Iatrogenics: Why Intervention Often Leads to Worse Outcomes
- by Simon Harris
- Jun 9, 2023
- 2 mins
(via Jason Cornwall some years ago now)
Iatrogenics has come to mean “any effect resulting from intervention in excess of gain.”:
Nassim Taleb calls [people who create more harm than good] interventionistas. Often these people come armed with solutions to solve the first-order consequences of a decision but create worse second and subsequent order consequences.
People tend to create harm through intervention for a number of reasons:
The first flaw is the inability to think through second and subsequent order consequences. They fail to realize that the second and subsequent order consequences exist at all or could outweigh the benefits. Most things in life happen at the second, third, or nth steps.
The second flaw is a distance from the consequences. When there is a time delay between an action and its consequences (feedback) it can be hard to know that you’re causing harm. This allows, even encourages, some self-delusion. Given that we are prone to confirming our beliefs—and presumably, we took action because we believed it to be helpful—we’re unlikely to see evidence that contradicts our beliefs.
The third flaw is a bias for action. Social norms make it hard for you to say, “I don’t know.” You’re expected to have an opinion on everything.
The fourth flaw is one of the incentives, they have no or little skin in the game. They win if things go right and suffer no consequences if things go wrong.
As leaders, we need to work hard against our bias towards intervention:
A simple rule for the decision-maker is that intervention needs to prove its benefits and those benefits need to be orders of magnitude higher than the natural (that is non-interventionist) path.
We must also recognize that some systems self-correct; this is the essence of homeostasis. Naive interventionists, or the interventionista, often deny that natural homeostatic mechanisms are sufficient, that “something needs to be done” — yet often the best course of action is nothing at all.