Dealing with your stakeholders – the bozo hypothesis

My father was an actuary (someone who loves statistics and logical thinking). So when I grew up I inherited a different view on life than what most children would inherit.

Once when I was young my father tackled the difficult problem of stranger danger and the fact that there are evil people in the world. To an actuary this is an important lesson for a child to learn because a percentage of the human race are complete ratbags (a complete ratbag is a person of dubious or low morale character – someone on whom you cannot and should not depend).

Thus, my father posited, I must prepare myself for a world where evil and terrible people exist. Let’s assume that 5% of people are really dodgy and cannot be trusted. That means that even in my school there must be dodgy people about – watch out.

But, my father went on – you must remember the bozzo hypothesis (Bozo is a term meaning “uncommonly and consistently stupid person” or “stupid or insignificant man”).

According to the bozo hypothesis … 5% of people are evil, but a full 50% of people are below average intelligence and it is likely that around 10-15% of people are stupid enough to be bozos. Based on this it is 3 times as likely (15% compared to 5%) that someone is completely stupid and 50% likely they are not too bright.

Thus when someone does something bad or disagrees with you, you should first test the hypothesis that they are stupid rather than evil. Then, if stupidity does not explain their action, you should assume they are evil, but otherwise act on the assumption they “don’t get it” and explain your argument to them rather than writing them off.

But it turns out that more people are ignorant than stupid. Apparently an expert is someone who knows more and more about less unless until they know virtually everything there is to know about virtually nothing. On this basis the real experts are ignorant of almost 95% of the world. Thus it is far more likely that an expert is ignorant, rather than stupid.

But what about non-experts. Apparently if you learned one new fact every single day for your entire life and you lived for 100 years, you would know 100 * 365.25 = 36,525 things. That a lot of things to know but there are a lot more than 37,000 facts in the world. So it is quite likely that the person you are talking to is at least somewhat ignorant about most things.

Therefore … If you are talking to someone and they do something dodgy or they disagree with you, they are much more likely to be simply ignorant rather than truly stupid – ie an ignoramus rather than a bozzo. Let’s call that the ignoramus hypothesis.

Great I said – “if they are smart but ignorant then I just have to explain my view to them and they will get it. Excellent that’s what I am doing already.”

“But you are missing some of the maths to form a proper theory,” he said.

“Oh,” I pondered. I thought for a minute and then I put forward my new theory “if I explain things and they don’t get it they are probably stupid so I should not waste time on them.”

“No,” my father said. “If there are two people in a conversation, and one of them is you, and one of them is ignorant … there is a 1 in 2 chance (50%) that you are the one who is ignorant”.

So that leads to a problem. If I am debating something or taking a view on something …

There is a 50% chance that I am more ignorant than them. Therefore I am better off understanding why they think they are right and checking if I am ignorant before trying to explain why I am right.

Assuming I am now confident that I am partially or fully correct, I can now explain my view based on what I now believe they understand. Often but not always this will get me to the answer.

85% of the time that is good enough – start by understanding the basis for their viewpoint and then explain yours.

Only 15% of the time is it worth be explaining your views in detail and acting on the assumption they are a bozo. But if you think they are a bozo then you need to allow for the fact that they will keep doing what they are doing (and believing what they believe) until the evidence is sufficiently consistent and simple for them to change. Thus it is smarter to adapt to them than to complain and hope they adapt to you.

In fact if you know they don’t get what you are saying or what you believe and yet choose to act on the assumption they will change – then you are probably a bozo. You know better but are deliberately choosing to act in a way that will fail … which is uncommonly and consistently a foolish thing to do.

If they are a ratbag (5% chance) then they will eventually be a ratbag to you. So if they are being a ratbag to others and asking for your help then assume they are lying when they say “you are different – I would never do that to you”.

But based on the numbers – it is better to trust that they (or you) are ignorant before assuming they are dodgy/evil or a ratbag.

Of course – if ignorance (yours then theirs) and then stupidity are insufficient to explain their actions … then protect yourself. But again there is no point in complaining and hoping that they will change. Instead you must either take responsibility for your own actions or trust that they will do so – to your detriment.

Apparently, leaving the outcome to someone you believe will do the wrong thing … is once again acting in a way that will most likely result in a bad outcome – which is an uncommonly and consistently foolish way to behave.

It’s a very mathematical way to look at life … but statistically speaking it works for me most of the time.


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