The Paradox of Expected Disaster

The old joke about buying insurance is that you hope it is wasted money. The wise man prepares for disaster, but is relieved to avert it. Yet the wise man is also human, and therefore prone to the the irrationalities essential to the human mind. When faced with uncertainty, man is relieved to find his preparations necessary, and disappointed when his prescience is faulty and the disaster never comes and his efforts are wasted. This is the Paradox of Expected Disaster.

The irrationality of this Paradox seems evident to the modern scientific mind. We know, in almost all cases, that our preparations have no bearing on future events. If we buy flood insurance, it is does not increase the likelihood of a hurricane.1 But the primitive magical mindset that seems natural to human cognition is irrational. We “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” for fear of conjuring the Devil by the very act of calling his name. We “knock on wood” lest we bring on disaster by its mere mention.

But a recent personal experience brought to mind this Paradox of Expected Disaster, of exultation at meeting misfortune well and the distress of wasted effort in the face of good luck. All this happened while moving a parked car due comply with alternative-side parking regulations.

Let me first present a bit of background, especially for those not from New York City, a city of limited parking and complex regulations. My car was parked a few blocks from my apartment, on a street where no parking was allowed on Thursday mornings on one side of the street, and no parking was allowed on Friday mornings on the other side.

My tale begins early Thursday morning. I could not remember on which side of the street I had parked the car. Consider that I had the day off that Thursday, that I had been up late writing the night before, and so was sorely tempted to stay in bed. But staying in bed risked a hefty forty-five dollar fine if I was parked on the wrong side of the street. I just could not remember if I was on the no-parking-on-Thursday side or on the no-parking-on-Friday side. Staying in bed was not worth the risk of a fine. So I got dressed and went out and walked to the car, which was indeed soon to be in violation, being on the no-parking-on-Thursday side. I moved the car, found a new, legal spot and went home. All was well and good until you consider my frame of mind. I was glad that I had to move the car and relieved that it was not legally parked ab initio. Also know that I expected to drive the car later that Thursday, so moving the car Thursday morning (or more precisely, not finding it in a no-parking-on-Friday spot) did not save me the effort of having it legally parked on Friday.

Here the Paradox of Expected Disaster presents itself. In the face of mitigating uncertainty, I was glad to be met with the more burdensome alternative, relieved that my mitigating efforts were not wasted, even though it presented me with the added burden of having to find a new parking spot. I was glad not to be a fool. I would have felt worse if the car was legally parked and I had wasted my effort, even though I would have been better off. Admittedly, I would have felt even worse if I had not gone and gotten ticketed, but my mitigating actions had no effect on the placement of the car. It was parked where it was parked whatever I did. Schrodinger’s Cat was nowhere about. The Paradox manifests itself not in the results, but in the participant’s seemingly perverse satisfaction at those results.

My theory is that the Paradox does serve a useful purpose. It fine-tunes our subconscious calculation of risk and risk mitigation. We are drawn to pleasure and averse to disappointment. While we prefer to think our decision making is transparently and deliberatively rational, we think by “hunches” more often than not. And these “hunches” are often remarkably accurate. Because these “hunches” are somewhat beyond plain description and composition, the stimula of satisfaction and disappointment fine tunes the black box that is our decision-making mind. And we must admit, that our openly-rational, deliberative thoughts, while certainly plain and clear, are often maddeningly wrong.

(1)We will digress in acknowledging that there is a related phenomena, called “moral hazard”, which occurs when the participant has some control of the disaster’s occurrence. The classic example is that of seat belts and accidents. While seat belt use does indeed reduce accident fatalities, ceteris paribus, all things are not indeed equal. Drivers, knowing they are safer with a seat belt on, drive more dangerously and therefore suffer more accidents, though with decreased fatalities (at least to themselves).

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