Why Is 2nd Order Thinking Important? Unintended Consequences
Imagine that you are out taking a relaxing walk along a picturesque trail. You find yourself enjoying the natural beauty of your surroundings and the crispness of the air. Then, out of nowhere, you see a small fence in the middle of the trail.
What do you do?
The fence doesn’t obstruct the sides, so you can simply walk around it. As far as you can tell, it seems that all the fence is doing is being an unnecessary obstruction.
Perhaps the best thing to do would be for you to remove it? Or would the better course of action be to just leave it as it is?
As trivial as this problem sounds, it is actually a famous example thought of by G.K Chesterton. Named Chesterton’s fence after the writer and polymath, the example serves to highlight the importance of, and more often than not also the lack of, second order thinking.
What is second order thinking?
Quite simply, it is thinking about the consequences of the consequences of one’s actions.
Envisioning the immediate consequences of one’s actions (first order thinking) is a simple thing that the vast majority of human beings manage without much effort.
It’s a simple if-then thought process after all: if I take down this fence, then I can walk down the middle of the path.
Considering the consequences of those consequences though, is a much more difficult endeavor.
What happens if I take down this fence, and I can walk down the middle of the path? If your mind is blanking trying to conceive of possible answers to this question, it just highlights how counterintuitive it is for our minds to think in this way.
Perhaps thinking about it from another perspective will help. Instead of thinking in terms of “consequences of consequences”, try thinking of it like this: what if the fence was put up for some reason?
As difficult as it may be for you to think of what that reason may be, given how random its placement is, that does not mean that the fence was just placed there without one.
In this case, removing it could have serious repercussions – except you have no idea what those repercussions are because you do not know why the fence was put there in the first place.
Chesterton’s recommended path of action is to leave the fence be, and to walk away to think about what possible reasons could exist for the fence to be there. More broadly, he is trying to make the point that frequently, we come across “things” that make no sense to us and feel tempted to just do away with them.
However, more often than not, these “things” were put in place for reasons that we are not aware of, and intervening in them can lead to large, unintended consequences.
In other words, if you remove the fence, you would be able to walk down the middle, but in doing so you could be causing harm to someone, or something else. Coming to the realization that the consequences of your actions in turn have their own consequences is just the beginning, however.
After that comes the essence of second order thinking (and the much more difficult part), trying to figure out the range of second order consequences.
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