No, I am not talking about that (Alpine Tri-Stake) rescue. Or any of the other rescue firesides people are reporting. I’m actually referring to the 2021 film The Rescue, which documents the dramatic 2018 rescue of twelve boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave in Thailand. A rescue that nearly didn’t happen—because people were more afraid to try and fail than to do nothing and watch the boys die.

In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing.

Teddy Roosevelt

While I had followed this story in the news, I didn’t know the details of how the boys were (spoiler alert) eventually rescued until watching this movie a couple of weeks ago. It’s worth watching if you haven’t already and I am not going to go into how exactly the rescue was conducted (just watch the movie!). But I did want to discuss an issue the movie raised for me that I think we see a lot in organizations and individuals.

A theme throughout the movie is the tension between the Thai government / military and a group of cave divers (the best in the world, but private hobbyists) from Britain, Australia, and the U.S. who were not affiliated with the military or government but traveled to Thailand to use their niche expertise to assist in the rescue effort. This comes to a head when the groups realize that if they do not rescue the boys within a couple of days, they will die: oxygen is running out and the monsoons that flooded the cave in the first place are returning. The divers have a proposal to get the boys out, but it is dangerous–there is a good chance that some or all of the boys will die during the rescue. But there is no alternative, and they are out of time.

The Thai government initially resists this, even threatening the men with arrest if they go back into the cave to try to help. They seem willing to simply do nothing and let the boys die slowly in the cave rather than do something that directly results in the boys’ deaths during an unsuccessful rescue attempt. Part of the reason for this is a language barrier, and once the men find a fluent Thai-English translator they’re able to come to a better understanding. But even when the Thai officials finally relent, they make it clear to the divers that if anything goes wrong, they could be prosecuted and face jail time in Thailand. The Thai officials do not want to take the fall for this.

I couldn’t stop thinking about this and how we would often rather do nothing and let the chips fall–even if means there will probably be a bad outcome–than do something and have it go wrong and be on our hands. I don’t really know why exactly the Thai officials were inclined to just wait and let the boys die rather than undertake a rescue effort that, while very risky, was the only chance the boys had as the officials for the most part were not interviewed for the film. But I couldn’t help but wonder if none of them wanted to be accountable for a decision that directly led to a death.

There’s a name for this called inaction or omission bias–a “tendency to favor an act of omission (inaction) over one of commission (action).” This bias is the concept that’s explored in the trolley problem, and results from (among other things) the idea that harmful acts are often judged more harshly than equally harmful omissions. (I have to think it also has to do with a person’s desire not to be directly accountable for an outcome–which is also called “regret avoidance”.) Long before Covid, people used this bias to explain vaccine hesitancy; i.e., when parents are reluctant to vaccinate a child when the vaccination itself could cause harm, even when the risk of harm from a vaccine is much less likely than the risk of harm from the disease that the vaccine prevents. Omission bias is also related to status quo bias, a preference for the current state of affairs. While preferring the status quo can be rational if the status quo is preferable to the alternative, research indicates that we are disproportionately biased towards the status quo.

But forget the research, T.S. Eliot may have put it best in his poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock in which the fate of the narrator has been decided by his failure to decide:

Do I dare

Disturb the universe?

In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,

Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?

But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,

Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,

I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;

I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,

And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,

And in short, I was afraid.

And now, we do find ourselves back to the Tri-Stake Rescue (kind of)–and other Churchy things–to consider in the questions.

  • Do you see omission or status quo bias at Church? In your ward? In top leadership? What about in yourself, your employer, or other organizations you affiliate with? How?
  • Might omission bias help explain the Church’s reluctance to apologize for past events or make changes that could cause short-term pain but may be good in the long term? Or do you think Church leadership really feels it is on the best long-term course? Could omission or status quo bias help explain the tendency to protect “the grandmas in Sanpete County”?
  • What can we do to counteract omission or status quo bias?