The illusion of causality
By Shahram Heshmat Ph.D.
We humans generally aren’t great at reasoning objectively about uncertainty as we go about our daily lives. We have a universal desire to find meanings and patterns everywhere. Humans are evolutionarily programmed to try to look for patterns because that is how we navigate the world around us, and to some small degree, control it.
Random events can’t explain why things happen. The urge for explanations is automatic. When an unpredicted event occurs, we immediately come up with explanatory stories that are simple and coherent. Our intuitive mind is the sense-making organ, which sees the world as simple predictable, and coherent. This coherence makes us feel good.
This pattern-seeking tendency is referred to as narrative bias. It is important that we recognize this built-in mental bias. Because events do not come labeled random. Instead, this must be inferred.
Consider the so-called gambler’s fallacy. For example, if a coin comes up heads five times in a row, people will have a powerful sense that the next flip is more likely to come up tails than heads. However, any single flip has an equal chance of coming up heads or tails. Statistical thinking suggests that coin does not have any memory. That is, the coin does not “know” what the previous results were. A flood this year says nothing about whether a flood will happen next year. But the intuitive mind senses that a flood this year means a flood next year is less likely. Our intuition does not grasp the nature of randomness.
Psychologists use the term attributions (or causes) for people’s explanations of the events in their lives. Attribution theory is about how people answer questions beginning with “why?” For example, people may make attributions as to why their lovers left them, or why they are having a problem at school or work. In many cases, causal links are more prevalent in our minds than in reality. That is, we manufacture our own reality. The attributions that people make for an event influence their reactions to it. An alcoholic may be happy to tell himself he “just cannot help it” in order to have an excuse for persisting.
People make attributions that are biased in a self-serving direction. In general, we take credit when we think we performed well more than when we think we performed poorly. However, it is not always obvious whether our success at a task was due to something we did or to chance. As saying goes, “even a broken clock is right twice a day.” The world is complex and appearance fools us. A lot of what happens to us (e.g., success in our career, our life choices) is as much the result of random factors as the result of preparedness and hard work.
Overcoming this error can be liberating. For example, first-year college students who are told that most freshmen do poorly but that their grades subsequently improve, in fact do somewhat better in later years than those who are not given this information. The latter are more likely to attribute their poor performance to their ability (trait) than to the unfamiliar and distracting college environment (ignoring situational factors). Not believing they can do better, they are less motivated.
There is an upside to storytelling. Narrative can be therapeutic. It helps us to see past events as more predictable, more expected, and less random than they actually were. For example, breakups are less painful if you can devalue or vilify the ex, and if you want to disturb yourself, then the person you had doubts about three weeks ago can quickly become the One Who Got Away. Psychologist James Pennebaker uses writing as tool for healing. Patients who spend fifteen minutes every day writing an account of their daily troubles feel indeed better about what has befallen them. Things appear as if they were bound to happen. An important part of therapy is to help patients with troubled past to reframe their memories in more beneficial perspectives. People who dwell endlessly on their annoying problems may only make matters worse.