At the sound of gunfire, he would look at his watch and do nothing.

Photo: At the sound of gunfire, he would look at his watch and do nothing.

A 2011 Israeli research paper proved that if you are eligible for parole, your best shot at freedom is right after breakfast.

The authors Danziger, Levav, and Avnaim-Pesso studied 1,112 judicial rulings over ten months. Their findings discovered that prisoners who had their parole meeting first thing in the morning received a favourable ruling 65% of the time. However, as the morning went on, the percentage of favourable rulings would uniformly decline across all judges, until near zero favourable outcomes, right before lunch break.

After lunch, the ruling shot back up to 65%, declining steadily from that point to the end of the day.

Prisoners are not scheduled according to the severity of their crimes. The order of prisoners appearing in front of the judges was random. The ruling on their cases was anything but.

The judges in the study were highly experienced, with strict criteria for assessing each inmate. Despite this, their results were governed most predictably by how hungry they were.

We may be blind to our failings in judgment, but our ancestors were less so. They recognized their limitations when judging serious crimes and relied on higher, more infallible powers.

1000 years ago in present-day London, an alternative to a jury of peers was to bind the hands and feet of the accused and throw them in a body of water. If the defendant floated, they were (obviously) guilty and were summarily executed. Should they sink? Innocent. Unfortunately, most who sunk ended up drowning.

No system is perfect.

History is littered with fascinating trials of ordeal, such as retrieving a stone from boiling water. The hands of the innocent were expected to heal in three days. Those whose burns festered with guilt - off to the gallows.

We are a funny species.

The Israeli judges in the study above believed their intuition was based on years of training and experience. This is a logical belief. In reality, they were more influenced by the proximity of a sandwich. The irony of trusting your “gut.”

Whichever of Stephen King’s ancestors created the ancient trials of ordeal, the public assuredly believed the intuitive logic of it. It was common knowledge that witches floated.


But if not our intuition, or the Gods, then at least we can trust the data…

In 2002 the United Stated Department of Defence hosted the largest and most expensive war games ever, The Millennium Challenge.

Designed after the September 11 attacks, the Millennium Challenge aimed to determine the US military’s readiness to fight the War on Terror.

War games are intensely realistic simulations that evaluate military performance in combat environments.

The Millennium Challenge consisted of two teams: the “Blue Team” played the US military, with access to all of the resources of the US government, while the “Red Team” played a pseudo-terrorist organization based in the middle east. The battleground was the Persian Gulf.

Leading the Red Team (terrorists) was Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Riper, a highly decorated, forty-year veteran, recruited for this job precisely because of his unconventional combat tactics.

Van Riper was a cowboy. In the Vietnam War, if any other Lieutenant heard gunfire in his proximity, they would be scrambling for radio communications and intel. But Van Riper had a hard rule - at the sound of gunfire, he would look at his watch and do nothing for the first five minutes. He wouldn’t call, and he wouldn’t answer. If he or his men were pinned down, the last thing they needed to do was waste time explaining things to people. They needed to fight.

The Blue Team was armed with scores of combat analysts and surveillance equipment. They were confident that they had predicted every possible maneuver, would know exactly where the Red Team was at any time and would take home a clean sweep.

But on day one of the games, Van Riper cut all electronic communications on his team. Instead, he sent coded messages hidden in prayers and passed through a network on the ground.

On day two, the towering US Navy, positioned in the Gulf, was swarmed by dozens of small personal watercraft armed with mini cruise missiles, shoulder-launched rockets, and grenade launchers.

Although the Red Team suffered significant losses, they sunk 16 simulated U.S. ships, including an Aircraft Carrier, several Cruisers, Destroyers, and an estimated 20,000 US soldiers.

The Blue Team, with their rooms of war analysts, were in disbelief at the expediency and ruthlessness of the attack.

Important to note that these were war games, and no soldiers were killed in the simulation. But the embarrassment for the US military and the Blue Team leaders was huge, regardless. They had spent over $250 million on the simulation, and the Navy had been devastated on the second day.

In the debrief, the Blue Team leaders argued that “real militants don’t operate with such improvisation and recklessness.” And demanded that the games be rerun with defined parameters.

So on the second attempt, the Red Team was prohibited from engaging in many guerilla-style techniques. Finally, with everyone playing by their rules, the US military achieved their sweeping victory.

Following the games and armed with a curious amount of confidence, the Department of Defence asserted that an Iraqi invasion would be a simple, clean sweep. A subsequent 20-year conflict ensued.

What do we learn from all of this?

The fallacy of control is seductive.

I don’t fault or distrust people. I believe that most judges are doing their best. I believe in God. I believe no military power is more sophisticated, competent, or deadly than the United States.

And frankly, I would rather run my odds with a hungry judge than be thrown in a river with my hands tied. We are not perfect, but we are moving in the right direction.

The lesson is not to think about how uncertain our lives are. The lesson is to proceed regardless and keep our heads together when things go south. To stay humble in our approach and embrace the ever-changing landscape instead of running from it.

In the words of Lieutenant General Van Riper,

“Be in command, and completely out of control."

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