In WWII, the Air Force was calculating the best way to take Saipan, a key island to set up the final bombing of Japan. They brought in a team of experts to find the plan that would minimize casualties while still maintaining a high probability of success. Objectively, the best plan was to have 25% of the planes carry a full load of bombs and have 75% of the planes stay home. Because of the weight of the bombs, the pilots wouldn’t have enough fuel to make it back. But even assuming all of them died, the 25% casualty rate was less than if they had 100% of the planes go with partial bomb loads and enough fuel to get home. This would likely result in a 30% or higher casualty rate. So the suicide mission was not as callous a strategy as it seems at first. And to make it fair, the pilots would be selected by lottery so they all had an equal chance of being selected.
The pilots rejected this plan. They preferred a higher casualty rate in exchange for being in control of their own fates. Eyal Winter, in his book “Feeling Smart,” suggests that this is overconfidence bias. None of them thought they would be one of the 30% in Plan B because they all thought that they were above average bomber pilots. Just like 90% of drivers think they are above average and 99% of college professors think they are above average (although I have talked about how these are not as biased as they seem on the surface when you look at the details). But in a lottery, their own ability couldn’t save them.
In this surprising book, Eyal Winter asks a simple question: why do we have emotions? If they lead to such bad decisions, why hasn’t evolution long since made emotions irrelevant? The answer is that, even though they may not behave in a purely logical manner, our emotions frequently lead us to better, safer, more optimal outcomes.
I think it might be something else – the nature of intrinsic motivation. The only way military pilots can deal with the constant risk of death is to believe in what they are doing. Part of intrinsic motivation is feeling in control of your actions. So even if they truly believed that their odds were lower with plan B, just being in control of their fate felt better than a lottery. This is known to be a powerful influence on motivation and even stronger in groups such as the military.
I can’t ask you which of these feels more correct because I don’t expect many of us have had jobs where your lives are constantly at risk (unless there are more police, firefighters, and active military reading EID than I realize). But if you have expertise, experience, or opinions about intrinsic motivation and/or overconfidence bias, perhaps you can weigh in.
Image Credit: Magnus Manske