Childcare / Maternity Leave / News / Work Life

Examining Paid Family Leave: The Peril of Heuristic Approaches to Complex Problems

When I saw the headline, San Francisco approves fully paid leave for new parents, I scrolled through the comments section.  Bad idea.  So much vitriol with divisive lines drawn between parents (or “breeders” as we’re termed) vs. non-parents.  Can people not see that paid family leave is not a zero-sum game where parents win and non-parents lose?  And then I reflected on a conversation I had with my husband earlier this week.  We were discussing the heuristic mental shortcuts that people take and although useful, how they are not always an accurate means of drawing conclusions or effectively problem-solving.  Caveat: I’m not an expert in heuristics so if I use terminology incorrectly or explain a scientific phenomenon incorrectly, please forgive me in advance and comment to correct me.  I just didn’t want to have to spend hours of research prior to putting this specific post together.

What do I mean by heuristic shortcuts?  I’ll illustrate with an example:  You’re walking down the street and see a crowd of people running toward you looking frantic and fearful.  You don’t know what they’re running from; what do you do?  The average person will take off running and join the mass of frantic folks.  Why?  Your brain performs a heuristic mental shortcut and makes an assumption that a bunch of people running away from something are probably doing so for good reason.  So, you decide to run away, too.  If it was Godzilla approaching, your heuristic problem-solving could save your life.

Let’s walk through another example.  There’s a bus stop directly outside a local bank.  The bus that usually runs this route breaks down unexpectedly.  Subsequently, you have a mass of people waiting outside the bank.  These people are waiting for the bus, but passing bank customers see the crowd of people and assume there’s been a run on the bank, so they frantically enter the bank to withdraw their money.  The bank run ruins the bank.  This is an example of how these innate heuristic methods fail.

Individual heuristics are influenced by a variety of factors that stem from environment, experience, and evolution, among others.  They help describe the stereotypes we hold true and further inculcate in our families and communities.  This illustrates the downside of heuristic shortcuts: they aren’t optimal or perfect.  They are quick and good-enough.  They explain how we as humans sort through a vast amount of available data to simplify complex situations so we may draw good-enough conclusions, make decisions quickly, and prevent information saturation.  Is this why people love to put simple anecdotal quotes on Facebook All. The. Time.?  “There’s only two types of people in this world.  Those who…[insert humorous defining criteria].” Does this explain the meme phenomenon that we see on Buzzfeed and Facebook or our societal obsession with one-liners?  Maybe.  As the saying goes, “Everything should be made as simple as possible but not simpler.”

It also appears that our heuristic decision making occurs at the micro-level – it is organic and near-term centric as opposed to aggregate and long-term focused.  Because it doesn’t seem to capture the value of aggregate effects over longer periods of time, one can also argue it doesn’t take into account the second, third, or fourth order cascading effects of decision-making.  Now I take this concept a step further.  Our human imperative to simplify complex situations often results in over-simplification and lack of consideration of aggregate value over time, often to the detriment of our current and future societies.  The ability to consider these aggregate and long-term effects is the foundation for strategic thought and should shape how policies are formed and implemented.  

Boom. Mic Drop. [Fade to black]

Wait, I’m not done.  Why am I talking about heuristics and paid family leave at the same time?  Because many of the nasty comments I encountered on the aforementioned article are examples of the phenomenon I just explained.  I’m not saying that just because someone disagrees with me they are an idiot incapable of strategic thought.  What I am saying is that important decisions and policies cannot be made with a blinders-on soda-straw near-term knee-jerk narrow focus because there are larger lasting effects that must be considered.

So, now I feel compelled to present a “not zero-sum gain” alternative to the vitriol I read by using an example comment I read,

So, what do those of us without children get instead? You know, those of us who will be stuck taking up the slack while these parents get a vacation?” MaryamtheProud

First, I would laugh at the use of the word, “vacation”.  Maternity leave is NOT vacation.  Second, my pre-child self understands this argument.  I get why people feel this way.  It makes sense from an individual near-term stance.  Third, I would argue that you get a lot.  Paid family leave is a public good.  Everyone benefits.  How?  There are so many branches on this tree, let me just walk the dog on one.  Mothers stay home longer, so breastfeeding rates and durations increase, these increases bring positive health effects to mothers and children with reduced rates of both short-term (e.g., ear infections) and long-term illnesses (e.g., breast and ovarian cancers, leukemia, post partum anxiety and depression), which reduces the costs born by medical insurance companies, which in turns lowers healthcare premiums for EVERYONE.  Let’s take this doggie on another loop of the cul-de-sac.  Mothers who get paid family leave tend to return and remain in the workforce, which in-turn requires employers to spend less money on retraining new employees, which nets greater profits for employers, which increases investment in those companies, which in turn creates new jobs, which increases our Gross Domestic Product as a nation, and in turn benefits EVERYONE.  I could go on and on, and there are arguments on the opposing side, too.

The strategic long-term approach applies to all subjects, regardless of your political leanings.  What I advocate is that we characterize and examine these positive and negative effects to the best of our ability to affect positive policy change that benefits Americans.

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