Why The Idea of '20/20 Hindsight' Can Mislead Us Judy, Lyn and Donna Ulrich were driving to a volleyball game when their Ford Pinto was hit from behind by a Chevy van. The Pinto caught fire, and the three teenagers were burned to death. This week on Hidden Brain, we talk to a former Ford insider who could have voted to recall the Pinto years before the Ulrich girls were killed — but didn't. And we ask, is it possible to fairly evaluate our past actions when we know how things turned out?
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The Halo Effect: Why It's So Difficult To Understand The Past

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The Halo Effect: Why It's So Difficult To Understand The Past

The Halo Effect: Why It's So Difficult To Understand The Past

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SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:

From NPR, this is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

It's a summer evening in northern Indiana. Three teenagers are in their car headed to a church-sponsored volleyball game.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR ENGINE REVVING)

VEDANTAM: It's 1978. The three Ulrich girls, sisters Judy and Lyn and their cousin Donna, drive down US-33 in a Ford Pinto. Judy is behind the wheel. She's 18, a recent high school graduate, two years older than her little sister Lyn. Donna is also 18. Around 6:30, Judy slows down. She's worried she might have left the cap to the gas tank on the trunk. She puts on her hazard lights.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAZARD LIGHTS BLINKING)

VEDANTAM: A few seconds behind the Pinto on the same road, Roger Duggar (ph) is driving a Chevy van. He's looking for a cigarette pack on the floor. When he looks up, the slowing Pinto is right in front of him. He's going about 50 mph, and he doesn't have time to stop.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: At first, Roger doesn't think the crash is that bad. Then he smells gasoline. Later, reporters will recount testimony from a third driver who saw what happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #1: There was a puff of flame about 12 to 18 inches long at the rear of the car.

VEDANTAM: Almost immediately, the Pinto explodes into flames.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #1: He said it was like a large napalm bomb going up. As it careened down the highway and finally came to a stop, it was burning all the way.

VEDANTAM: The eyewitness gets out of his car with a fire extinguisher and runs over to see if he can help.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #1: But he said the temperature and heat was so intense that it was too hot to stay close to the car for very long.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIRENS WAILING)

VEDANTAM: By the time the first state trooper arrives, the Pinto is scorched. Inside the car, Lyn and Donna are dead. Judy is outside alive but badly injured. She's taken to a burn unit at a nearby hospital. She lives for about nine more hours. Before she dies, Judy tells the police what happened. She also asked the nurse if her sister and cousin are OK. The nurse tells her they lived.

Six months later, Judy and Lyn's mother get something in the mail from the Ford Motor Company. It's a recall notice for the car her daughters were killed in, the Ford Pinto. Today, we speak to a Ford insider who has asked himself a painful question, should he have done more to get the Pinto off the road?

DENNY GIOIA: In certain circles, I'm a certifiable villain, guilty of not protecting innocent, unsuspecting people driving a patently dangerous cars.

VEDANTAM: This week on HIDDEN BRAIN, the minefield of hindsight bias - why knowing how something turned out shapes the way we think about everything that came before it and the insidious effect this has on our lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Our story today starts with long ago events, but it's not really about the past. It's about how, in the present, we think about the past, about the profound bias that shaped such thinking and the effect this bias has on our lives.

We begin in 1970. The American car industry was dominated by a handful of major companies. There was General Motors. There was Chrysler. And there was another big one - Ford.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #1: What makes Mustang No. 1? Personality.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #2: Elegance for a new decade, the 1970 Thunderbird.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #3: Ford, the wagon master.

VEDANTAM: But the new decade marked the end of an era of carefree car buying in America.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: The country was shedding its innocence. Young men were being drafted into the Vietnam War, and the Nixon administration would soon be marred by scandal. Two books - Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" and Ralph Nader's "Unsafe At Any Speed" were in the zeitgeist. More and more, cars were seen no longer as a symbol of freedom but as a social problem. American car companies felt under siege from federal regulations at home and competition from abroad. Consumers were turning away from American cars to Mercedes-Benzes from Germany...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #4: Mercedes-Benz, engineered...

VEDANTAM: ...Sleek Jaguars from Britain and small, fuel-efficient Toyotas and Hondas from Japan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Honda, we make it simple.

VEDANTAM: In 1969 alone, 1 million cars were imported into the United States. If American car companies wanted to keep up, they needed to match what their competitors were offering. Ford's answer was an inexpensive, fuel-efficient subcompact car, the Pinto.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #5: Meet the Pinto, just born.

VEDANTAM: This is an advertisement introducing the car. It shows a foal, presumably a pinto horse, alone in a field. The horse gets to its feet and gallops around a banana-yellow Ford Pinto car.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #6: Priced like a small-economy import but you'd never know to look at it. It's averaged over 25 miles per gallon in simulated city and suburban driving. But it's brisky, with a wider stead than any little import. So you won't be...

VEDANTAM: The commercial introduces a slogan for the car that would only become ironic later on.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #6: ...Pinto, a little carefree car to put a little kick in your life. A little, better idea from Ford coming September 11.

VEDANTAM: The little carefree car - Ford's president at the time, Lee Iacocca, had pushed for the Pinto when he was still a vice president at the company. He was said to have called the car his baby. The company code named the car Phoenix. Again, the irony of this nickname would not be evident until much later.

To boost gas mileage and reduce costs, the Pinto had a stripped-down, minimalist design. Cars usually have a steel frame that supports the engine, the transmission, the wheels and so on and a body that goes on top of that. But the Pinto had just one piece. The body was the frame. Executives at Ford were said to have mandated that their employees build a car that way 2,000 pounds and cost $2,000.

Then, in 1973, something happened that made the Pinto a bona fide winner for Ford.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The OPEC nations have decided to cut oil production by 5% and continue cutting their oil production by an additional 5% each successive month until Israel withdraws from occupied Arab lands and the rights of Palestinian refugees is restored.

VEDANTAM: In October, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, OPEC, slapped an embargo on oil shipped to the United States. The move was in response to U.S. support of Israel during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Soon, there were major oil shortages in the United States. The price of gas skyrocketed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Because of the fuel shortage, General Motors has ordered additional layoffs affecting thousands of workers.

VEDANTAM: President Nixon even announced a new limit on interstate highway speeds.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD NIXON: I have called upon all the American people to drive their cars at 50 mph. Now, what is that going to mean? It means it's going to take a little longer to get where you're going to go - a little longer to get to work, a little longer to get to the ballgame, a little longer to get to church, maybe a little longer to make the trip to see your mother-in-law. Maybe that wasn't a good idea. You wouldn't mind taking a little longer.

(LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: The oil crisis disrupted American life in ways that ranged from the serious to the absurd.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: There's a governor who's wearing long johns. There's a professor in Georgia who says that if we change the whole television schedule - make it earlier - people will go to bed earlier and save on lights. And a Michigan restaurant man wants his customers to ride horseback to dinner. And he says if they do, he'll might throw in a bucket of oats with the meal.

VEDANTAM: All of this meant that Americans started to covet small, cheap cars with excellent gas mileage, like the Ford Pinto. Sales took off, and the Pinto became crucial to Ford's bottom line. But the decade that followed would not end well for Ford or the rest of the U.S. car industry. For the Pinto, its PR troubles began with a recall campaign led by Ralph Nader and a series of journalism exposes.

The most widely referenced of these was a 1977 feature in the magazine Mother Jones. The article told the story of a woman and her 13-year-old passenger who suffered a fiery, rear-end crash involving a Pinto. The woman was killed, and the boy was severely burned. The Mother Jones reporter, Mark Dowie, claimed this was not an isolated incident.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: We estimate that 500 men, women and children have burned to death in Pintos over the past six years who would not have been seriously injured if the car had not burst into flames.

VEDANTAM: That number - at least 500 deaths since 1971 or slightly more than 80 deaths on average per year - has been hotly debated. At the time, NPR reported that Ford said the number was pure exaggeration.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: In 1975, there were 848 deaths associated with passenger car accidents in which fires also occurred in some parts of the vehicle. Only 12 of these 848 reported fatalities involved occupants of Pintos.

VEDANTAM: Later, Ford would say Pintos had been involved in 35 cases of rear-impact fires. Those fires, the company said, resulted in 23 burn injuries and 21 deaths. An investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration came up with similar numbers - 24 burns and 27 fatalities. Today, it's still unclear how many people died or were injured in these crashes.

Mark Dowie made other charges against the company, too. He wrote that Ford had rushed the Pinto into production, coming up with a new model in just over two years when that process usually took closer to 3 1/2 years. That shortened time frame, he wrote, had consequences. For one, because of the accelerated schedule, crash testing happened after the basic design was pretty much set. According to the Mother Jones story, these tests revealed that the Pinto was vulnerable in low-speed, rear-end crashes. Over the years, multiple news organizations, including NPR, have highlighted potential problems with the Pinto's design. Instead of installing the tank to the front of the rear axle, where the car's back wheels were mounted, it was placed behind the axle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: There is virtually no crush area between the back of the car and the back of the gas tank. So just a few inches of damage to the back end of the car brings the metal of the car or the object that's producing the impact right up against the gas tank.

VEDANTAM: Some have argued that the Pinto was design wasn't much different from that of other small cars being produced by American car companies. But there was one feature that made the Pinto stand out from the herd - the studs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: They're up at the top of the tank. They are, again, directly ahead of the splash pan on the back of the car with no protection whatsoever. They're one of the first things that actually gets hit. But they're designed in such a manner that, as they bend forward, they can be pushed through the rear of the gas tank, rupturing the tank.

VEDANTAM: These were bolts that protruded from the rear axle, menacingly close to the low-hanging fuel tank. If a Pinto was hit from behind, even at low speed, these bolts could poke holes in the fuel tank. If that happened, oil could spill out and ignite at the smallest spark. One lawyer called the studs can openers.

The final charge that Mark Dowie made against Ford had to do with a company memo that came to be infamous. The memo laid out a cost-benefit analysis showing that fuel leakage in certain crashes could potentially be prevented with alterations that would cost about $11 per car. But the analysis determined that the cost of implementing these changes would not outweigh, quote, "expected benefits." Here, the word benefit meant the potential for lives saved and injuries avoided. In making its calculations, Ford valued a human life at about $200,000, a number borrowed from a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The memo did not refer specifically to the Pinto. The calculations likely included all American cars. Regardless, Mark Dowie's coverage of the memo painted a picture of Ford as a company that was willing to prioritize profits over safety. The 1991 movie "Class Action" is based in part on the story of the Pinto. It depicts a car company making a cost-benefit analysis.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CLASS ACTION")

GENE HACKMAN: (As Jedediah Tucker Ward) You have a defective part. You make a decision whether to replace that part in a recall or suffer the consequences of a lawsuit, whichever is cheaper. Is that correct?

VEDANTAM: Ford faced a slew of civil lawsuits relating to Pinto rear-end collisions. There was even a criminal trial. In Indiana, Ford was indicted for three felony counts of reckless homicide for the accident that killed Judy, Lyn and Donna Ulrich, the three teenagers whose story we heard at the top of the episode. Ford was found not guilty, but the Pinto never really recovered its reputation. The car would go on to become the butt of jokes everywhere in movies, on late-night TV and in cartoons on newspaper editorial pages. In May of 1978, a federal agency issued an initial determination that the Pinto's fuel system was defective.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: The National Highway Traffic Safety Commission yesterday issued a tentative find that 1,930,000 Ford Pintos and Mercury Bobcats may be dangerous.

VEDANTAM: Not long after, Ford agreed to voluntarily recall 1.5 million Pintos. The story of the Ford Pinto seen from the vantage point of today is almost a parable. It's seen as a warning sign about the risks of hubris and avarice. But as I said, our story today is not about the Pinto. It's not about relitigating what Ford knew and when. It's about how we think about the past. When we come back, what psychology reveals about the mind of a Ford insider who voted not to recall the Pinto and is now haunted by the choices he made.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Denny Gioia came of age during an era of big changes in the United States.

GIOIA: I was marching for civil rights, for women's rights and against the attitude of big business at the time.

VEDANTAM: He had long hair and wanted to make the world a better place. He started with the classes in his MBA program.

GIOIA: I was the guy who would speak up and say, shouldn't we account for the employees or the customers in this situation?

VEDANTAM: In 1972, Denny cut his hair and took his first corporate job with the Ford Motor Company. He loved cars. And he thought, by becoming an insider, he might be able to shape Ford for the better.

GIOIA: I decided with intent to try to change this lumbering behemoth from the inside out.

VEDANTAM: He rose quickly at Ford, propelled by his expertise and his competitive spirit. About a year in - he was just 26 - Denny became Ford's recall coordinator.

So you were 26 and you were playing a role to basically decide whether cars get recalled. I mean, that's astonishing.

GIOIA: It never occurred to me that it was astonishing. But, yeah, I guess it was.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

GIOIA: I was rather low in the hierarchy, but it was an extraordinarily powerful position in the sense that, you know, if I picked up the phone and called anybody and identified myself as Denny Gioia from the recall office, people jumped. And it got to be pretty interesting to watch people who were ranked much higher than I was in the organization leap to fulfill my every need. But that was the nature of the job.

VEDANTAM: And it was a very important job.

GIOIA: I had to track everything that might become a recall, and so I started a file on everything. And the information for those files came from field reports. Ford had a series of field engineers. As I recall, there were two in every state. And their job was to fill out a sheet identifying a potential problem, and they would send it to me.

VEDANTAM: Denny would pore through crash reports looking for patterns of something going wrong over and over again - brakes failing, wheels falling off, axles detaching and startling drivers. He had to keep a file on everything. But he was always on the lookout for two specific things.

GIOIA: I had two criteria for deciding what should be a recall. One was what I called traceable cause. Something had to be breaking. I mean, I'm an engineer. You can't just engage in magical thinking because somebody somewhere says that there's a problem. You have to have evidence. So I had to have documentation that something was breaking, and I had to see a pattern of failures. I never went to recall unless I had at least 20.

VEDANTAM: In other words, he needed more than anecdotes. He needed data. If he had evidence and could identify a pattern, Denny would put the case up for a vote to recall or not to recall. There were five people in his office, and everyone got a vote. If they voted to recall, he would send the case up to a high-level executive committee that would make the final decision. If the committee agreed with Denny's group, he would then initiate a recall.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: By the time Denny became Ford's recall coordinator, the Pinto had been on the market for about three years. In retrospect, we know so much about the Pinto that Denny did not know in the early 1970s. We know it would soon become one of the most hated cars in America, the subject of journalistic and federal investigations and eventually a national recall. At age 26, Denny did not know any of that, nor he says did he know about any of the early crash tests or design flaws that were later detailed in the Mother Jones expose. To the Denny of 1973, the Pinto was just another car that came up from time to time in reports. Early on, the Pinto wasn't even really on his radar until...

GIOIA: I got a filled out field report that was different from any I had ever seen, that had photographs stapled front and back from an engineer, and he said to me I spent all day on this godforsaken car. I can't find a thing wrong with it except that it's a tin can, by which he meant it's a little car, got hit by a big car, it lit up, what did you expect?

VEDANTAM: The car had caught fire in a collision. Now Denny had an incident but still no cause and definitely no pattern. So he did what he always did. He started a file on the Pinto and began to track it. Denny took his job as recall coordinator seriously. When he first started in the role, he would wake up at night and stare at his bedroom ceiling worried that he might have made a decision that day that hurt someone. That feeling eventually went away. It had to.

GIOIA: You can't have emotions rise to the surface if you're going to be an effective recall coordinator. You got to get over that. How do you get over having an emotional response to somebody, somebody dying in one of your products? Well, it's not easy, but you do it.

VEDANTAM: Not long after he started his file on the Pinto, Denny had an encounter that challenged his efforts to stay focused on the data rather than his feelings. It happened at a company warehouse that Ford insiders called the chamber of horrors.

GIOIA: That's where all the horrible pieces came that had broken and often hurt or killed somebody. I was out there one day when I saw a burned-out Pinto off in the corner under a tarp. I don't know if you've ever seen a burned-out car.

VEDANTAM: I have not, no.

GIOIA: Everything's melted. All the upholstery is gone, burned away. The paint is burned off. The wiring is melted. The glass is melted. The steering wheel is melted. And when you learn that that car was actually a death vehicle, it will turn your stomach.

VEDANTAM: Still, when he got back to the office and looked in his Pinto file, he only had five cases involving rear-end fires. He had no identifiable cause or pattern. In other words, he was nowhere near his usual standard for recommending the case for a recall vote. But he decided to do it anyway.

GIOIA: So despite my training, when I saw that car - and despite the fact that I only had 5 field reports, I nonetheless put it on the docket for a vote.

VEDANTAM: And when you brought it up to the five-person committee, was there a robust argument? Was there discussion? Did people just sort of, you know, roll their eyes at you? What actually happened?

GIOIA: Oh, I could (laughter) - that's a good description. Yes, they rolled their eyes at me. Why are we doing this? Because you had an emotional response to seeing a burned-out Pinto? That's not good enough. We got to have data. How many you got? What's the pattern? That's not a pattern. Those could all be outliers. If you're an engineer, you have to think that way.

VEDANTAM: Now, there's actually - you know, you can criticize this, but you can also say this is actually the correct way to think because, of course, anecdotally, things happen all the time that are idiosyncratic to a particular car or a particular situation. You know, there's - the weather conditions might be bad, something happens. And if you basically base your judgments on one case, I mean, presumably we'd be recording every car off the road because every car is probably going to have some idiosyncratic case where something goes wrong. No?

GIOIA: Oh, absolutely. Now, think about this. We're looking at a car that has been built in the cheapest way possible. And given that it's a cheap vehicle, you can identify 50 things that cost $5 to $10 to fix. If you want to take a blanket approach and fix everything, suddenly you've got a car that nobody's willing to buy. That's not OK, especially in an era when the only thing people are buying is a Pinto.

VEDANTAM: When it came down to a vote, Denny's office elected 5-0 not to recall. Even Denny voted against himself. It wasn't until about a year later that Denny says something strange happened.

GIOIA: I'm sure you, like many of your listeners, like some intrigue. Here's the intrigue part of this story.

VEDANTAM: Denny says that one day in 1974, he walked into his office and saw a report lying upside down on his desk. It turned out to be an old engineering report from 1970, the early days of the Pinto, that showed why the cars were catching fire. By now, you can probably guess the culprits - the low-hanging fuel tank and the studs that could rupture the tank like a can opener.

GIOIA: It was what I call a slap-your-forehead moment because it revealed that the Pinto's rear axle was an off-the-shelf component, which is to say it was used in some other application by the Ford Motor Company. That application was the Ford of Europe Capri. That car was more complicated. It had anchor points called studs on the rear axle to which suspension arms were attached. But when it was used in the Pinto, they didn't need those suspension arms, so they deleted them. But they did not delete the studs to which the suspension arms were attached.

VEDANTAM: The bolts were intended for a different kind of car with a different design.

GIOIA: So what happened when the car was hit from behind at the federally mandated speed of 50 kilometers or 31 mph? The fuel tank got pushed and got punctured by these four studs that were protruding.

VEDANTAM: Wow.

GIOIA: If this - if the accident was anywhere over 25 mph, it ripped the fuel filler neck out, sprayed gasoline all over the place, including into the rear seats. If there's a spark anywhere in the vicinity, it's going to light up. Secondly, if it's anything over 25 mph, it's going to accordion the car. The doors get pinned shut. So you're trapped in a car that has just exploded into a fireball, and you cannot get out.

VEDANTAM: Oh, my God.

GIOIA: This is a very ugly accident.

VEDANTAM: Today, Denny says he still does not know who put the engineering report on his desk. But in 1974, he knew what he had to do. He called Ford's executive committee overseeing recalls.

GIOIA: And I said, in effect, get ready. We've got a big one coming.

VEDANTAM: Denny says Ford decided to see how the Pinto compared to other cars in the industry. According to Denny, Ford bought some competitor cars with layouts similar to the Pinto but without the stud problem and tested them.

GIOIA: And what they found was that the average speed at which those cars fuel tanks would rupture was about 27 1/2 mph.

VEDANTAM: Wait - almost the same.

GIOIA: Pretty close - 25 versus versus 27 1/2.

VEDANTAM: So what do you do now?

GIOIA: Let me put you in the position of being the recall coordinator. How would you vote? Would you vote to spend $30 million for 2 1/2 mph? Now, it leads to a really interesting dilemma because when you hear these numbers, you can get sucked in. You can go, the math doesn't add up. And, yes, human lives are at stake. But what's the value that should prevail here? So if it's a values-based decision, of course, you recall. Of course, you recall. But if it's a business decision, do you spend $30 million for 2 1/2 miles an hour when the cars that have a problem are not statistically significantly different from the cars that don't? I don't know what to do.

VEDANTAM: Still, Denny had to make a decision. And for the second time, he voted not to recall the Pinto.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Denny left Ford in 1975. Three years later, Ford admitted there was a problem and recalled the car.

When we look back at moments in our lives that turned out badly, it can be easy to say what we might have done differently. We zero in on the moment things went wrong and say, that's what did it. That's the moment I would go back and change. In hindsight, it all seems like common sense. But what if it isn't so simple? What if these thoughts say less about the past and more about us, about the comfort we seek in dealing with a chaotic and unpredictable world? Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: When something good happens, we tend to think that everything that led up to it was also good. If a rocket launch is successful, then we assume all the preparation and engineering that went into it must have been handled well, too. And when something bad happens - let's say a plane crashes or a company goes bankrupt - our first question usually is, who messed up? Hidden in this question is an assumption many of us make. If there's a bad outcome, then the processes that led up to it must have been flawed, too. So when we think about the fiery accident that killed the three Ulrich girls in 1978, it's easy to look at someone like Denny Gioia and say, there must have been something in his recall process that was rotten, some big failure or misstep that he could and should have prevented.

But engineer-turned-sociologist Duncan Watts says we shouldn't jump to that conclusion so quickly. He says this way of thinking reveals something fundamental about the way we often fail to understand the past and plan for the future. To explain this idea, Duncan tells a story about another car crash.

DUNCAN WATTS: This is a terrible story, and I picked it because it's a terrible story.

VEDANTAM: This time, instead of a Ford Pinto, the car is a minivan. It's the summer of 2001 in Brooklyn. Joseph Gray is wrapping up an overnight shift at the precinct where he works as a police officer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSEPH GRAY: I was actually supposed to play golf that day, and it was kind of like overcast and drizzling a little bit in the morning.

VEDANTAM: This is tape from an interview Joseph Gray did a few years later with the Staten Island Advance. When Joseph's golf plans are canceled...

WATTS: He decides to have a couple of beers with his colleagues.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GRAY: We wound up in a bar. And, you know, that was that.

WATTS: And a couple of beers turns into 12, 13, 15 beers. He spends all day drinking, and then he gets in his minivan and he drives home. So he's well, well over the limit - more than double the legal limit. And on the way home, he has a terrible accident.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GRAY: I remember going to hit the brakes as soon as I saw, you know, somebody. But by then, it was too late.

WATTS: He runs a red light, and he hits a young family.

VEDANTAM: These next details are hard to describe. Maria Herrera and her 16-year-old sister are crossing the street. They are killed instantly. Maria's 4-year-old son is with them. His body is dragged 100 feet under the minivan's bumper. Maria is also eight months pregnant. Later, her child is delivered by caesarean section, but he doesn't survive.

WATTS: Joseph Gray is - faces a criminal trial. And he is just, you know, understandably demonized by the media, by the family of the victim, by her husband.

VEDANTAM: Eventually, Joseph receives a maximum sentence of 15 years. At the time, a lot of people felt that wasn't long enough - like Joseph was getting off easy. What punishment could possibly be severe enough for such a terrible accident?

But pay attention to this word - accident. We want to think that this incident was caused by Joseph Gray's recklessness. And, of course, it was. But what's harder to think about are all the other things that had to happen for the accident to occur. What if it hadn't been raining that morning and Joseph Gray went golfing instead of to the bar? What if he went to the bar and got drunk but the bartender had told him he couldn't drive and called him a cab? What if he had started driving but got stopped before he hit the Herrera family?

WATTS: Let's imagine that everything that happened, happened, except that two minutes before he had the accident, Joseph Gray got pulled over by another police officer. What do you think would've happened? He would have been one of these people who gets caught with a high alcohol level driving and people say, oh, that's really bad. You shouldn't do that. And, you know, you should - maybe you should lose your license for six months. And you should do some community service, or, you know, pay a fine. But nobody would say, you're a murderer; you're a monster.

VEDANTAM: In this scenario, where Joseph Gray gets pulled over before he can hurt anyone, there's nothing in his behavior that is any different. He behaves exactly the same way he did in the real-life scenario when he killed Maria and her family. Of course, when Joseph decided to get behind the wheel after so many beers, he made it much more likely that something bad would happen. But in the hypothetical situation where no one gets hurt, it's not because Joseph decided not to drink and drive.

WATTS: In this other world, he would have behaved in exactly the same irresponsible way, and nobody would think that he should go to jail for 20 years. Or else, if they do, then there's a lot of people who should be going to jail for 20 years - anybody who's, you know, texting while driving or, you know, anybody who's had a few drinks too many, anybody who's distracted. All of these people are potentially going to kill somebody. And there's some other random thing out there that is determining whether something bad happens or not.

VEDANTAM: This idea that outcomes might in part be random and the result of good luck or bad luck can make us uncomfortable. When something happens, good or bad, we are powerfully motivated to see the hand of intentionality and purpose. This bad thing happened because that bad person did something. Take that away from us, and we are left not just with the terror of randomness but the terror of meaninglessness.

WATTS: People associate randomness with an absence of meaning. And I've often actually gotten this response from people. When I sort of walk them through this logic, they sort of look at me with this tired expression on their face and say, then nothing means anything, right? And I sort of find that to be a strange response because meaning is something that we create. Right? The world doesn't create meaning. The world just does whatever the world does. Right? We're the ones who decide what it means. Right? So you know, if you, like, randomly get on a plane or get bumped onto a different flight one day and the person you sit next to becomes your spouse, you know, that will be a tremendously meaningful event - right? - in your life. But it's still random.

VEDANTAM: In a complex world, random things are bound to happen all the time. Most are mundane. Some are delightful. A few are heartbreaking. We are mostly OK when the random shapes the mundane - the traffic light turns red as I pull up at the intersection. But when it comes to good things - and especially when it comes to bad things - the notion that wonderful and terrible things happen for no reason leaves us dissatisfied, uneasy. I asked Duncan why he thinks this is.

WATTS: The short answer is, I don't know. My best guess is that it's extremely adaptive to believe that you understand the world - right? - that you want to think that, you know, you know what's going to happen because that means you can get out of bed, you can take action, you can invest in the future. And I think that's probably where it comes from is that it's just this sort of adaptive response to the uncertainty of the world.

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VEDANTAM: Duncan is not saying that Joseph Gray's punishment was too harsh or too lenient. He's saying that because we know what happened to the Herrera family, it changes how we think about Joseph Gray's actions. Yes, we might be willing to concede that many random things had to happen for the tragedy to occur, but we prefer to ignore them when we make our calculus of right and wrong. We focus on Joseph Gray's negligence because it gives us a feeling of control. We can do something about Joseph Gray. We can lock him up and throw away the key. We can't do anything about all the other random stuff. And that's terrifying.

The same thing could be said of the Ford Pinto. Once something terrible has occurred, it becomes nearly impossible to look back on the actions of the people involved with any sense of dispassion. Our psychological defense systems demand a tidy explanation. We shrink away from anything that suggests messiness, randomness, uncertainty.

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VEDANTAM: It's possible there was negligence or wrongdoing at Ford. Over the years, some have claimed that Ford didn't intentionally make a dangerous car while others have argued that the early Pinto crash tests reveal that executives at Ford knew the Pinto was a dangerous car even before it left the assembly line. We reached out to Ford for comment, and they declined our request. But our story isn't about the executives at Ford and what they did or did not know. It's about Denny Gioia, a mid-level employee who says he did not know about the Pinto's fuel tank problem until he discovered the mysterious report on his desk in 1974.

Up until that moment and through the end of his tenure at Ford in 1975, Denny followed a clear process for deciding whether to recall cars. Since the company couldn't initiate a recall every time something went wrong with any car on the road, it needed a system for determining if a problem was a real problem or just a fluke. If Denny wanted to recommend a recall, he needed to be able to show two things - evidence that something was broken and a pattern of failure. The Pinto never rose to that standard. Denny sent up red flags about the car twice. But both times, he looked at the evidence himself and voted not to recall.

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VEDANTAM: You might hear this and think we're letting Denny off the hook. Maybe Denny should have resigned in protest when he saw the burned-out Pinto in the company warehouse. Or maybe he should have blown the whistle to the media when the mysterious report turned up on his desk. Or maybe he should have just voted to recall the Pinto even if it meant ignoring his standard. That last thought has plagued Denny himself.

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GIOIA: In certain circles, I'm a certifiable villain, guilty of not protecting innocent, unsuspecting people driving a patently dangerous car.

VEDANTAM: This is tape from a voice memo Denny sent us in 2019. It was in response to a call out seeking stories from listeners who felt haunted by something in their past.

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GIOIA: Am I haunted by those decisions? My answer is a resounding yes and an ambivalent no. Because after all these 46 years later, I remain of two minds about whether I did the right thing in voting not to recall the Pinto.

VEDANTAM: Denny's conscience is heavy with the same question that Duncan Watts is asking. Just because the outcome was bad, does that mean that Denny did the wrong thing back when he was at Ford? Do the terrible deaths of the three Ulrich girls mean that Denny's criteria for instigating a recall were bad? Or is it possible that sometimes bad things happen even when good people are doing their best? This is very hard to accept psychologically. Bad outcomes cast a halo around everything that came before them, and it's next to impossible to see through the halo to reality. Duncan Watts again.

WATTS: So the halo effect shows up, you know, in lots of circumstances where, you know, for example, people who are good looking tend to be rated as more intelligent than people who are not good looking. Even though looks and intelligence have nothing to do with each other, that is just something that our human psychology does. And the same thing is true for success and failure. So if a company is successful, we look at the things that it's doing and we say, well, those must be really good things. Right? Those are good processes, you know - and good leadership, good teamwork, good communication, good vision, good execution. And if the same company is not successful, we say, oh, all those things were bad.

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WATTS: This halo effect really is very deep and profound and hard to shake. Right? We think we're evaluating a process that led to some outcome. But really, we're just reflecting the outcome itself. And this really gets in the way of evaluating processes.

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VEDANTAM: The story of Denny Gioia is more than just a story about a car company and a defective car. It's a story about how we think about the past and what that means for how we think about the future. When we look back, our minds create stories that explain how events came about. We trace bad things to bad people and good things to good people. We already know how things turned out, so it's easy to tell apart the good guys from the bad guys. But notice how this breaks down when we think not of the past but of the future. Now we don't have the final outcome to guide our conclusions. Now things look confusing, messy, random.

WATTS: Just like now, everybody's saying, well, of course, we had a pandemic. You know, people were warning about it. If only we paid attention to them, we would have stopped this. Right? So we really - we have this view, whether we explicitly say it or not, that, you know, there is this thread that goes from the past into the future. We think that there is this one trajectory that the world is going to take. And if only we were smart enough, we could somehow know what thread that is. And that is wrong. And there is no thread. There is just sort of an infinite cloud of possibilities. The future has not been created yet.

VEDANTAM: What did that infinite cloud of possibilities look like to Denny in 1974? Let's try to time travel back to the Ford recall office that year. Denny is looking through his files on Ford's various vehicles. He looks a little tired, maybe from another sleepless night worrying about work. As we watch him, perhaps he opens his file on the Pinto. We can tell it's bothering him, but it has not yet risen to a standard for recommending a recall, so he closes the file and gets back to his other work.

This younger Denny does not know what we know, that the file he just put away will be the beginning of a long and terrible ordeal. Of course, even in our imaginary time machine, it's difficult to ignore what we already know. Even Denny, who lived through it, has trouble getting back in his 27-year-old head.

So if you were to go back in time right now to make that decision over again based on the data that you're telling me...

GIOIA: Yeah.

VEDANTAM: ...If you could just go back with your - with more maturity and experience but not necessarily the knowledge of how things turned out for Ford, would you vote differently?

GIOIA: The honest answer is I don't know.

VEDANTAM: I told Duncan Watts about the Ford Pinto story and shared with him Denny's intuition.

Denny's in a situation where he knows something terrible has happened, but the techniques and rules he had to detect problems did not alert him that there was a problem. So he's not quite sure right now whether to abandon his rules or to, you know, accept that sometimes good rules lead to bad consequences.

WATTS: If you accept the process that they had at the time as the right process, then I think I agree with him. Right? Like, you know, it's very hard for him to unlearn what he knows now. But, you know, he can't for sure say that he would've made a different decision because he believes that they had a good process. And it just happens to be a good process that didn't work in that particular case.

VEDANTAM: All of this begs the question - how much do we really understand about the past? How much can we understand? According to Duncan, not much. That's why he advocates for something called epistemic humility.

WATTS: We should be humble about what we think we know and even humble about what we can know. And I think that if we just were more comfortable with not knowing the answers to things, we would be less confident about the answers that we come up with and we would be less inclined to make confident predictions based on really shaky assumptions, right? And I believe that would help us to avoid some particularly damaging overreaches associated with hubris.

VEDANTAM: But where does that leave us? What do we do once we realize we don't know as much about the past as we think we do? In a world shaped by epistemic humility, we would commission reports and launch congressional inquiries not just when things go wrong but also when they go right. We would see that good outcomes can sometimes be produced by bad systems. We would ask how we can fix problems that haven't happened. We might also be more humble when it comes to confident conclusions when things go wrong. Yes, it's easy, pleasurable even, to blame our political opponents or our rivals when tragedy strikes. But it would be more honest to acknowledge that the choices that led to bad outcomes were made in the context of confusion and doubt. The uncertainty we all experience when we think about the future, that same confusion was experienced by people in the past.

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VEDANTAM: This week's show was produced by Cat Schuknecht and Parth Shah. It was edited by Tara Boyle and Rhaina Cohen. Our team includes Laura Kwerel, Jenny Schmidt and Thomas Lu, engineering support from Joshua Newell.

Our unsung hero this week is Erin Register. Erin is an associate project manager at NPR, but her business cards should probably read person who makes things happen. Erin is the person who brings together different teams from across NPR to make sure the launch of new shows and other big projects go smoothly. Her job is one part herding cats, one part people management - both difficult tasks that she handles beautifully. Thanks so much for everything you've done to help us at HIDDEN BRAIN, Erin.

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VEDANTAM: For more HIDDEN BRAIN, you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter. If you like this episode, please be sure to share it with a friend.

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VEDANTAM: I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

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