The colloquialism “out of sight, out of mind” has been used as early as the 13th Century. The earliest printed citation linking memory and visually sighting something is in John Heywood’s Woorkes, 1562, as reprinted by the Spenser Society, 1867: “Out of sight out of minde.”
The saying rings true and is the basis for a number of cognitive biases. Exposure Bias is the tendency to express undue liking for things merely because of familiarity with them. Recency Bias is the illusion that present events are more frequent than they are. These biases lead to errors in making strategic decisions.
Decision makers never have total information. There are “unknown unknowns,” as Secretary Rumsfeld famously quipped, that are literally determinate to the outcomes from a decision. When decision makers are under time pressure, they instinctively fill in ‘unknown unknowns’ with inaccurate assumptions. Rather than seeking out the interests of all stakeholders and the probable associated risks, decision makers and their support staff assume away those populations and risks. Eventually, what was previously ‘out of sight’ appears and can literally go through the minds of soldiers sent into combat. But you see, those threats were there all along.
In 1992 President Bush had recently lost the election to President Clinton. Yet the needs of the world pressed on. A media blitz showed starving children in Somalia on television, the result of drought and social conflict. Media relentlessly showed children with bloated bellies, and people pressed for action to prevent catastrophe. President Bush made the decision to launch Operation RESTORE HOPE on 5 December 1992. He organized a UN coalition United Nations Task Force (UNITAF) and provided 25,000 U.S.-led troops to provide security for the operation. The mission was to secure transport of food for humanitarian relief of populations in southern Somalia. What could go wrong when your motives are so pure?
There were many “unknown unknowns” that tragically went unanswered. Somalia was partitioned by family-based tribes let by many strongmen, Mohommad Farrah Aidid being the most infamous. Before U.S. forces arrived on the beach, these strongmen were “out of sight, out of mind” to U.S. decision makers. As it turned out, the tribes did not appreciate food aid and thousands of U.N. troops taking over their country, and they united in violent opposition to them. U.N. forces were confined to a tiny parcel of land around the airport, under constant fire.It turned out the ‘technicals’ were reasonably well-equipped fighters with the home court advantage. Under the euphoric influence of khat they were not afraid of engaging U.S. superior weapons and well-equipped Marines and Special Operators. The strongmen turned out to be media-savvy and able to inflict high political costs on the coalition.
Perhaps a more instructive version of this idea comes from Russian literature, where it is translated, “from the sighting, from the reason.” We must seek out the relevant factors that will determine the outcomes from our decisions. We must craft policies that form a chain of logic where every link is strong and visible.