ACIDs (Ambiguous Cues; Incompatible Dos): What eats at us when something does

OilLast week I argued that we need names for the generic tough judgment calls we all deal with. I gave a few examples:

Should I be receptive or assertive? Should I manipulate or be honest?

I argued that we pretend we can live by one-sided principles - assert your rights, accept things as they are, be persuasive, always tell the truth - but none of us live by these one-sided principles. By pretending we do, we lose sight of the important choices we face in deciding what to do in each particular case. Pretending we act on one-sided principle enables us to object to someone else’s choice not out of disappointment but out of make-believe principle.

In the coming weeks I’m going to list the generic tough judgment calls as I see them, and even try to give them all names. This week I want to specify the three characteristics all tough judgment calls have in common:

  1. The circumstances are hard to read.
  2. You can’t hedge your bets.
  3. Your choice matters.

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The simplest and most common tough judgment calls present two options, a question about whether to do X or Y. You have a sense that in situations of one sort (call them category A) you would do X, and in situations of another sort (call them category B) you would Y. So you have two rules you’re trying to live by.

If A then do X.
If B then do Y.

Normally, this isn’t a problem. You assess the situation, decide if it’s A or B, and do either X or Y accordingly.

Tough judgment calls arise when you can’t tell whether you’re in situation A or B, so you don’t know whether to do X or Y. The cues are ambiguous.

Often in life the cues are ambiguous and it’s not a problem. If there’s nothing wrong with doing Y in situation A or X in situation B, then you can hedge. In situation A or B do either X or Y and things will work out.

Which brings us to the second attribute of tough judgment calls. With tough judgment calls you can’t hedge because X and Y are incompatible, mutually undermining, divergent options. You can’t do both X and Y at the same time - or if you can do them at the same time they defeat each other’s utility. They are “incompatible dos.”

You’re driving a long stretch of desert highway and suddenly notice that you’re almost out of gas. You can’t remember where the last gas station was and don’t have a map so you don’t know where the next one is likely to be either. You’ve got to decide whether to go forward or back to get gas, and the cues are ambiguous. Furthermore, the options are mutually undermining. Every mile you go forward takes you farther from the gas station behind you and vice versa. You can’t go forward and backward simultaneously. If you hedge, trying a little travel in both directions, you’ll run out of gas before you’ve gone far.

A businessman friend put it this way. Oil drillers find three kinds of wells: dry holes, gushers, and leakers. The dry holes and gushers are easy. It’s the leakers that will eat up your resources. You can’t tell whether the leaker will turn out to be a dry hole or a gusher. And what you do with dry holes is exactly the opposite of what you do with gushers. You walk away from dry holes. You remove your attention from them. You accept their failure to produce, and you move on. With gushers you dig in, invest more of your attention, work to extract what they produce.

You can’t divest and boost investment simultaneously. Those are “incompatible dos.” Every step toward withdrawing from the investment undermines your commitment to making the investment work. And vice versa - every step toward the investment undermines efforts to withdraw from it.

As with oil drilling so with all relationships. Some relationships become leakers - you thought they were going to be more valuable than they’ve turned out to be, and you wonder whether to pull out or hang in and hope for improvement. Every groove that starts to feel like a rut has the potential to be a tough judgment call, whether it be a relationship with a lover, partner, friend, or colleague, a career, or a responsibility. Any of them can come to feel like leakers - that is, tough judgment calls.

It takes one kind of energy and effort to pull out of a relationship. It takes an opposite kind of energy and effort to redouble your investment in it. It’s no good filing for divorce while committing to make the relationship work. The mixed signals undermine each other.

I first started paying attention to generic tough judgment calls about fifteen years ago, when I was trying to be a better father to a wild party animal son. I’d lose sleep wondering what to do for him. My mind cycled through my options and couldn’t settle on any of them. Then I realized that the options fit in two basic categories - assert or accommodate, and that these corresponded to two categories of circumstances - lazy or handicapped. If my son was merely lazy or indulgent, then I had to assert the standards, push him, demand better behavior from him. But there were real questions about whether he was capable of behaving differently. We had tentative diagnoses from reputed psychiatrists. If he was handicapped in some way, then I’d have to accommodate him.

If lazy, then push.
If handicapped, then accommodate.

You don’t want to push the handicapped. Demanding that a blind man “open his eyes” is stupid. But you also don’t want to accommodate someone who is just being lazy. It’s equally stupid to tell a party animal that it’s OK to walk all over people because it’s in his nature.

The cues were ambiguous: I couldn’t tell if he was lazy or handicapped.

And the dos were incompatible: You can’t be effective both pushing and accommodating. Every accommodation reduces the credibility of a push. Every push reduces the credibility of an accommodation. The mixed signals reduce the power of both.

Noticing that this was simply an instance of a very generic tough judgment call didn’t instantly solve the problem I was facing, but I think it made me better able to place my bets about what to do. I wasn’t distracted by the sense that I was stupid for not knowing which way to go. It made me feel at home with the indecision, dealing with the kind of conundrum all of us face at one time or another.

For years, my best guess was that in fact my son was handicapped - the diagnoses, the behavior, all pointed that way. In recent years he has changed for the better, and with the tough judgment call perspective I adapted in a timely manner. Looking back, he says he was handicapped in fact, and I believe him. And now he’s as decent a guy as you’d hope to meet.

The point isn’t that good things always happen when you take the tough judgment call perspective. There was a clear possibility that he would never overcome the handicap. Rather, it’s that by framing it as a tough judgment call, I was better prepared for changing strategies as the cues themselves changed - in either direction.

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