Menus Subscribe Search
causation

(PHOTO: ULLRICH/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Creatures of Coherence: Why We’re So Obsessed With Causation

• April 19, 2013 • 10:00 AM

(PHOTO: ULLRICH/SHUTTERSTOCK)

We default to cause-and-effect thinking because we want to maintain control over our lives, but some things just don’t have clear answers.

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on RealClearScience, a Pacific Standard partner site.

“We are pattern seekers, believers in a coherent world, in which regularities appear not by accident but as a result of mechanical causality or of someone’s intention.”

Daniel Kahneman’s words ring true for all of us; humans are creatures of causality. We like effects to have causes, and we detest incoherent randomness. Why else would the quintessential question of existence give rise to so many sleepless nights, endear billions to religion, or single-handedly fuel philosophy?

This predisposition for causation seems to be innate. In the 1940s, psychologist Albert Michotte theorized that “we see causality, just as directly as we see color,” as if it is omnipresent. To make his case, he devised presentations in which paper shapes moved around and came into contact with each other. When subjects—who could only see the shapes moving against a solid-colored background—were asked to describe what they saw, they concocted quite imaginative causal stories.

For example, if Michotte moved a blue paper ball up to a red one, then immediately moved the red one in the same direction that the blue ball was heading, most observers would say that the blue ball hit the red one and caused it to move. Makes sense. However, in another scenario, Michotte showed observers a large red paper ball and a small blue ball that were separated by a short distance, then began moving them in unison. Instead of saying that the balls were moving independently of each other, the vast majority of observers said that the red ball was chasing the blue ball, as if the red ball was a big evil predator, and the blue ball its prey. Michotte tried many other scenarios, and almost regardless of what the shapes did, their interactions were described in a manner of cause and effect. (Click on the above link for a terrific animation of Michotte’s test.)

Others who have replicated Michotte’s test have discerned similar results. “Experiments have shown that six-month-old infants see the sequence of events as a cause-effect scenario, and they indicate surprise when the sequence is altered,” Kahneman writes. “We are evidently ready from birth to have impressions of causality.”

Our fixation with causality can be witnessed everywhere. One of the best places to find it is in sports. Athletes commonly perform above or below their expected levels of performance, and when they do, highly-paid commentators are quick to offer causal explanations, regardless of whether there is evidence to support such assessments. According to Kahneman:

A well known example is the ‘Sports Illustrated jinx,’ the claim that an athlete whose picture appears on the cover of the magazine is doomed to perform poorly the following season. Overconfidence and the pressure of meeting high expectations are often offered as explanations. But there is a simpler account of the jinx: an athlete who gets to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated must have performed exceptionally well in the preceding season, probably with the assistance of … luck—and luck is fickle.

Beyond sports, one can simply look to the stock market for additional examples of our causation fixation run amok. Each day, numerous indices—the NASDAQ, the S&P 500, the Dow, the Nikkei, etc.—move up and down, and every downturn, every upswing, is attributed to something, whether it’s solid jobs data, poor consumer confidence, boosted home sales, troubles in Europe, or a captivating news story.

Nassim Taleb noted how ridiculous this is in his book The Black Swan. In the hours after former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was captured on December 13, 2003, Bloomberg News blared the headline, “U.S. TREASURIES RISE; HUSSEIN CAPTURE MAY NOT CURB TERRORISM.” Thirty minutes later, bond prices retreated and Bloomberg altered their headline: “U.S. TREASURIES FALL; HUSSEIN CAPTURE BOOSTS ALLURE OF RISKY ASSETS.” A more correct headline might have been: “U.S. TREASURIES FLUCTUATE AS THEY ALWAYS DO; HUSSEIN CAPTURE HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THEM WHATSOEVER,” but that isn’t what editors want to post, nor what people want to read.

“In fact, all the headlines do is satisfy our need for coherence: a large event is supposed to have consequences, and consequences need causes to explain them,” Kahneman argues.

This trend doesn’t merely manifest itself for stocks or large events. Take scientific studies, for example. Many of the most sweeping findings, ones normally reported in large media outlets, originate from associative studies that merely correlate two variables—television watching and death, for example. Yet headlines—whose functions are partly to summarize and primarily to attract attention—are often written as “X causes Y” or “Does X cause Y?” (I have certainly been guilty of writing headlines in the latter style). In turn, the general public usually treats these findings as cause-effect, despite the fact that there may be no proven causal link between the variables. The article itself might even mention the study’s correlative, not causative, nature, and this still won’t change how it is perceived. Co-workers across the world will still congregate around coffee machines the next day, chatting about how watching The Kardashians is killing you, albeit very slowly.

Humanity’s need for concrete causation likely stems from our unceasing desire to maintain some iota of control over our lives. That we are simply victims of luck and randomness may be exhilarating to a madcap few, but it is altogether discomforting to most. By seeking straightforward explanations at every turn, we preserve the notion that we can always affect our condition in some meaningful way. Unfortunately, that idea is a facade. Some things don’t have clear answers. Some things are just random. Some things simply can’t be controlled.

Ross Pomeroy

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


July 29 • 6:00 AM

What Are the Benefits of Locking Yourself in a Tank and Floating in Room-Temperature Saltwater?

After three sessions in an isolation tank, the answer’s still not quite clear.


July 29 • 4:00 AM

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays.


July 29 • 2:00 AM

Geographic Scale and Talent Migration: Washington, D.C.’s New Silver Line

Around the country, suburbs are fighting with the urban core over jobs and employees.


July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?


July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


July 28 • 11:11 AM

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.


July 28 • 10:00 AM

Hell Isn’t for Real

You may have seen pictures of the massive crater in Siberia. It unfortunately—or fortunately—does not lead to the netherworld.


July 28 • 8:00 AM

Why Isn’t Obama More Popular?

It takes a while for people to notice that things are going well, particularly when they’ve been bad for so long.


July 28 • 7:45 AM

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.


July 28 • 6:00 AM

Hams Without Ends and Cats Tied to Trees: How We Create Traditions With Dubious Origins

Does it really matter if the reason for why you give money to newlyweds is based on a skewed version of a story your parents once told you?


July 28 • 4:00 AM

A Belief in ‘Oneness’ Is Equated With Pro-Environment Behavior

New research finds a link between concern for the environment and belief in the concept of universal interconnectedness.


July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.