29 July 2010

It's Focal Bias Day Here At The Secret Blog

Recently, I've been seeing focal bias everywhere.  Both this post at Volokh Conspiracy and this post from Megan Mcardle are examples of focal bias, which is our tendency to think that a particular factor must be important because we're focusing on it.


Harry Eagar said...

In my business, it's treating any movie or any television program as something everybody has seen, even though there is no movie or TV program that even half the people have seen, and in most cases, not even one in 10.

OTOH, there are places were every manini error or misjudgment by people in my business is blown up into a blanket indictment of news reporting and editing. Sometimes, though, surprising things happen.

For example, just now I was following a Romenesko tip on a surprising error in the N.Y. Post (surprising not because the Post doesn't make errors, but because this one shouldn't have passed the editor in a tank town); but the most interesting thing about this was the (unrelated to the error) cover of the Post today -- a screaming alarm about global warming.

People can be hard to predict

David said...

Harry's post prompted me to surf over to the Maui News where I see that they're running a poll on whether babies born in the US should automatically have US citizens. The 14th Amendment is losing 69-22.

What sort of right-wing racist rag is Harry working for?

Harry Eagar said...

Publisher's toy, and he has written 2 editorials explaining that it's jes' fer fun.

Presumably, that drove off anybody seriously interested in the questions and left the poll for the nuts, like the horoscope on the funny pages.

Harry Eagar said...

Would it be too snarky to point out that your perceptive observation applies equally to just about every program of the Department of Defense and to everything in the national security apparatus?

David said...

No, it's not snarky at all. Focal bias plays an important role in organizational theory. Some people think that minimizing this type of bias is part of why people organize, but if you don't have people with different backgrounds (i.e., offsetting focuses), then focal bias becomes group think.

A nice example is the attack on Pearl Harbor. Because destroyer command was the recognized path to advancement, most Navy brass had a gunboat focus. They ignored the danger posed by carriers and lined up their destroyers in a nice neat targeting package.

Harry Eagar said...

Not to go off topic, but you're in territory I've studied a lot now.

While it's true that the 'gun club' still had prestige by 1940, many of the high officers in the Navy were air-minded. (Less so in the Royal Navy.)

But, when it comes to organizational theory, if you look at later results, the most successful admirals came out of the gun club and the least successful were the 'brown shoe' aviators.

Spruance, gun club, and Nimitz, submarines, were the best; and Halsey and Tower (who never got a combat command, for good reason, although he was a 4-star in command of all naval aviation in the Pacific) were the worst.

David said...

But who's idea was it to park all the battlewagons in a neat row, so that if you missed one, you were likely to hit the next.

Harry Eagar said...

Four of the eight had another ship (two battleships, two auxiliaries) moored outboard, so that half the battleships were impervious to torpedoes.

Arizona was sunk by a bomb. Oklahoma, California, Tennessee and West Virginia were torpedoed, and Nevada got underway and was bombed.

Maryland was damaged by bombs.

The lack of imagination came from not realizing that torpedoes could be launched in the shallow harbor (which required some modifications of the torpedoes).

The British attack on Taranto ought to have caused rethinking.

Roosevelt haters would phrase the question: Why was the fleet forward-based at all?

The commander, J.O. Richardson, who protested moving the fleet from San Diego was fired.

It was moved forward as a deterrent. If that was a managerial mistake, you're going to have to find a new rationale for the management of the military establishment over the past 60 years.

The mistake was not in failing to put up torpedo nets but in imagining that the government of Japan was run by people capable of sensible calculations.

Susan's Husband said...

I have to agree with Mr. Eagar's comments on Pearl Harbor, having studied it extensively myself. It was much more of an example of technological surprise than organizational failure.

Harry Eagar said...

It was organizational failure, too.

The control of intelligence reports in the Navy was a classic example of bureaucratic empire-building at the expense of the mission.

I think Pearl Harbor deserves close attention by anyone interested in management. Short, the general commanding the Hawaiian Department, was regarded as the Army's finest trainer, and training for the conscript army was rightly thought to be a highest priority.

But he still rode horses and was completely oblivious to the reasons for having an air force. He was given most of the nation's short-range interceptors, which, when you stop to think about it, implies that somebody might attack Hawaii with aircraft carriers. Otherwise, what's the point?

But he did absolutely nothing with his planes. His underlings didn't challenge him on it, either, although his air officer (Bellinger, a naval man) ought to have been airminded.

This raises the question, at what point does a mission require so many separate and unconnected skills that no person can manage it?