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Beware of inventing a simple cause for every effect

Dec 22, 2013 Success, Sunday Nation

Here’s a scene from one of my favourite comic strips: Dilbert’s ‘pointy-haired boss’ walks in looking sleepy and bedraggled. He tells everyone that he’s started sleeping very few hours every night, because he read that some of the most famous geniuses in history slept just four hours per night.

That’s ridiculous, right? But what if I tell you that the fallacy being committed here is one that most us are guilty of, every day?

The comic strip took me back to another favourite, the highly thought-provoking book ‘The Black Swan’ by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In that tome, Taleb pointed out that most of the human race is guilty of what he calls ‘the narrative fallacy:’ the tendency to oversimplify things in order to deal with them. We like every effect to have a cause; we like to hear a convincing story about why something happened. We are uncomfortable with complexity and uncertainty, and our response to this discomfort is to spin tales of causation. Even where no simple cause exists, we end up inventing one.

Back to Dilbert’s boss. Is it the case that working long hours (and sleeping less than ordinary mortals) leads to success? There are at least two problems with this. First, we may be confusing correlation for causation. Even if ‘sleeping less’ frequently occurs with ‘succeeding’, it is not clear what the line of causation is. Could it not equally be the case that ‘succeeding’ causes those who do well to sleep less, as they become more and more engrossed in their work?

And what happens to the people who succeed wildly, but sleep a sound and healthy eight hours every night? Rest assured, they exist: but what will we do with that evidence when we encounter it? That brings up a second cognitive problem that humans commonly exhibit: ‘confirmation bias.’ We are actually less interested in unearthing the truth than we are in wanting our pre-set prejudices confirmed. So those who sleep very little every night and are proud of this will always look for evidence of other such successful people; sound sleepers will do the opposite.

Humans are storytellers. Something in our brain wants to weave narrative flow: this, because that. We want to look at a string of facts and ascribe a cause, or force what Taleb called the ‘arrow of relationship’ onto them. And if the story confirms our view of the world, we will tell it again and again, and ignore opposing tales.

We must all become aware of this tendency in ourselves. Everyone’s at it. A parent is quick to ascribe a child’s sudden illness to an apparently obvious cause. Often, the diagnosis reveals more about that parent’s biases than anything else, and can result in a painful period of wrong treatment for the child. Doctors are often no better, concluding their cast-iron diagnoses on a minute’s examination of a patient.

In the corporate world, we are full of narrative fallacies. We reduce business success to a handful of good practices. We read autobiographies of the rich and famous in order to mimic their habits, and therefore their triumphs. We avoid complexity, and want to trade in easy stories.

It doesn’t work, people. We’re just dumbing it all down. Success is complicated at best, random at worst. And yet we find even the most educated thinkers touting their cause-and-effect theories with absolute conviction, on the flimsiest of evidence.

Once you’ve made enough of these narrative errors, I hope you will realise the following: that jumping to easy conclusions won’t help you understand the world; that you must remain open-minded and circumspect, even when all around you seem cocksure; that you must seek evidence, not feed your biases; that you must view your own experience, not just rely on the narratives of others. And still be painfully wrong.

Absolute certainty is the hallmark of a fool, not a sage.

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