"That's Never Going to Work." How Futility Bias Keeps Us from Even Trying.

When someone tells you to give up, there's a pathology behind it.

Woman running in the mountains.

My preschool teacher told my parents I wasn't completely hopeless. "The world will always need strippers," she said. She meant that as an insult, and it only showed how little she knew about the world.

Or me.

You hear a lot of this these days:

We can't stop every school shooting, so there's no point in trying. We can't get everyone to quit buying cheap plastic, so just leave everyone alone. We'll never get our carbon emissions down to zero, so just be quiet. We can't stop every single infection, so don't even bother with public health.

We need a name for this kind of thinking.

Let's call it futility bias.

Futility bias masquerades as logic, but it's the opposite. It says if you can't completely solve a problem, you might as well do nothing. Indifference somehow becomes the only viable, rational option. Futility bias convinces us to give up on our own personal goals and dreams, and it tells society to give up on the possibility of a better, fairer world.

According to futility bias, there's no point in caring about one problem because other, bigger problems exist. There's no point in educating or informing anyone about anything. Don't try to change anyone's mind. If everyone doesn't care deeply about an issue, then nobody cares about it.

Futility bias says, "That's never going to happen."

You've gone through this:

Someone asks for solutions. You offer solutions. They dismiss them. They say it's too expensive. They say it's too inconvenient. They say it won't work 100 percent of the time. Instead, they offer ideas that look like solutions. Their fake solutions sound easier. They make everyone feel good.

Examples of fake solutions include:

Endless economic growth
Limitless free energy
Colonizing space
Herd immunity through infection

That's how futility bias does damage. After someone makes the real, practical solutions sound pointless because they're too hard, they start offering fantasy solutions that don't work at all.

That's the point.

The super rich love this strategy. It's how Elon Musk managed to kill high speed rail in California. He called it pointless. He said nobody was going to use it. Instead, he proposed something better, the hyperloop. It was pure fantasy. Later, Elon Musk himself admitted it was all a scam. What he really wanted was for everyone to accept cars as the only option.

He used futility bias to his advantage.

It worked like a charm.

Libertarians use futility bias all the time against any regulation. They argue that if it's going to be hard to get a majority of people to do the right thing, then don't even try. Let everyone do what they want.

Recently, media pundits have used futility bias to attack universal masking, even in healthcare settings. Across the western world, a certain kind of doctor declares that any attempt to control infections is futile because it's not perfect. So instead, they want everyone to catch everything. The public has glommed onto this bad reasoning, because it absolves them of responsibility.

We see futility bias all over climate change debates, too.

A certain kind of expert says you can't tell everyone the truth about the threats we face. If you do that, they'll give up. It's better to lie to them. If you lie to them, they'll try a little bit. Except, they don't.

People don't do anything when you lie to them about risks. They relax. They let someone else do the heavy lifting.

Futility bias fulfills its own prophecy.

If someone goes around calling every solution pointless, then people believe it. They start to accept futility as a given. They won't make an effort. You wind up with a bunch of people who don't even try to do the right thing because they believe nobody else will. The futility turns to concrete.

The problem becomes inevitable.

In the end, futility bias gives the wrong people permission to do whatever they want with reckless abandon. It leads to other logical fallacies and biases, like the bandwagon argument. If nobody else cares about climate change or public health, then we might as well jump on our jetskis and enjoy the beach while the world's forests burn down. Don't bother planting trees.

Billionaires will save us.

In reality, it's hard to get people to do the right thing. You have to convince them. You have to remind them. You have to bug them. It doesn't happen overnight. It takes a long time. The progress isn't linear. It's tedious. It's frustrating. Sometimes, you have to be rude. You have to be blunt.

Somehow, the ones who fall back on futility bias have convinced everyone else that they're the positive ones, and those of us who actually care or try to draw attention to our problems are the pessimistic ones. They've gotten everyone to believe that it's optimistic to sit back and do nothing. They say it's fine to abdicate their social responsibilities to the exact class of billionaires and self-serving grifters who got us into this mess in the first place. It's better to ignore your problems and pretend they're inevitable than to do anything about them.

Above all, futility bias doesn't make an argument.

It makes excuses.

There's a difference between futility and acceptance. We have to accept our mortality. We have to accept unpleasant realities and unsettling truths. Some of us have even accepted the likely decay of industrial civilization in our lifetimes. None of that gives anyone a license to cause someone else harm through negligence. It doesn't give us a right to ruin someone else's future.

That's where futility bias takes over.

Maybe this word sounds made up, but it's useful. We need terms to call out the bad faith arguments we encounter.

It helps.

Futility bias tends to serve the status quo. It serves the affluent and the elite. It comes from a position of power and privilege.

When someone leans on futility bias as a reason, they're saying they're too lazy or immature to do the right thing. They want everything to stay the same, no matter who's getting hurt. It suits them. They're saying they don't care, and they're counting on the idea that nobody else does.

They want you to share their futility.

They want you to give up.


If you appreciate my work, consider subscribing or buying me a coffee. Thank you to all the readers who support this site. It makes a big difference. Special thanks to Michael R. Hicks.

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