How can you prepare for the US Presidential election resulting in a disaster?
That question may sound unreal to you. Yet it doesn’t sound so far-fetched to many political leaders and experts observing the run-up to the election. With many more mail-in ballots, which take much longer to count and are much more vulnerable to legal challenges, the counting might drag on for many weeks. It may well be accompanied by widespread civil disturbances, serious economic turmoil, and potentially a constitutional crisis.
You might have been nodding along while reading all that, agreeing in principle it’s all possible. Yet somehow, you’re not feeling worried or doing anything to address your risks. Why not?
Perhaps because while your rational, reasonable brain may admit the distinct substantial possibility of an election disaster, your gut doesn’t buy it. A voice inside your gut whispers that it never happened before, and so it won’t happen now.
Our brains have a disastrous tendency to underestimate greatly – essentially ignore – low-probability and high-impact disruptors, what you might have heard called “black swans.”
Cognitive Biases and Election Disaster Risk
This disastrous tendency comes from dangerous judgment errors that researchers in cognitive neuroscience and behavioral economics call cognitive biases. These mental blindspots impact all areas of our life, from health to politics and even shopping.
Three cognitive biases bear the biggest fault for our failure to face the truth that we need to accept and plan for the possibility of an election disaster.
The normalcy bias refers to our brains assuming things will keep going as they have been – normally – and evaluate the near-term future based on our short-term past experience. As a result, we underestimate drastically both the likelihood of a serious disruption occurring and the impact of one if it does occur, such as a constitutional crisis.
Another major problem, the confirmation bias, describes our strong preference to look only for information that already supports our pre-existing beliefs and gut feelings. Even when we do find data that goes against our current intuitions, our gut reaction is to feel uncomfortable with and reject such evidence, such as rejecting the possibility of a major election disaster.
When we make plans, we naturally believe that the future will go according to plan. That wrong-headed mental blindspot, the planning fallacy, results in us not preparing sufficiently for contingencies and problems, and not changing our plans nearly quickly enough when they do come up. The planning fallacy applies especially black swan-type low-probability, high-impact events such as a US election with no peaceful transfer of power and a constitutional crisis.
Mitigating Election Disaster Risk
Now, we’ve turned the “black swan” of an election disaster into what’s called a “grey rhino,” an easily predictable, high-impact threat. How can you mitigate it?
First, imagine what the future for your work and life would look like if the civil strife and legal challenges lasted only through the Electoral College vote. What kind of problems might come up for you and how can you solve them?
For example, if you aren’t working at home and your place of work is near a city center or election office, perhaps it’s wise to transition to working at home for now while making sure to protect your workplace well against looting. If your home is close to such places, stock up on consumables and medicine, and get ready for curfews and other policing measures against civil disorder. Perhaps withdraw some money from your bank, in case it’s hard to get to it during this time.
Importantly, prepare psychologically for the likelihood of this scenario and its traumatic consequences. The experience will be traumatic, and you’ll need to take time for self-care, as well as supporting others you care about.
If you’re in a leadership role, re-evaluate your team and your organization’s business continuity plan. Recall that voice in your gut encouraging you to ignore the possibility of the pandemic: the normalcy bias, confirmation bias, and the planning fallacy led to the vast majority of organizations to not prepare nearly well enough for COVID, and you don’t want to fall into the same trap again. While you might hope that the potential of an election disaster will not disrupt your work, if your staff aren’t working all virtually now, be ready to transition as many as humanly possible to working from home. If you’re in manufacturing or other industries that need some people on site, make sure to hire additional security to protect your office from civil disorders.
Talk to your staff about the potential of an Electionpocalypse, and support them in taking steps, such as those outlined in this piece, to protect their households, work, and well-being. For the latter, highlight whatever mental health resources you provide, for instance an Employee Assistance Program. Get your systems and processes ready for many employees being unable to work at all or in part. Ensure there’s thorough cross-training, particularly for the most significant roles, in case of such disruptions.
If you’re in manufacturing, consider how you can minimize supply chain disruptions. Now might be a good time to order additional supplies, to protect yourself in case there’s supply chain issues. Service providers should describe to their clients what steps they’re taking to prevent service interruptions. If you’re a government entity, take extra steps to secure various public locations, especially election-related ones, and beef up security as needed.
What about potential opportunities and how can you take advantage of them? Perhaps you can foresee that the stock market will mostly crash, so you can buy bonds instead, or short the stock market. Maybe you can take the opportunity to prepare extra supplies in case your friends and family underprepare for this situation; you can also convey this article to them to help them prepare. Professionally, you can spread the word to your clients and peers, helping your network be in the best shape possible for the likelihood of an Electionpocalypse.
If you’re a business that provides services of relevance to potential civil disturbances – security, legal, insurance, risk management, investing, and so on – you might prepare some marketing and sales pitches for this eventuality. You might also consider moving quickly on closing some outstanding contract opportunities, since prospects might be distracted by an election disaster. Likewise, work on finishing up any internal or external projects that you can reasonably complete before the potential Electionpocalypse, and delay taking on new ones for now. Also, explore partnerships with other businesses that enable you to hedge against election disaster risks.
How many resources would you require to address problems and seize opportunities: time, money, social capital, information? Add them up, and multiply them by 30 percent. Then, go on to use those resources to prepare for this possibility.
Next, consider what problems and opportunities you might face, and what resources you might need, if the Electoral College vote is indecisive, and this situation goes into early January. Multiple these resources by 15 percent, or choose your preferred number. Then, use those resources to prepare for this stretch from December 14 to early January.
Finally, evaluate the problems, opportunities, and resources needed if the House voting ends in an impasse and a constitutional crisis. Multiply these by 10 percent or your chosen number, and proceed to prepare for this scenario.
Now, perhaps 10 percent for the worst of all scenarios, the constitutional crisis, doesn’t seem that high to you. Yet what’s the probability of your business or your house burning down any given year? Not very likely, right? Still, you’re not going to give up your fire insurance. In the same way, taking the steps above provides you with election disaster insurance; it would be just as foolish to get rid of your fire insurance as to avoid doing what you need to do to protect your work and life from Electionpocalypse.
Using this approach, you distribute your problem-solving, opportunity-taking, and resources across the different possibilities in accordance with your chosen evaluations. This counterintuitive approach addresses a number of cognitive biases and draws upon the research-based “Defend Your Future” technique, which you can use for all sorts of strategic planning.
Whatever you do, I hope you don’t simply finish reading this article and click complacently through to the next one. Too many made this mistake with my and other people’s articles warning about the serious threat of the low-likelihood, high-impact disaster caused by the pandemic. Don’t let your gut reactions lead you to the same disastrous outcome. Prepare right now for the substantial possibility of an election disaster and help others you care about get ready as well.