My Seatbelt Rule for Judgment
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One of my formative childhood lessons came when I was playing in the garage one day. I went into my mom’s car and put the seatbelt on (probably to pretend I was flying a plane). I realized at one point that I could still lean pretty far forward. Far enough that my head could touch the dashboard. How ridiculous! What’s the point of the seatbelt if it doesn’t actually stop me from going too far? I reveled in my discovery that seatbelts were useless.
A while later, I pulled on the seatbelt quickly (a lot happens in imaginary aerial dogfights), and the seatbelt immediately stopped. An overwhelming feeling of stupidity hit me almost as fast. Nine-year-old me was not in fact smarter than Toyota engineers.
For anyone who doesn’t know what I’m talking about, seatbelts have dynamic behavior. If you pull on them slowly, they’ll extend to the full distance, allowing you to still have some range of motion. If you pull on them quickly, which is what would happen in a car crash, they’ll stop quickly. If you’re curious how seatbelts work, I recommend watching this YouTube video and reading this article.
Now whenever I’m tempted to judge something as stupidly designed, I try to check myself and remember my seatbelt experience. My rule of thumb is:
My willingness to judge something should be proportional to how much I know about it.
Sometimes things really are poorly designed (check out The Design of Everyday Things), but I should give more benefit of the doubt when I don’t know much about the subject. There can be so many competing and nonobvious trade-offs when it comes to designing something. And an aspect of something’s design can be a positive in one context and a negative in another.
In the seatbelt case, the ingenuity of engineers has managed to account for multiple situations. I just didn’t realize it at first! And even now that I am aware of it, it makes me think of what else I don’t know about seatbelts. How much complexity do these mechanisms add for manufacturing? How much more expensive do they make a car? Which aspects are legally required? And so on.
My rule of thumb also extends beyond product design. It reminds me to be hesitant to judge someone that I don’t know personally, a person’s actions when I don’t know the context (see the fundamental attribution error), or a system that seems pointless at first glance (see Chesterton’s Fence).
There’s so much I don’t know. Which means there’s so much I shouldn’t judge without learning more.