“For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfil; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few.”
In the 1950s, the railway was the most reliable way to get in and out of Ithaca, NY. Even though it was slow and uncomfortable, unlike buses and flights, it worked in all seasons and weather conditions. But people travelled by car, bus, and air when possible, and took the railway only during the worst of situations when nothing else would do. This hurt the railway revenue, and in 1959 they shut down the line after business wasn’t viable any more.
Clearly, it was a big inconvenience for the commuters. The only way to get in and out during heavy snow or rainfall is now gone. This isn’t something they wanted, yet they caused it unintentionally—through their daily choices.
Their daily choices of travel were purely rational. Since trains were slow, they took the bus or car. Their daily choices were “too small” to reflect their desire for continued rail service for tough times. In other words, their daily small decisions didn’t align with their long-term interest.
On the other hand, the railway had to make a big long-term decision to maintain the line. It made no sense to continue a loss-making business, so they shut it down. Both sides were acting rationally, but they reached an outcome that no one preferred. This is The Tyranny of Small Decisions.
The Tyranny of Small Decisions is a situation in which a number of decisions, individually small and insignificant in size and time perspective, cumulatively result in a larger and significant outcome which is neither optimal nor desired.
The tyranny of small decisions is a phenomenon explored in an essay of the same name, published in 1966 by the American economist Alfred E. Kahn.
A classic example of the tyranny of small decisions is The Tragedy of The Commons, described by Garrett Hardin in 1968 as a situation where a number of herders graze cows on a commons. The herders each act independently to maximise grazing, in what they perceive to be their own rational self-interest. But in this way they ultimately deplete their shared limited resource, even though it is clear that it is not in any herder’s long-term interest.
“Any shared resources, or commons, is vulnerable to this tragedy. Overfishing, deforestation, and dumping waste have obvious parallels to overgrazing, through this model extends far beyond environmental issues. Each additional spam message benefits the spammer who sends it while simultaneously degrading the entire email system. Collective overuse of antibiotics in medicine and agriculture is leading to dangerous antibiotic resistance. People make self-serving edits to Wikipedia articles, diminishing the overall reliability of the encyclopaedia.”
— Gabriel Weinberg, Super Thinking
Similarly, a single decision to disregard the doctor’s orders to avoid sweet dish would not make a difference in your grandma’s health. But small decisions have a way of compounding, and your grandma has a chance of making her health issues worse one dessert at a time.
Every traveller who made a small decision to take a bus or plane did not intend for the rail service to dry up in Ithaca. None of the herders wanted all of the natural resource to deplete. And no, your grandma doesn’t want to worsen her health when she makes the small decision to satisfy her sweet tooth. But the cumulative effect of those small decisions create an enormous, negative and unintended consequence.
“If one hundred consumers choose option x, and this causes the market to make decision X (where X equals 100x), it is not necessarily true that those same consumers would have voted for that outcome if that large decision had ever been presented for their explicit consideration. If this is true, the consumer can be victimised by the narrowness of the contexts in which he exercises his sovereignty.”
— Alfred E. Kahn
You’ve probably gone out with friends where you plan to equally split the bill. At the table, you are faced with a decision to order an expensive meal or a cheaper one. When dining alone, you would often order the cheaper meal. However, when the cost of dinner is shared, you tend to go for an expensive meal because you don’t want to order a cheaper one and still pay more for someone else’s expensive meal. If everyone does this then everyone ends up paying more. It is death by a thousand cuts.
You can also find the tyranny of small decisions in your own life. Think of those small credit card purchases of expenses that seem individually warranted at the time, but collectively add up to significant credit card bills.
If you make an unnecessary $4 purchase every day, you spend over $1,400 per year. The Latte Factor is another common example which describes how making regular small purchases, such as a daily latte, can add up to a big payout that you don’t intend to make.
This is what’s so insidious about the tyranny of small decisions. Anyone who spends $1,400 in one go would have a strong reason for the crater in their pocket. But spending money a little at a time on small indulgences means you can’t even point to where your money has been going. These small decisions act as slow poison. Professionally, it is the occasional distractions and small procrastinations that, in aggregate, make your deadlines hard to reach.
Not only that, “Much of the current confusion and distress surrounding environmental issues can be traced to decisions that were never consciously made, but simply resulted from a series of small decisions,” writes ecologist William E. Odum.
Take the Florida Everglades, for example. These have been threatened, not by a single unfavourable decision, but by many independent pin-prick decisions. Such as, decisions to add this well, that drainage canal, one more retirement village, another roadway. No explicit decision was made to restrict the flow of surface water into the glades, or to encourage hot, destructive fires and intensify droughts, yet this has been the outcome.
You should understand that big changes occur as a gradual accumulation of steps—each small in their individual size, length, and in relation to their cumulative effect. Because change takes place in this fashion, it often produces results that conflict with the very values you are supposed to serve. Small decisions compound. The sum of all short-term decisions seldom align with your long-term interest.
The little everyday choices you make usually don’t hurt you. A candy here, a cigarette there. But humans have a tendency to often lose track of how these everyday small choice turn into habits, and how these little habits add up quickly into big unintended mishaps.
As a strategy, try to think of a high level goal that you wish to achieve, and see how the small decisions you make everyday fit into the bigger picture. As a rule, never make any decision, however small it may be, out of context. This way, you’ll be able to master these small decisions, rather than be ruled by their tyranny.
If you want to support local businesses, any single item you order from Amazon will not affect it. However, if you find yourself ordering online all the time, then you’re prioritising convenience over supporting local businesses.
There’s nothing wrong with valuing convenience, but you need to remember that you probably can’t have both convenience and a thriving local business at the same time. So you’ll need to make sure you make choices that show your support for local business most of the time.
But there are exceptions. A dessert once in a while, say a month, is okay, as long as you are not doing it daily. You are allowed a cheat meal once every two weeks. You are allowed to take some time off once a month. You are allowed to buy from Amazon if there’s a huge discount, even if you want to support the local shops. You are allowed to take your car out if you are extremely late and the train won’t help. Do it. But don’t overdo it. In other cases, such as preserving the environment, or running after quick hacks to get things done, consider the second- and third-order consequences of your actions.
However this isn’t full-proof. It’s relatively easier to avoid the tyranny of small decisions at a personal level, such as personal health and finance. But if you are to look at societal interest, it’s hard to convince everybody to forgo Amazon and buy local, or take the railway instead of the car.
When decisions are made by more than just you, a third party is needed to intervene. Just as the city of Boston did when it restricted the number of cows on Boston Commons to prevent overgrazing. But such intervention can only come from an authority, such as government. This however is not always feasible. This unfortunately renders the tyranny as inevitable.