Sometimes the universe repeats its message until I finally get it…that’s the case with cause and effect relationships?
Years ago I read a book entitled Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky in which he said:
“…judgment must be made in the context of the times in which the action occurred and not from any other chronological vantage point.”
In essence he’s saying that we can’t judge prior acts (history) based on what we know today. What we surmise today to be the cause and effect may be, and often is, different than the cause/effect that existed at that the time.
Nassim Taleb extends this thought to say that much of what happens is random…that there often is no cause/effect relationship. In his book, The Black Swan, cites William Shirer’s Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941, as an example of “history” being recorded in real time…without the benefit of prophecy or historical perspective.
In other words, whenever we look forward (project into the future) or look backward (attempt to explain history), we subconsciously fit the facts to accommodate our need to make cause and effect connections.
You may be wondering “So what?”
In our attempts to “make sense” (cause/effect) of a situation, we incorporate our beliefs which removes objectivity from our analysis. This happens on the subconscious level which means we aren’t even aware of what we’re doing.
You can see evidence of this bias everywhere. For years I watched the Nightly Business Report and heard the commentators say “The market was down on profit-taking.”
I always wondered “How do they know? Who did they survey? Is it possible that everyone who sold made a profit?” The reality is that they were striving to explain a down market when they had little if any information available to make that determination.
I saw similar “reports” in the business press when they reported that a Fortune 500 company lost market share. They made the announcement without ever defining which market it was and whether the company should have been in that market to begin with.
How many “reports” have we seen that this or that food helps us lose weight or reduces the risk for cancer without ever indicating how the results were obtained or what quantity needed to be consumed to get that result. I recall being told that green tea is high in antioxidants and should be consumed each day.
What I discovered when I read the label on the inside of the box of green tea is that I’d have to consume at least 10 cups a day to achieve the level of antioxidants needed to produce the result. How realistic is that?
The problem with bias blindness is that we continue to make bad decisions and repeat them because we’re unaware of the bias we are blindly accepting. In other words, if the explanation makes sense we tend to accept it. Mistakes made, and often repeated, because of cause/effect assumptions ultimately have the effect of shaking our confidence. We find ourselves saying “Why bother, I’ve been wrong so often in the past?” I have not been immune to this sentiment.
So what’s the alternative?
The key is to look for incongruities. Look for differences between what people say they want and what they’re actually doing, what they believe and how they behave, their explanation and what you’re observing.
The stock market may simply be down…with no apparent reason at all. Implicit in market share headlines is the message that the company is struggling when in fact they exited a market that is no longer profitable which is precisely what they should be doing.
I’m sure that some of you are thinking, that’s a lot of work. It may be initially, but the more you challenge what you’re being told the easier it becomes until it’s virtually automatic. That’s when it becomes fun. You see how ridiculous attempts at defining cause/effect often are. This ability will not only enhance your influence, it will help you attract opportunities instead of pursuing them.
As you gain influence and attract opportunities, you gain confidence, act more confidently and enjoy greater success. That’s a huge difference from the result when we blindly accept others’ perceptions of cause and effect.
When someone tells you something or you hear a “news” story with a cause/effect relationship, ask yourself “What other possible explanations exist? What you’ll quickly discover is that there are a number of plausible explanations.
From this insight you’ll learn that the cause isn’t important. What’s important is knowing how you’re going to deal with it now that it has occurred. The less time you spend trying to figure out why something happened and more time thinking about how to deal with it, the more successful you’re going to be.
It’s easier to adopt this mindset when you realize that you’re often wrong in identifying causes. I know how often I was wrong on the why and how much more quickly I am able to help clients get what they want when I focus on what to do rather than why something happened.
Train your mind to look for incongruities. It’ll help you identify what needs to be done. That’s what’s truly important…not the cause.
For our kids
Help the kids in your life realize that looking for explanations is natural, but counterproductive. Use questions to help them focus their attention on solutions instead of causes and they’ll quickly discover that they have the power to deal with anything that comes their way.
Their confidence will grow exponentially when they no longer worry about the cause and focus on getting a result.