Franklin’s Gambit

“Man is not a rational animal he is a rationalizing animal.” — Robert A. Heinlein

…the process of making or finding a reason for what one already has a mind to do. Franklin’s Gambit was implicated in the two most serious policy disasters of the past decade; the Iraq war and the financial crisis of 2007-08. …

Analysis was a fig leaf for ideology and elaborate distortions of reality were used to justify predetermined conclusions. In both cases, a bogus rationality concealed rather than illuminated the reality of public and private decision-making.

When we make hiring decisions, or construct risk maps, or undertake investment appraisals we complete templates, the purpose of which is not to help us manage or decide but to rationalise what we already believe we know. At best, these exercises are irrelevant: at worst, our judgments are concealed or distorted by the need to justify them in terms of these formal processes. The – necessary – proliferation of external mechanisms of accountability is associated with an – unnecessary – proliferation of formalised procedures. Assessments are based, not on whether the decisions made are any good, but on whether they were made in accordance with what is deemed to be an appropriate process. We assume, not only that good procedure will give rise to good outcome, but also that the ability to articulate the procedure is the key to good outcomes.

… Instead, we claim to believe that there is an objective method by which all right thinking people would, with sufficient diligence and intelligence, arrive at a good answer to any complex problem. But there is no such method. A perhaps apocryphal story tells of the professor of decision sciences contemplating a job offer from another university and discussing his conflicting emotions with his wife. “Surely, dear,” she says, “you of all people should be able to make this decision wisely?” “Don’t be silly,” he responds. “This matter is serious.”


Still curious? Franklin's autobiography is full of wisdom. If you want to know more about Franklin but can't stand old-school writing, try Isaacson's Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.