Trade-offs, Triggers and Least Regret

If I had to sum up the UK government’s pandemic response succinctly, I’d say “better late than never, but frustratingly late.”

The UK lagged Europe in implementing non-pharmaceutical interventions, stubbornly insisted Christmas wouldn’t be canceled – only to go back into lock-down days ahead of the holiday – and inexplicably waited weeks while case counts in India went vertical before restricting travel into the UK.

A few weeks ago, I wondered what, in a few weeks, we would we wish we had done “now” instead of waiting to do it later.

We had been chatting over lunch with friends about the early signs that the Delta variant (a.k.a. the-variant-formerly-known-as-Indian) was spreading exponentially, and what could and should be done about it.

“Their only choice is to extend lock-down, and they can’t or won’t” a friend argued. I disagreed – arguing there were other possible responses – re-targeting and accelerating the vaccination program, for example – shifting supplies to the areas affected and and opening vaccination to the younger age groups likely to be socializing and thereby spreading the virus.

I wasn’t privy to enough information to argue that was the right thing to do, just that it was a thing that could be done, and that if it were to be done, doing it now would be better than doing it later.

A few weeks later the government has announced that the June 21st target to eliminate remaining restrictions will be missed due to rising case counts and hospitalization. They’ve been “surge vaccinating” in hot spots, and as of yesterday (15 June) accelerated access to vaccinations for younger age groups and reduced the inter-dose delay from ~12 to ~8 weeks.

Again I couldn’t help but wonder why couldn’t we decide to take these steps a few weeks ago?

There are very few “right answers” in life – mostly we swim in an ocean of trade-offs. We try to make the best decisions we can, given the situation we’re in and the information we have. And we hope not to regret our decisions later.

Many of us struggle to think clearly and in advance about what change(s) would make us change our decision. My experience has been that by thinking through those triggers, and playing “what if” with a goal of minimizing regret we can often make “better” decisions. Or at least make decisions we’d make again, if the choice was ours to make again.

A simple way of thinking about minimizing regret is to ask yourself, when faced with a decision between alternatives, given everything you know now which choice do you think will cause you more regret over time? What could happen, or what could you learn, that would change your choice? How likely do you think you are you to learn that thing, or for any of the possible triggers you identified to happen? Is it possible to change your choice once you’ve made it? Is it possible to change if you made the other choice? Is one direction easier? Cheaper?

What we regret as individuals depends heavily on what we value. You and I, faced with the same decision – and both of us trying to minimize regret – may come to opposite conclusions. We might not agree, and it might not be obvious why we disagree. Still, if we’ve been successful, and not just self-delusional, if faced with making the decision again both of us would repeat our choice.

Consider the decisions that the government has been lambasted for delaying. Between the time a decision was made to do nothing (e.g. the decision that there would be no Christmas lock-down, or the decision not to impose restrictions on travel from India to the UK) and the time that decision was reversed, what was learned? What changed? At what point was that outcome certain, or predictable with high confidence?

High stakes decision making with incomplete and inaccurate information is hard, I mean really hard. There are no A/B tests – no way to know, or convince others, what would have happened if we made the other choice. What would have happened if we had turned right. This has real and significant implications. If we take action to avoid a disaster, and the disaster never materializes, there will be voices – sometimes loud ones – asserting that the disaster never would have happened regardless, and our actions were unnecessary and in some way harmful.

This sentiment has become a louder undertone in the media in the UK of late, seeming to increase in volume as delaying the removal of lock-down restrictions past the June target became more likely. Past modeling of disease and resulting hospitalization and death have been wrong – overshooting the observed reality, sometimes significantly. Restrictions on freedoms and trade have a cost – in money, in livelihoods, in opportunity. These costs are real.

When making a trade-off between predictable economic damage and likely increased illness and loss of life, and knowing what you know, how would you minimize regret?

Leave a Reply