Published: Friday, May 10, 2013


Political brinkmanship and the Overconfidence Trap

THERE’S a name for it when confidence verges on stupidity. The owner of the building in Savar that came crashing down on April 24 knew his building was risky. There were cracks in the pillars and the fear of imminent collapse was hanging heavy in the stifling air. Yet he gave false hope to thousands of people that everything was under control, and forced them to enter a building that was getting ready to crumble. He proved wrong, when it was too late. More than eight hundred people have died so far and we are still counting. That state of hard-headed mind is called the Overconfidence Trap. It may have now gone viral from Sohel Rana to infect our politics.

The proof is in the political brinkmanship that has been wrecking this country. The events of the last few months, particularly the mindless violence on May 5 and 6, could be the cracks in the pillars, but our politicians, having the gut feeling of Sohel Rana, don’t seem to be worried. What we saw could be the sneak preview of the full-length crisis looming ahead of us. Just imagine the madness of May 5 had lingered on for a few more days and Dhaka were still burning!

There are politicians in this country who will laugh away that possibility. So did Sohel Rana when he was told that his building was shaky. Nothing is wrong for someone who doesn’t have to take responsibility. Sohel Rana was on his way to India, before he got picked up by the police. Many of our politicians won’t be available for their comments if their confidence proved stupid. Many of them will put up their feet in the comfort of one of their strings of second homes far from this country.

Our politicians don’t believe in Aesop’s fables anymore. If they did, they should know that after the boy had cried wolf for many times the real wolf showed up one day. We have been having this brush with real danger time and again. We are having the chastening glimpse of it from time to time. But every time we escape it, we don’t get ourselves warned. Instead we gloat about our confidence. We tend to think it’s great politics.

So the politicians push us to the brink and then pull back. They think they are good at the game and know this country like the back of their hands. They think they are calculating, prescient and have got a tight grip over everything around them. That things are going from bad to worse, from ultimatum to ultimatum, from dead end to dead end, isn’t occurring to them. They aren’t paying any attention to apparent cracks.

This is the Overconfidence Trap, which is now a political reality. We have got politicians who believe national politics is as good as schoolyard taunts. Many of them even don’t make sense when they speak. Their honesty and integrity are as questionable as the smirk on a guilty face. Yet they expect us to have confidence in their confidence every time they play dice with this country.

Harvard Business Review, in its review of the book by William D. Eggers and John O’Leary, writes that no matter what one may hear from the politicians, failure is always an option. It describes those who fall prey to the Overconfidence Trap. They dismiss others who advise caution, go by the best-case scenario, and plan with unrealistic budgets and impossible time lines. The authors suggest that the best way to avoid this trap is to consider the possibility of failure seriously and take precautions to avoid it.

That makes the point. If only Sohel Rana had taken the cracks seriously and heeded the advice to shut down the building, the lives lost could be saved. Those men and women would still be smiling and working. Their families would have been spared the burden of grief and the nation its embarrassment before rest of the world.

For once I would urge the politicians to consider this possibility. Once they should consider failure as an option, that what they have been doing may not eventually work and backfire on the country. May be, that will give them the reason to seek compromise. The fear of failure might bring them closer when the courage to succeed is pulling them apart.

The country has never before looked so shaky. Everyday dozens of people are getting killed and we are losing our capacity to mourn their deaths. Our politics has reached a new level. We are now looking like our own subjugators, and we are also looking like our own victims.

History repeats itself, but not until we have repeated our mistakes. Disasters strike when we’re confident enough to make mistakes and stupid enough not to admit.

The writer is Editor, First News and an opinion writer for The Daily Star.

  • Akhtar Shah

    One could refer it as mulletude. This hubris unless tamed by leaders or strong institutions will continue to,play these games ‘ unabated . News papers will write about, TV crews will cover the events. Citizens will tut and shakes their heads in disbelief. Rest of the world will simpy watch and deliver text book sermons.
    No change there then!