies was rising and worrisome. This was also the time when The Generation Gap was in full flower: the Baby Boomers were coming of voting age, and through choices in music, movies and protesting, they were already demonstrating that they were going change America's social mores. It was a scary time for anyone older than 35.

Novel Event:

Long haired males, Hippies and recreational drug use were some things that Baby Boomers were experimenting with. These were all things that upset older generations deeply.


The Nixon Administration decided that drug abuse was at the root of the Generation Gap-related social unrest the nation was experiencing. So, it was important to stop drug abuse.

Drug abuse as identified by the Nixon Administration was an entirely different perception of drug abuse than that held by Baby Boomers, so the laws and programs were a really bad match with Boomer reality. The laws were seen as persecution by the Boomers, and this persecution resulted in a severe disenfranchisement of the Boomers. Older teenagers and young twenties people feel a lot of disenfranchisement in the best of times, this attack by "The Narcs" just made matters worse.

Blunder Chain:

The drug program is something of an oddity because it is a Blunder Chain that continues even though the novelty of the threat wore off long ago. The "drug program" did not solve the "drug problem", but it continues to be supported. Now, those originally persecuted, the Boomers, are those supporting the Blunder. Most strange... most strange.... My guess on this is that the War on Drugs is now an institution for dealing with the fear the older community always has for the strange ideas and reckless abandon of youth.

Long-lasting Scars:

The disenfranchisement of large parts of American society over drug issues goes on to this day. This disenfranchisement is the source of a lot of the violence America experiences in the 21st century.

This disenfranchisement has spread to other countries that supply drugs to the US, such as Columbia. Columbia is now home to an essentially permanent countryside insurrection that is financed by the disenfranchisement that creates the illicit drug market. This insurrection is a textbook example of the result of chronic disenfranchisement.

A program like the War on Drugs -- one that deals with lots of dollars of product demand and disenfranchises people for years and years -- becomes the spawning ground for lots and lots of corruption, violence, and arbitrary trampling of civil liberties by government officials. It is a government credibility killer, and this is a very bad thing.

These have been some historic examples of Panic Thinking and Blunders.


Panic Thinking is a common way for a community to respond to a situation that is both novel and stressful. Having an element of new threat is important for Panic Thinking to develop. If the threat is not new, sports thinking rather than panic thinking will happen, and a huge blunder is not likely.

The hallmark of Panic Thinking is that the solution the community comes up with to deal with the threat is wacky -- it is both expensive and it doesn't work well. But, it is seen as a good solution at the time it is implemented, by those that are implementing it, and by the community they are leading. Some of those around the implementors may not agree with the solution, but they are shouted down by the implementors, and the community.

Implementing the solution creates a Blunder -- a huge and expensive mistake for the community.

Making a Blunder is novel and stressful, which means one Blunder can create another Blunder, you can develop a Blunder Chain.

Even though a Blunder solution is a bad one, it may not be corrected right away, and when it is corrected it is usually corrected slowly, quietly and incompletely. A Blunder usually leaves long-lasting scars on a community.

To see a Blunder coming, look for a community that is under higher stress than normal, then watch for that community to suffer a novel threat. In trying to cope with the novel threat, the community will come up with a Blunder Plan, and the rest, is history.

-- The End --