Try Harder or Do Something Easier?
By Bryan Caplan
A friend tells you, “I’m thinking of starting a restaurant. Advise me.” You know that about 60% of new restaurants fail in their first three years – and have no reason to think that your friend would be anything other than average. How should your knowledge affect your advice?
You could say, “Open the restaurant and work like mad, because the odds are against you.” Slogan: Try Harder.
Or you could say, “Don’t open the restaurant, because the odds are against you.” Slogan: Do Something Easier.
Neither recommendation is crazy. But as the probability of failure rises, the case for Do Something Easier gets stronger and stronger. Why tell your friend to work his fingers to the bone when he’s probably going to fail anyway?
This is especially true on the plausible assumption that people are more likely to heed advice about one-time discrete decisions than day-to-day continuous decisions. Saying “Marry her” is more likely to sway behavior than “Be good to your wife every day” – and saying “Do Something Easier” is more likely to sway behavior than “Try Harder.”
Why then are advisers so reluctant to say “Do Something Easier”? Because Try Harder sounds better – and most advisers would rather sound good than genuinely help their advisees.
This analysis clearly applies to starting a business or choosing an occupation. But it works equally well for educational decisions. Suppose a kid at the 30th percentile of the high school distribution asks you if he should go to college. You know that kids at the 30th percentile have a dismal dropout rate. Should you respond with Try Harder or Do Something Easier?
In our society, “Try Harder” is the socially acceptable – nay, socially mandatory! – slogan. Don’t tell kids to give up on their dreams; tell them to work for their dreams. On reflection, though, this just exposes advisers’ vanity: They’d rather sound helpful than be helpful. Do you really imagine that chanting “Try Harder” will induce weak students to devote themselves to their studies, day in, day out? No? Then urging weak students to “Try Harder” barely differs from “Make an expensive investment that will fail at its normal high rate.”
To be fair, most weak students will ignore you even if you urge them to Do Something Easier. But some will probably listen to you – and refrain from making a very bad bet.
What about the tiny minority of weak students who would have blossomed in college? Obsession with this group is the height of pious folly. Suppose you convince a lot of people to stop buying lottery tickets. Should you lose sleep over the likelihood that – but for your advice – one of your advisees would have won the jackpot? Of course not. “Advice that works on average” is also known as “good advice.”
Say it with me: Risk of failure is a reason not to try. Not a decisive reason, but a reason nonetheless – and the higher the risk of failure, the stronger the reason. True, if you have no alternatives, you may as well try your best and hope for the best. But would-be restaurant owners and would-be students always have alternatives. And as long as you have alternatives, willingness to Do Something Easier in the face of crummy odds is not cowardice. It is good economics – and common sense.