In the paper the other week, a defence advocate explained that her client had made some ‘poor decisions’ in her life. We might say that committing a crime is the ultimate poor decision, so at the core of our crime novels are villains who have not just acted badly, but thought things out badly too.
All around us, we see friends and acquaintances make decisions we think poor. That seventh pint of beer when its work the next day, that seventh baby they can’t possibly afford, that suicidaly frank email to the boss. Indeed we characterise people as having ‘poor judgement’ or ‘a poor choice in men’, assuming if we were in the same position we would have acted differently. Much of the time we don’t stop and analyse what we are doing deeply enough to spot our errors in advance.
First up, most decisions are trivial. Shall I go to the shops now, or in ten minutes? Shall I talk to that workmate who looks lost over on the other side of the bar? Then the butterfly flaps its wings and the decision no longer becomes trivial. By delaying for ten minutes, I am hit by a bus crossing the road. By talking to that workmate I find my life partner.
Two soldiers leap out of a trench – one breaks left and makes it to safety, the other breaks right and is killed by a stray bullet. Here small decisions lead to an outcome that could not have been predicted because we did not have enough information. Some people call it ‘luck’, but ‘luck’ is a shorthand for not having sufficient data and the ability to analyse it. If we had known the exact moment the enemy soldier fired his rifle, applied the laws of ballistics, adjusted for gravity, wind direction, the angle of the shot, the symmetry of the bullet, the precise amount of propellant in the cartridge and the range to the unfortunate target we could have given that soldier enough information to tell him to break left, or delay his move for half a second. The roulette ball follows the laws of physics as do the balls tumbling in the National Lottery bucket. It is said that ‘people make their own luck’ and to an extent this is true: analysing the information you have reduces that uncertainty we lazily call luck.
Analyse your own life and think how many REAL decisions have you made for which you were aware of the consequences. Then think how many of your big decisions were ‘no brainers’: do I marry the person I love? Do I take this promotion? Do I buy this dream house? We are not gambling, there is no ‘luck’ involved. We use hindsight to judge, and more often than not base it on the outcome not the starting conditions
The outcome of a decision does not determine whether it was good or bad. We often criticise politicians for taking the wrong decisions (although ‘wrong’ can be a matter of opinion). The fact David Cameron lost the Brexit referendum does not in itself mean it was a poor decision; the poor decision was acting without enough information and without planning for the downside consequences. It was a gamble. A man who stakes £10,000 on a 100-1 bet and wins did not make a ‘good’ decision either; he knew the most likely consequence would be he would lose his money but he acted against this data.
So what of our criminals? Many impulse crimes are committed by people who are daft, drunk, drugged up or desperate. The consequences of their actions never occur to them, so they are not taking ‘poor decisions’, as they are barely taking a conscious decision at all. Moving up to the career criminal brings us closer to the gambler. He knows there is a risk of getting caught, being imprisoned or even killed. However he minimises this risk in his calculations, being over-confident in his ability and just not understanding how ‘trusting to luck’ (ignoring facts outside his knowledge) will be his undoing sooner or later. This is poor decision-making at its worst. Stupid criminals are hard to empathise with.
Finally we have the literary criminal, the one we like to write about and read about. He is not stupid, although possibly psychologically damaged. He takes decisions which in his world appear good, possibly even no-brainers. He might be a gambler, but playing for very high stakes where calm calculation suggests his risk of being caught is small relative to the reward. The criminal may have no choice, or face unenviable options whichever decision he takes. We might feel sorry for his dilemma, and if written well enough even take his side.
Good decisions versus poor decisions are at the core of my new novel. You might decide that I should be writing Draft 2, and not this blog…