The concept of cause-and-effect is very slippery. We think that A causes B only to find that C really causes both A and B. Or, perhaps it’s really B that causes A. More subtly, A might influence B which turns right around and influences A.
Lately, I’ve been thinking that we’ve been looking at a lot of things from the wrong end of the telescope. Some examples:
Our brain creates us – what creates our personality and the essence of who we are? Why our brains, of course. My brain is the cause; my personality is the effect. Further, the brain is what it is; there’s not much we can do about it. Well…not so fast. Maybe we got it backwards. It turns out that the brain is plastic; we can change it through our habits, actions, and thoughts. In many ways, we create our brains rather than the other way round. Norman Doidge is a leading writer on brain plasticity. You can find his books here and here.
Mutate first; adapt later – our general model of evolution suggests that random mutations happen in our DNA. Mutations that provide a competitive edge are then preserved and passed on. Mutations that aren’t so helpful just fade away. But, according to a recent article in New Scientist, we may have it backwards. Again, plasticity is a key concept. “A growing number of biologists think … plasticity may also play a key role in evolution. Instead of mutating first and adapting later, they argue, animals often adapt first and mutate later.”
I am the master of my fate – I used to believe that I was in control. Now I realize that my System 1 often makes decisions without any input from “me”. Indeed, I don’t even know the decisions are being made. But it’s not just my “primitive brain” that molds my behavior. It’s also how fast my heart beats and how healthy my vagus nerve is. But it’s not even just my body that steers me. It’s also the microbes in my gut. When the microbes team up, they can make me do bizarre things – like eating chocolate. They may even contribute to schizophrenia.
OCD starts with thoughts – we’ve always assumed that irrational thoughts create obsessive compulsive disorder. Irrational thoughts begin in the brain and radiate outward to produce irrational behavior. But, as Clare Gillan points out, we may have it backwards. 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.
The gardener manages the garden – Suellen loves to garden and will spend hours at hard labor under a hot sun. When I see how hard she works, I wonder if she’s managing the flowers or if they’re managing her. It’s not a new thought. The Botany of Desire makes the same point.
What else have we gotten backwards? It’s hard to know. But, as the Heath brothers point out in Decisive, if you believe A causes B, you owe it to yourself to consider the opposite.
Like so many teenagers, I once believed that “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” I could take control, think for myself, and guide my own destiny.
It’s a wonderful thought and I really want to believe it’s true. But I keep finding more and more hidden persuaders that manipulate our thinking in unseen ways. In some cases, we manipulate ourselves by mis-framing a situation. In other cases, other people do the work for us.
Consider these situations and ask yourself: Are you the boss of you?
In The Century of the Self, a British video documentary, Adam Curtis argues that we were hopelessly manipulated in the 20th century by slick followers of Freud who invented public relations. Of course, video is our most emotional and least logical medium. So perhaps Curtis is manipulating us to believe that we’ve been manipulated. It’s food for thought.
(The Century of the Self consists of four one-hour documentaries produced for the BBC. You can watch the first one, Happiness Machines, by clicking here).