Cautionary Tales – Masterly Inactivity versus Micromanaging

23rd April, 2021

Why parents, politicians and doctors would be wiser to sometimes do nothing.

Lady Sale (played by Helena Bonham Carter) was part of a bloody and ignominious British retreat from Afghanistan in 1842. The arrogant colonial invaders had thought intervening in Afghan affairs and dominating the country would be easy – they were wrong. Lady Sale was among the lucky few to escape with her life.

Wiser heads later recommended “masterly inactivity” as a better course of action. In politics, parenting and even medicine – avoiding the temptation to act is a sadly neglected art form.

Cautionary Tales is written by me, Tim Harford, with Andrew Wright. It is produced by Ryan Dilley and Marilyn Rust.

The sound design and original music is the work of Pascal Wyse. Julia Barton edited the scripts.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Mia Lobel, Jacob Weisberg, Heather Fain, Jon Schnaars, Carly Migliori, Eric Sandler, Emily Rostek, Maggie Taylor, Daniella Lakhan and Maya Koenig.

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Further reading and listening

Essential sources for this episode are William Dalrymple’s Return of a King and Florentia Sale’s Lady Sale’s Afghanistan. Charlotte Mason’s book is School Education.

The Zithromax conversation is here – and here is the Choosing Wisely website.

Schiffrin, H.H., Liss, M., Miles-McLean, H. et al. Helping or Hovering? The Effects of Helicopter Parenting on College Students’ Well-Being. J Child Fam Stud 23, 548–557 (2014).

Lyu H, Xu T, Brotman D, et al. Overtreatment in the United States. PLoS One. 2017;12(9):e0181970. Published 2017 Sep 6. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0181970

Bar Eli, Michael and Azar, Ofer H. and Ritov, Ilana and Keidar-Levin, Yael and Schein, Galit, Action Bias Among Elite Soccer Goalkeepers: The Case of Penalty Kicks. Journal of Economic Psychology, Vol. 28, No. 5, 2007, Available at SSRN:

Christopher Julian Wallace “‘Masterly inactivity’: Lord Lawrence, Britain and Afghanistan, 1864-1879” PhD History Thesis 2014

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