Strategy. Innovation. Brand.


Effect and Cause

Is it clean yet?

Is it clean yet?

I worry about cause and effect. If you get them backwards, you wind up chasing your tail. While you’re at it, you can create all kinds of havoc.

Take MS (please). We have long thought of multiple sclerosis as an autoimmune disease. The immune system interprets myelin – the fatty sheath around our nerves – as a threat and attacks it. As it eats away the myelin, it also impairs our ability to send signals from our brain to our limbs. The end result is often spasticity or even paralysis.

We don’t know the cause but the effect is clearly the malfunctioning immune system. Or maybe not. Some recent research suggests that a bacterium may be involved. It may be that the immune system is reacting appropriately to an infection. The myelin is simply an innocent bystander, collateral damage in the antibacterial attack.

The bacterium involved is a weird little thing. It’s difficult to spot. But it’s especially difficult to spot if you’re not looking for it. We may have gotten cause and effect reversed and been looking for a cure in all the wrong places. If so, it’s a failure of imagination as much as a failure of research. (Note that the bacterial findings are very preliminary, so let’s continue to keep our imaginations open).

Here’s another example: obsessive compulsive disorder. In a recent article, Claire Gillan argues that we may have gotten cause and effect reversed. She summarizes her thesis in two simple sentences: “Everybody knows that thoughts cause actions which cause habits. What if this is the wrong way round?”

As Gillan notes, we’ve always assumed that OCD behaviors were the effect. It seemed obvious that the cause was irrational thinking and, especially, fear. We’re afraid of germs and, therefore, we wash our hands obsessively. We’re afraid of breaking our mother’s back and, therefore, we avoid cracks in the sidewalk. Sometimes our fears are rooted in reality. At other times, they’re completely delusional. Whether real or delusional, however, we’ve always assumed that our fears caused our behavior, not the other way round.

In her research on OCD behavior, Gillan has made some surprising discoveries. When she induced new habits in volunteers, she found that people with OCD change their beliefs to explain the new habit. In other words, behavior is the cause and belief is the effect.

Traditional therapies for OCD have sought to address the fear. They aimed to change the way people with OCD think. But perhaps traditional therapists need to change their own thinking. Perhaps by changing the behaviors of people with OCD, their thinking would (fairly naturally) change on its own.

This is, of course, quite similar to the idea of confabulation. With confabulation, we make up stories to explain the world around us. It gives us a sense of control. With OCD – if Gillan is right – we make up stories to explain our own behavior. This, too, gives us a sense of control.

Now, if we could just get cause and effect straight, perhaps we really would have some control.

Success and Serendipity

Anything could happen.

Anything could happen.

Carl von Clausewitz, the renowned German military strategist, wrote that “No campaign plan survives first contact with the enemy.” It’s good to plan, organize, and coordinate but remember that the enemy will always do something unexpected. Resilience – the ability to react to new realities and change direction as needed – is probably the single most important variable in battlefield success.

Clausewitz, of course, was focused on war planning. At the risk of being presumptuous, I’d like to paraphrase the thought: No business plan survives first contact with reality. As in warfare, it’s good to plan ahead. But don’t stick to the plan blindly. Be observant and pragmatic. As you learn more about reality, adjust the plan accordingly and do it quickly.

We all like to make predictions, of course, but reality intervenes. Odd things happen. Weird coincidences occur. As we learned a few weeks ago, we all confabulate. We make up stories to explain what happened in the past. By understanding the past, we should be able to control the future.

Unfortunately, the stories we confabulate about the past are never completely true. Too many things happen serendipitously. We may think that X caused Y but reality is much more complicated and counter-intuitive. Another German, Georg W.F. Hegel probably said it best: “History teaches us nothing except that it teaches us nothing.”

If we can’t predict the future, why bother to write a business plan at all? Because it’s useful to lay out all the variables, understand how they inter-relate, and tell a story about the future. Once you have a story, you can adjust it. You can tell how closely your thinking relates to reality and change your plans accordingly. It’s like tailoring a new set of clothes. Following a pattern will get you close to a good fit. But you’ll need several fittings – a nip here, a tuck there – to make the ensemble fit perfectly.

This approach to planning also emphasizes the importance of serendipity. My favorite definition of serendipity is “…an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident.” If you could predict the future accurately, you wouldn’t need serendipity – you would simply follow the plan. Since you can’t predict the future, you need to promote serendipity as part of your plan.

How do you promote serendipity? The simple answer is that you do new things. Talk to different people. Take a different route to work. Study a new language. Travel to a new country. Take a course in a new discipline. Don’t ever assume that you know what you’re doing. Remember what Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” Never let an accident go to waste.

Liar, Liar, Confabulator

Uh oh. His lips are moving.

Uh oh. His lips are moving.

How can you tell when humans are lying? Their lips move.

It’s not necessarily the case that we lie with the intent to deceive or defraud. It’s just that many of the stories that come out of our mouths simply aren’t true. You can call it non-malicious fabricated storytelling. More generally, it’s called confabulation.

Neurologists originally thought confabulation resulted from mental deficits caused by injuries or strokes or dementia. People with such deficits might tell entirely cohesive stores that were simply not true. Some people might recall old memories and assume that they were fresh and current. Others might invent stories to explain their physical limitations like blindness or paralysis. In Oliver Sack’s well-known book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, the man in question mis-identified not only his wife but most everyone he met.

The more we study confabulation, the more we recognize that “normal” people do it as well. We all have an innate desire to connect the dots. We want to explain how things happen and why. We want to be able to say that X caused Y and – if it was true in the past – it should also be true in the future.

The more we can construct effective stories about the past, the more we believe we can control the future. This gives us a sense of confidence and security. But, of course, we can’t predict the future. (Experts are especially bad at it). I wonder if our inability to predict the future doesn’t result from confabulation. We confabulate the past and, therefore, the future.

Here’s a little thought experiment. If you see five similar objects arrayed left to right, which one do you prefer? In the absence of distinguishing information, people tend to pick the object on the right. Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson used this bias in an early study of “normal” confabulation. The study simulated a consumer survey and asked subjects to pick an item of apparel from a left-to-right array of four items that were essentially the same.

Nisbett and Wilson noted that, “… the right-most object in the array was heavily over chosen.” This was expected; it’s normal behavior. However, when the researchers asked people why they chose a particular object, they gave all kinds of answers that had nothing to do with position. In other words, they were confabulating even under perfectly normal conditions.

Similarly, I have a story that explains my career. I have an explanation for why I was promoted in a certain case and not in another. I can explain how I got from Job A to Job G in a very linear, logical fashion. But do I really know these things? Am I really sure what caused what? Do I really know why the boss made a given decision? No, I don’t. But I can make up a good story.

The only way to prove cause-and-effect is through an experiment. I would have to replicate myself and run the two versions of me in parallel. I obviously can’t do that, so I’ve made up a convenient story. It seems plausible; it works for me. But is it true? Even I don’t know.

Confabulation happens before and beneath our consciousness. Nisbett and Wilson cite George Miller: “It is the result of thinking, not the process of thinking, that appears spontaneously in our consciousness.” We can’t readily control confabulation because we don’t know it’s happening. We only see the results.

When you ask someone a question like, Why did you choose your career? (or your spouse, or your suit, etc.), you’ll likely get a plausible answer. But is it true? Even the speaker can’t know for sure. Can it help us understand the past and predict the future? Probably not.

For a good overview of confabulation, see Helen Phillips’ article in New Scientist.

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