Expecting the results to be different

Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein. Shutterstock image.

We (erroneously) credit Albert Einstein with the definition of insanity as continuing to do the same thing while expecting the results to be different. But it’s such a common behavior that it seems unfair to call it insanity.

Rebuilding after natural disasters

Ideally, we design buildings and communities for resilience so that they can withstand or recover from natural disasters. Yet how often do we see flood survivors tearfully resolve to rebuild on the same low-lying land that just got flooded?

It may make sense to build in a flood plain, but only if you design for it. For example, much of the low-lying land near the Skagit River in western Washington is fertile farmland. The Dutch immigrants who established bulb farms there built their homes well above ground to accommodate occasional flooding. These homes are also well away from the river itself.

On the other hand, parts of Houston, Texas, experience flooding several times a year. Because of continuing development—and paving—rainfall has little opportunity to soak in. Instead it runs off rapidly, flooding whatever is downstream. Add to that the effects of climate change, and what was once a 500-year flood occurs almost annually. Yet rather than learn from the experience, people pride themselves on the way the community comes together to rebuild. The city government doesn’t zone to prevent building in the most flood-prone areas. Nor does it restrict paving to allow for slower runoff. Green stormwater infrastructure could provide cost-effective ways to handle runoff, but they don’t do that, either. It’s as if they’re determined to be the controls in a natural experiment.

Texas power outage

In February of this year a large swathe of Texas experienced a power outage when a polar vortex brought several days of bitter cold. Some power plants were unable to operate in the cold, and the remaining ones could not meet demand. That left water pumps without power—and half the population without safe drinking water. Natural gas pipelines also depend on electric power to operate, so some gas-fired power plants could not get fuel. As a result, 4.5 million homes were without power. Hundreds of people suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning when they used unsafe methods to keep warm. The death toll reached 111.

Amazingly, this was not a singular event, but a repeat of a similar blackout 10 years before. As The Economist states, “A decade ago a severe storm caused nearly a third of the state’s power-generating units to fail, causing rolling blackouts and prompting hearings into Ercot. Yet experts’ suggestions—such as protecting equipment for winter conditions, increasing the grid’s excess capacity and reforming Ercot—were ignored.” As a former speaker of the Texas House put it, “We knew what to do, we just didn’t do it.”

That is, they learned what happened and why, and even figured out what they needed to do. But rather than implement the experts’ recommendations, they kept on doing the same thing. Either they were expecting the results to be different or they considered cheap energy to be worth the risks.

Vaccine hesitancy

By now everyone in the United States knows people who have suffered from COVID-19. Just about everyone knew at least one person who died of it. Although it may seem that people who still refuse the vaccine are expecting the results to be different for them, it’s not necessarily the case.

Research on vaccine hesitancy prior to the advent of COVID-19 indicates that there are essentially five reasons why people don’t get a vaccine:

  • Confidence. Can the person trust in the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, the health care provider, and the policy makers implementing the rollout?
  • Complacency. Does the person believe the disease poses significant risks for them?
  • Calculation. Considering all the available information, do the potential benefits outweigh the costs and risks?
  • Constraints (or convenience). How easy is it to get the vaccine?
  • Collective responsibility. How willing is the person to protect others by getting vaccinated?

Of course these five reasons don’t provide a complete picture of vaccine hesitancy. Some people are afraid of needles, for example. And a particular problem with COVID-19 has been the prevalence of misinformation and outright lies. In addition, many people find the changing messages from scientists and public health officials confusing. And a lack of basic education in science makes it difficult for some to distinguish between science and magic.

You’ve probably seen or heard news reports from hospitals as patients dying from COVID-19 say they never thought it would happen to them. With their last breaths, they urge their families and friends to get the vaccine. They’re learning from their experience, but too late to do them any good. How much better to learn from others’ experience so you don’t have to go through it yourself! That’s much more realistic than expecting the results to be different for you.