Why We’re So Bad at Solving Long-Term Problems
In her preface to The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age (2019), Bina Venkataraman explains:
“For seven years and counting, I have been investigating what allows wisdom to prevail over recklessness; what role our biological programming, our environment, and our culture play; and what changes are possible in our communities, businesses, and society. I’ve taken my inquiry to dive bars, to city council meetings, to old-growth forests, to family reunions, and on foreign delegations around the world. I’ve visited Kansas farms, Wall Street firms, virtual reality labs in Silicon Valley, fishing villages in Mexico, and the nuclear fallout zone in Fukushima, Japan.”
She’s asking why we don’t have foresight. Foresight, not necessarily by having certainty about the future—given that, of course, “we can’t smell, touch, or hear the future”—but by making better choices based in both our knowledge and our ignorance. (“It’s the difference between knowing it will rain at tomorrow’s soccer game and actually bringing an umbrella.”) And why, when we do have good information, we still have poor judgment. Why we’re reckless. Why we aren’t careful.
When we don’t have money or other resources, we tend to lean on short-term band-aids that create more expense, difficulty, and pain for us in the long-term. We might gravitate toward the obviously better long-term solution if we have the resources to choose it. When we do make the long-term choice, it can help our morale and our insight to receive periodic reminders about how this choice is helping us or others.
“Choice architecture” profoundly affects our decisions, for better and for worse. That term explains how people design systems to prompt users with certain choices or to obscure options from their view. When a system is poorly designed for the collective benefit or when there is no choice architecture at all, we can end up with a tragedy of the commons.
Even when we make an effort to analyze a situation for ourselves, we often find it difficult to ditch our loyalties, or our implicit biases, or our interest in money, or to separate signal from noise, or to prepare for any possible threat…