Beware of inventing a simple cause for every effect

by Sunny Bindra on December 22, 2013 · 7 comments

in 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.

Related posts:

  1. To understand success and failure, try visiting the graveyard
  2. Sleep deprivation will cost your business
  3. New leaders: Beware the “Pumbavu Effect”
  4. Don’t give up – success may be just around the corner
  5. Are we April Fools all year round?

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Emmanuel Were December 22, 2013 at 12:17 pm

Good analysis. It reminds me “We are only sure when we know nothing,”

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2 Economist Gilbert Tochi December 22, 2013 at 12:23 pm

Amazing article

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3 Muthoni Wathuta December 22, 2013 at 5:49 pm

Much needed pointers for thought. I’m studying this reality from the perspective of HIV intervention and it couldn’t be clearer…

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4 Chandesh Parekh December 23, 2013 at 12:05 pm

Is it that there is increasingly a lack of context applied to such ‘wisdom’ so widely available?

I recall a recent management ‘pep’ talk about why Apple succeeds and why we, the business, should emulate them.
Reduced to only 3 three broad points (obviously straight from a book or blog post), there was no contextual information provided to help us understand how a business that is
1. In a different sector;
2. Without a charismatic ‘messiah’ figure innovating & driving the business;
3. Lacks any company culture;
4. Is a fraction of a fraction of the size of Apple, in every way conceivable;
is supposed to emulate the strategy & operations of one of the most successful companies of all time.

Needless to say management did not score any points that day and in fact resulted in further lack of confidence.

If however there had been an attempt to translate these points into actual strategy then it would have been received with more warmth and acceptance.

[Reply]

Sunny Bindra Reply:

Chandesh:

Indeed so. People are looking for simple generic checklists for success, when the reality is way more complicated and singular. You can’t just mimic blindly. But the story sells to the feeble minded.

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5 george I. December 24, 2013 at 9:45 am

“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.” we read these autobios because you want to know what others did to succeed. these people were once like ‘us’ before their success, what did they do right..we don’t necessarily want to mimic, success stories are rich food for the brain, and most if not all of them put it down to hard work and some luck, sometimes. So I don’t really see your point with the highlighted paragraph..

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6 Steve M. December 28, 2013 at 1:57 am

Sometimes I have to ask myself, why do we Kenyans always comment the same way about articles? It’s always one of ‘good article’, ‘excellent read’ or ‘I agree 100% with you’.

People need to be a bit more analytical here, because I think what the author wants most is healthy debate rather than affirmation of his writing prowess.

Excellent read though, ha ha!

[Reply]

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