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New Intelligence eLearning

The blame trap

30 October 2013

Busting open the myth of cause and effect

Our Perception of the world is simply the process the body undertakes in order to build a ‘structure’ out of the myriad sensations that we take in every day.   That structure allows the brain to hold information in a memory-efficient way.  If that structure also corresponds with reality, then we perceive a given situation correctly.

But the structure that each individual builds is influenced heavily by a number of Biases, which ultimately determine the accuracy of our perception.  One of these biases we have to overcome if we are to make sound decisions is the bias of Cause / Effect.

If events are linked closely together in time, along with a perceivable connection between a person and the result, then we will generally say that the end event was caused by the first event, through the causal link.  

Many of us have experienced a computer keyboard which has slowed down to the point where the letters do not appear on the screen until more than ¼ of a second after we hit the key with our finger.  That delay time is enough to stop us being able to use the keyboard because we no longer perceive the cause/effect which should be there.  We don’t feel as though the keyboard is a causal link from our fingers to the screen.

Here’s a quick practical example of how it works:  Close your eyes.  Imagine yourself swinging a hammer down onto the head of an imaginary nail that you are holding.  Now imagine that you missed the nail and hit your thumb.  Apart from the surprising vague sensation of pain that some of you now feel in your thumb (and some of you flinched away from the computer screen) you could ask yourself “What happened?”  

In order to show cause and effect we typically use the words “I missed.”  or “I misjudged the blow”.  

But what if the hammer wasn’t there?  Imagine the same situation but go through the same movement of banging a hammer, imagining the hammer was not there.  Different result, and yes, it feels silly.  Your hand movement, striking up and down in mid-air, didn’t cause any pain in your thumb.

This is a classic example of the human brain working backwards from a secondary event, (pain in thumb) through a linking relationship (stupid hammer) to a primary causal event (clumsy human).  In this case it is a correct causal link, but the hammer is not stupid.

The third factor, impacting on our tendency to attribute cause to something or someone who happens to be nearby and doing something at the same time, is our tendency to link disparate events happening around us.  We have a tendency to take in all that is happening around us and turn it into a narrative, so we can navigate through the world.  Whether we perceive two events as causally related is affected by what else is going on around us. 

Example:  John swung the hammer, but was distracted by a dog running across the road, and so missed the nail, causing him pain.

The brain doesn’t work with coincidences.  If something looks like it was caused by something else, happens at around the same time as another event, and seems like it has a connection between the two events (even loosely) your body will get a feeling that the two are connected, leading to a very powerful belief in that causation.

The key to getting past this Bias is to openly ask yourself the one important question:  Can I find any evidence that the two are not causally linked?  (Called Testing a Hypothesis). 


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