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Blog of


Arthur Stein
Professor of Political Science


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This past week, we once again had illustrations of a major aspect of social life: process matters.

There is a worldview that suggests that outcomes are all that matter. People make choices and the process by which they arrive at them does not matter. Outcome are then said to be process-independent. A high school senior’s choice of which college to attend should not depend on the sequence by which she opens the envelopes from the colleges to which she applied.

An alternative view of the world argues that process determines outcomes. Here, the critical feature is that people cannot evaluate all the options in the world and the one on which they settle will be driven by the sequence in which they were evaluated. A good example is buying a house. No one evaluates every house on the market but hones in on a set, begins a process and stops at some point. The outcome is process dependent.

These two perspectives are important and have many implications which I will not address here.

This week there were two examples in which process was crucial even though it did not affect the outcome.

The first example if that of DeAndre Jordan. He is a talented center on the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team and he was a free agent. Jordan pursued his options in free agency and decided to leave the Clippers and join the Dallas Mavericks. But the NBA provides a 9 day period, a moratorium, in which agreements can be negotiated but cannot be final. Having verbally agreed to a deal with Dallas, Jordan had a change of heart and decided at the last minute to re-sign with his old team. Jordan could, of course, have done that right away. But rather than decide on staying with the Clippers, he negotiated a tentative deal with another team and then at the last minute changed his mind. The outcome for him of re-signing with his old team would have been the same whether he did that initially or after a negotiated dalliance with another team. The story of his reversal is the stuff of comic opera which provided much fodder for sports journalists and fans.

But his reversal affects how he is viewed. The two worlds, the one in which he simply re-signs with the Clippers and the one in which he only does so after a change of heart, are not the same. The outcome of remaining a Clipper is the same for him, but little else. 

A second example is that of Prime Minister Tsipras of Greece and his decisions about accepting the terms of other Eurozone nations for a Greek bailout. Having run for office opposing the austerity conditions which creditors insisted upon, he spent months railing against other European leaders and refusing to agree to the terms upon which they insisted for agreement. At the last minute, and past the deadline set for reaching agreement, he announced that a referendum would be held and that he would recommend that the Greek people vote down the austerity conditions demanded by the creditors. Those with whom he had been negotiating were angered and appalled at the unwillingness of an elected leader to take responsibility. Moreover, the Prime Minister argued that a no vote by Greeks would strengthen his hand in achieving an agreement. The people overwhelmingly voted down the austerity conditions upon which others were insisting.

But then, the Prime Minister put forward a new proposal in which he effectively accepted the austerity conditions that he had rejected a week before and which he had encouraged Greeks to reject in a referendum. The end result would have been completely comparable to that which would have occurred had he simply accepted the austerity conditions in the first place.

Here then are two worlds. One in which the Prime Minister accepts the austerity conditions demanded by creditors and one in which he rejects them, calls for a referendum, recommends that people reject the austerity conditions in the referendum, obtains the no vote he requested, and then accepts the austerity conditions anyway. Both worlds are the same: a Greek Prime Minister accepts the austerity conditions. But the process is completely different and enormously consequential. Among both Greeks and other Europeans, the Prime Minister has lost credibility and trust. Indeed, as I write this, it remains to be seen if the Europeans will accept the Prime Minister’s conversion. Their initial response to his acceptance of terms he had rejected a couple of days earlier was disbelief. They no longer trusted him nor found him credible, and many were insisting on early adoption of austerity and additional r steps simply to demonstrate credibility and commitment.

In both examples, only a couple of days passed before the change of heart, and it is hard to argue that there was some change in conditions that drove the shift in choice.

But the processes, the change of heart in each case, signaled something important about the actors, quite apart from the choice upon which they finally alighted.

People reveal something critical about themselves not just in the choices they make, but in the processes by which they arrive at them. The judgments being drawn about them are as consequential as their choices. The implications for their credibility and trustworthiness are immense. Sometimes, others preclude such reversals because of their assessments of the character demonstrated in the process.

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