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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
Ross Pomeroy is an assistant editor at RealClearScience.

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