The Boy Who Cried Wolf - Another moral to the story


The story:

A shepherd-boy, assigned to watch a flock of sheep, soon became bored with his task,.  So he decided it would be fun to get the sheep owners to come to the flock by yelling "Wolf! Wolf!  Wolf!" 

He did this several time, and then laughed at the hapless villagers each time they came running to drive off the nonexistent wolf.  Nowadays, folks might well accuse the boy of using a "scare" tactic

Eventually, a wolf actually came, and once again the boy cried "Wolf!  Wolf! Wolf!   Please come!  The wolf is killing and eating the sheep!"  But this time, tired of his lies, the villagers did not believe him.  So they did not come.  And the wolf proceeded to destroy the whole flock.

The generally accepted moral of the story: Don't tell lies.

If you lie a lot, no one will believe you when you tell the truth.  So don't tell lies.

But is this the only moral?  Yes, thatís what happens in the story.  The boy cries wolf many times when there is no wolf.  Then when there is a wolf, no one believes him, and the flock is destroyed.  If you stop at this point, with your focus on the boy, the above moral appears to be the lesson in this story.

Who's the real loser? 

The boy?  Well, yes, he loses credibility, and that's not good.  But he's not the only loser.  The real losers are the owners of the sheep.  They decide not to believe him, when heís actually telling the truth, and the wolf destroys the flock.

So here's what we think is another and more important moral of the story: Check for yourself.

Sometimes you have to check for yourself, and if you can't, get others to check for you...or, as we used to say, "Better safe than sorry." 

In other words: Do a reality check and risk analysis, before your decide.

When someone tells you something, donít just decide whether they are telling the truth, or not.  Also decide what the costs, or the risks might be if you believe, or donít believe what youíve been told.  And if you judge the risk and possible cost to be high, check for yourself.  In other words, do a reality check.  And if that doesn't work (remember, sometimes reality is hard to see) consider taking action anyway.

All of this can be especially important when the information is something you don't want to hear.  Don't kill the messenger.

And...remember this: A liar can tell the truth.

Which is, of course, another reason to do a reality check.

Back to the boy who cried wolf:

If someone tells you your flock is at risk, youíre better off believing it, even if it is a lie, on the chance that it is true.  You stand to lose a lot if this one time it is true.  The foolish flock owners didnít take into account the possible risks, and they lost their sheep.

They didnít do a risk analysis, or a cost/benefit analysis.  If the boy had lied about something less risky, like say telling them it was going to rain, they could have decided he was lying without risking a major loss.

And finally, they didn't do a reality check--they didn't go see for themselves

Some final words:

First, we're not dismissing the original moral of the story.  It is a good idea to maintain our credibility.  We're in favor of telling the truth.  In fact, that's part of what motivated us to put up this web site.  We want to peel away misinformation, confusion, and even downright lying in order to see reality.  But when it comes to the story about the boy who cried wolf, we think there's a more important message in the story, one that concerns how we handle risk.

Second, for those who might be interested, saying something is true (e.g., "The wolf is killing the flock"), when it is not true (there is no wolf), is called a "False Positive."  Saying something is not true (e.g., "The boy is lying, there is no wolf") when it is true (there is a wolf) is called a "False Negative."  Either of these can occur when people try to see reality.

To read about Killing the Messenger

To read about False Positives and False Negatives


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