The Fragilista


They think that the reasons for something are immediately accessible to them, even if they have no clue.

No matter how complex or difficult, no problem results in an “I don’t know.”

They are the fragilista.

Frequently found wearing suits and spending a lot of time in meetings, they prefer to tinker with things they do not understand rather than doing nothing.

This isn’t my idea, it’s Nassim Taleb’s.

In Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, he writes:

[The fragilista] defaults to thinking that what he doesn’t see is not there, or what he does not understand does not exist. At the core, he tends to mistake the unknown for the nonexistent.

Fragilistas are naive rationalists.

They think that the reasons for things are, by default, accessible to them. They know the cause and effect of everything, or at least that’s what they think.

Because they mistake what they don’t know for the non-existent, they exhibit a strong — if mistaken — regard for the powers of reason.

They lack humility and respect for the first law of ecology: we can never do merely one thing.

Any action we take, and in this case inaction is a course of action, results in some unwanted consequences.

According to Taleb, the problem with the fragilista is that they “make you engage in policies and actions, all artificial, in which the benefits are small and visible, and the side effects (are) potentially severe and invisible.

Fragilistas are everywhere.

They are the doctors who intervene too much in the body’s natural ability to heal, prescribing powerful medications with small benefit and possibly severe side effects.

There is the management fragilista who: (1) introduces a bureaucratic solution to what is really a people problem; (2) manages by best-seller; (3) seeks refuge in the false security of best-practices; (4) fails to come up with reasonable benchmarks for judging performance of solutions; (5) does everything and thus does nothing; etc.

There is the policy fragilista who feels that continuous interventions into the financial market are necessary for stability.

In Filters Against Folly, Garrett Hardin writes:

Whatever plan of action we adopt in our attempt to remake the world, our usual first step is to pin a laudatory label on what we are doing. We may call it development, cure, correction, improvement, help, or progress. We load untested conclusions onto ill-stated premises. But every intervention in an existing system is, for certain, only an intervention. We will make progress faster if we honestly call the changes “interventions” only, until an audit shows what we have actually done. Needless to say, such honesty will be resisted by most promoters of change.

The point isn’t to avoid risk or even intervention but rather to be humble about our knowledge, or lack of it.

To know when we should avoid small, immediate, and visible benefits that introduce the possibility for large (and possibly invisible) side effects. Less is more.

This isn’t foolproof but one possible way to counter the fragilista is to ensure rationale is explicitly (and publicly) stated up front.

When we mess with an existing (complex) system we’re intervening; we can never do merely one thing.

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  1. Shane Parrish says

    Another good one is the politician who jumps in with a short term solution to a long term problem. Like say, spending money you don’t have. This offers numerous short term benefits. (Preferably one that satisfies some vocal special interest group at a cost to less vocal and less organized others.)

    To some extent, this is non-linear in dosage. In small degrees debt can work, even benefit and side effects are minimal. However, in larger doses, it can become fatal.

          • DS says

            This quote from the aritcle should answer your question:

            …“make you engage in policies and actions, all artificial, in which the benefits are small and visible, and the side effects (are) potentially severe and invisible.”

  2. LVRichardson says

    Raising taxes on the “rich” is a short term solution to a long term problem. It looks good on the surface to people who indulge in class warfare and the politics of envy, but it doesn’t take into account the dynamic nature of “rich” people. For every action there is a reaction. The “rich” will react by cutting back, moving overseas, sheltering, and other means of getting out from under. This is an example of an Obama fragilista approach. It’s a surface approach with no thought to the consequences or the bigger picture. Besides, virtually everyone wants to be rich, even Obama, who is now very very rich, thank you. Voting against the rich is voting against your future possibilities. It’s a short term, short sighted approach.

  3. says

    I kind of love that you wrote this article Shane and a bunch of fragilistas left comments (except me, of course – ahem).

    Personally, I think the issue is more a cultural issue. As a country, we play the game of monopoly by being ‘right’ every day of the week. Why is our democracy the best? Because it is! Because we’re right! Why is our system of healthcare the best (and unneeding of reform)? Because we’re right!!

    This is played out between individuals every day, especially on social media.

    This is my most extreme example. I went to the bank recently and the teller told me the checking account I was using had been closed 2 years ago. I said, that can’t be true. I just put $x thousand in it. And now we play.

    “I assure you the account is closed.” (the teller assures me she is right)
    “Can you check again?” (I just want to do my transaction)
    “I don’t need to check again, I can see it right here. The account is closed.” (I’m right, and nothing you say will change that.)

    The only way to end this game is to pass.

    “OK, I guess you’re right,” I said and went to another teller, who took care of my business.

    This is a cultural issue based in the mere fact that ego is enough (any reality star) to acquire acclaim and wealth. We’ve gone from a culture of acclaim from what we DO to acclaim for… I’m not sure what – seems to me screwing with wealthy old men and getting plastic surgery, but that’s just me and my ‘right’ conversation.

    Until we resolve our own ego issues – individually and as a culture – our actual issues (education, economy, wholesale corporate ownership of every branch of government, etc.) will languish in a cloud of “I’m right.”