Omission vs. Commission

I heard this concept on the Tim Ferriss show – him and Naval Ravikant were talking about early stage investment in startups. As they discussed Naval’s list of startups he missed out on, they delineated between errors of omission and errors of commission. I didn’t get it – this mental model just wasn’t in my vocabulary – so I thought I would look it up.

This recognition of ignorance is something I’ve been working on when reading books and listening to podcasts… simply telling myself IT’S OKAY that you don’t know everything. This is partly inspired by the book Ego Is The Enemy but it’s also reminiscent of a chapter in the book Think Like a Freak:

Learn to say “I don’t know”—for until you can admit what you don’t yet know, it’s virtually impossible to learn what you need to.

So here’s a good explanation of omission vs. commission:

  • An error of commission is acting when action was not warranted – actively doing something wrong. In the case of investing, it’s picking a loser.
  • An error of omission is not acting when action was warranted – failing to actively do something right. In the case of investing, it’s not picking a winner.

While poking around for definitions, I ran across some questions I’d like to explore:

  • When thinking about climate change, there are a lot of people in positions of influence that are almost certainly committing errors of omission – they have the power to act and they aren’t acting. Is it because errors of omission aren’t as frowned upon as errors of commission?
  • This reminds me of the “Trolley Problem” – do you let multiple people die by not acting (omission) or do you act and “kill” one person (commission)? What are the relative moral implications of action vs. inaction?


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