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A mental model is often used to make sense of our world. Such models are useful because many real-world issues are incredibly complex – to a degree that our brains find difficult to comprehend. Hence these models are like tool-boxes and help in simplifying our understanding of complex issues. Mental models are of many kinds and their application ranges from philosophy to marketing and military matters to human nature – over almost all disciplines of human endeavour. There are thousands of such models that could apply individually or in combination to a situation. Common examples are ‘The Butterfly Effect’, ‘Natural Selection’, ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’, ‘Zero Tolerance’, ‘Regression to the Mean’ and ‘The Peter Principle’ – just to give the reader an idea of how commonly we use them without even thinking of them as mental models.

Management of dilemmas is something that continuously engages our attention. From individuals to corporations to governments, a large portion of our energies are focussed towards managing dilemmas of various kinds. Whether to send a child to a convent school or a public school, whether to buy this house or that, whether to marry this girl or that, whether to ask for a raise or not, whether to build a spaceship or not, whether to have a nuclear progamme or not and whether to impose international sanctions or not – we are constantly resolving dilemmas. Dilemmas are loaded differently in terms of consequences for choosing among available options and solutions could sometimes be a compromise in certain areas with gains in others. We would be lucky if we were faced with only such dilemmas in life. That, however, is not to be. Some difficult dilemmas have even been given names with which many of us are familiar.

The first is the Hobson’s Choice. This is a free choice in which only one option is offered. The phrase is said to have originated with Thomas Hobson (1544-1631), a livery stable owner in Cambridge, England who offered customers the choice of either taking the horse in his stall closest to the door or taking none at all. This is a ‘take it or leave it’ situation in which the choice is really made in the offer and just needs a ‘Yes or No’ answer. The second is known as the Morton’s Fork. This is a type of false dilemma in which contradictory observations lead to the same conclusion. Under Henry VII, John Morton was made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1486 and Lord Chancellor in 1487. He rationalised a benevolence (tax) of Henry’s by holding that someone living modestly must be saving money and, therefore, could afford the benevolence, whereas someone living extravagantly obviously was rich and, therefore, could afford the benevolence as well. The third is called the Buridan’s Ass. Named after the French philosopher, Jean Buridan, this is an illustration of a paradox in philosophy in the conception of free will. It refers to a hypothetical situation where an ass is placed precisely midway between a stack of hay and a pail of water Since the paradox assumes that the ass will go to whichever is closer, it will die of both hunger and thirst since it cannot think rationally. (Source: Wikipedia).

The COVID 19 pandemic raises a very different dilemma that has an all-encompassing canvas. The outbreak of the virus is extremely difficult to control and has sent individual countries and the world into shutdown. There is no cure and there is no vaccine. Nobody knows very much and even the best of medical and health professionals are groping in the dark and hoping for an early breakthrough. Contagion is rife and people are dying by the thousands every day. India too, is  under shutdown for 24 days on the trot. Now, lifting of the lockdown poses a serious dilemma. Life versus livelihood. Economy versus ethics. And all this in the overarching environment of incomplete information. Lift the lockdown and allow huge numbers to die or stay locked in and kill the economy and livelihood of people.

This is what I would like to call ‘Dasu’s Quandary’ (named after me, of course). Some may argue that it is a variation of  ‘Buridan’s Ass’ but I would strongly contend that the fundamental parameters are very different. This is an of economic and ethical dilemma monstrous proportions in which we have two different kinds of certain catastrophes staring us in the face and a rational decision has to be made under conditions of incomplete information and inadequate wherewithal. This will also call for Probabilistic Thinking (another mental model) with ‘Bayesian Updating’ (named after Thomas Bayes) where all prior relevant probabilities are incrementally updated as newer information arrives – and perhaps many more.

Easier said than done but decide we must. We will need all our wisdom and intelligence to make the right decision.


17 Apr 20

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