Reasons To Reject

A common story hero in our society is the great innovator, opposed by villains who unthinkingly reject the hero’s proposed innovation, merely because it requires a change from the past. To avoid looking like such villains, most of us give lip service to innovation, and try not to reject proposals just because they require change.

On the other hand, our world is extremely complex, with lots of opaque moving parts. So most of us actually have little idea why most of those parts are they way they are. Thus we usually don’t know much about the effects of adopting any given proposal to change the status quo, other than that it will probably make things worse. Because of this, we need a substantial reason to endorse any such proposal; our default is rejection.

So we are stuck between a rock and a hard place – we want both to reject most proposals, and to avoid seeming to reject them just because they require change, even though we don’t specifically know why they would be bad ideas. Our usual solution: rationalization.

That is, we are in the habit of collecting reasons why things might be bad ideas. There might be inequality or manipulation, the rich might take control, it might lead to war, the environment might get polluted, mistakes might be made, regulators might be corrupted, etc. With a library of reasons to reject in hand, we can do simple pattern matching to find reasons to reject most anything. We can thus continue to pretend to be big fans of innovation, saying that unfortunately in this case there are serious problems.

I see (at least) two signs that suggest this is happening. The first sign is that my students are usually quick to name reasons why any given proposal is a bad idea, but it takes them lots of training to be able to elaborate in any detail why exactly a reason they name would make a proposal bad. For example, if they can identify anything about the proposal that would involve some people knowing secrets that others do not, they are quick to reject a proposal because of “asymmetric information.” But few are ever able to offer a remotely coherent explanation of the harm of any particular secret.

The other sign I see is when people consider the status quo as a proposal, but do not know that it actually is the status quo, they seem just as quick to find reasons why it cannot work, or is a bad idea. This is dramatically different from their eagerness to defend the status quo, when they know it is the status quo. When people don’t know that something actually works now, they assume that it can’t work.

This habit of pattern matching to find easy reasons to reject implies that would-be innovators shouldn’t try that hard to respond to objections. If you compose a solid argument to a particular objection, most people will then just move to one of their many other objections. If you offer solid arguments against 90% of the objections they could raise, they’ll just assume the other 10% holds the reason your proposal is a bad idea. Even having solid responses to all of their objections won’t get you that far, since most folks can’t be bothered to listen to them all, or even notice that you’ve covered them all.

Of course as a would be innovator, you should still listen to objections. But not so much to persuade skeptics, as to test your idea. You should honestly engage objections so that you can refine, or perhaps reject, your proposal. The main reason to listen to those with whom you disagree is: you might be wrong.

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