Friday, September 2, 2011

Fool Me Once

A friend of mine, lets call her Madame X, had one of those frustratingly common epics on a hiking club trip recently where some slow (very) people signed up for the trip and held the entire group up for the entire day (which turned out to be a long one). A mixed group, slow and fast, is one of the commonest complaints people have about club trips like this - the slow people don't want to be hurried, the fast people get tired of waiting, and the objective - if it is actually reached - takes far longer than it should.

The problem is, that most people seem to assume one of two things : (1) there is nothing you can do about this so you either suck it up or quit doing club trips; or (2) it is the fault of the slow people on the trip who failed to appropriately assess their own ability. In my experience, neither is totally true. There is something you can do about it, and the blame does not lie entirely with the slow people.

Dealing with the latter first, almost all of us overestimate our abilities. This tendency of humans is so universal that it even has its own name - the Dunning-Kruger effect. Unfortunately, most of us don't recognize that we are overestimating our abilities and we tend to think of this as something only other people do. When Madame X related to me the tale of the slow people on her trip who had overestimated their abilities, I couldn't help but think of the last three trips that Madame X had done where she seriously overestimated her abilities and came back well and truly spanked. I should add that pointing this out, while satisfying to me, would be ultimately useless so I didn't.

So, if we accept the precept that we all overestimate our abilities, it might follow that if you are putting together a club trip (or any trip) with a predetermined goal that you really want to achieve, you need to account for the Dunning-Kruger effect in your plans. If you don't, and you end up with one, two or even more unduly slow people then the blame lies with you and not with them.

Which brings us to the former point and clearly, there is something you can do about it. Expect that people will overestimate their abilities. Develop some kind of screening questions that will help you assess peoples actual abilities. If you aren't sure, ask them for the name of someone else they hike with and contact that person. You can be guaranteed that their usual hiking partner has long ago sussed out exactly how fit or unfit they actually are.

This was Madame X's second year of running this trip and both years have been plagued with the same problem, which even she admits has resulted in two years running of "gong show" trips. As Madame X did last year, she was all about how the "gong show" was someone else's fault and why couldn't people be more accurate in their assessment of their abilities. I was tempted to quote that old adage: "fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me," but, that too would be ultimately useless, so I didn't. 

Typical group on a club trip

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