Argument: humans like causation because they like to feel in control

Here is an interesting piece that summarizes some research and concludes that humans like to feel in control and therefore like the idea of causality:

This predisposition for causation seems to be innate. In the 1940s, psychologist Albert Michotte theorized that “we see causality, just as directly as we see color,” as if it is omnipresent. To make his case, he devised presentations in which paper shapes moved around and came into contact with each other. When subjects—who could only see the shapes moving against a solid-colored background—were asked to describe what they saw, they concocted quite imaginative causal stories…

Nassim Taleb noted how ridiculous this is in his book The Black Swan. In the hours after former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was captured on December 13, 2003, Bloomberg News blared the headline, “U.S. TREASURIES RISE; HUSSEIN CAPTURE MAY NOT CURB TERRORISM.” Thirty minutes later, bond prices retreated and Bloomberg altered their headline: “U.S. TREASURIES FALL; HUSSEIN CAPTURE BOOSTS ALLURE OF RISKY ASSETS.” A more correct headline might have been: “U.S. TREASURIES FLUCTUATE AS THEY ALWAYS DO; HUSSEIN CAPTURE HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THEM WHATSOEVER,” but that isn’t what editors want to post, nor what people want to read.

This trend doesn’t merely manifest itself for stocks or large events. Take scientific studies, for example. Many of the most sweeping findings, ones normally reported in large media outlets, originate from associative studies that merely correlate two variables—television watching and death, for example. Yet headlines—whose functions are partly to summarize and primarily to attract attention—are often written as “X causes Y” or “Does X cause Y?” (I have certainly been guilty of writing headlines in the latter style). In turn, the general public usually treats these findings as cause-effect, despite the fact that there may be no proven causal link between the variables. The article itself might even mention the study’s correlative, not causative, nature, and this still won’t change how it is perceived. Co-workers across the world will still congregate around coffee machines the next day, chatting about how watching The Kardashians is killing you, albeit very slowly.Humanity’s need for concrete causation likely stems from our unceasing desire to maintain some iota of control over our lives. That we are simply victims of luck and randomness may be exhilarating to a madcap few, but it is altogether discomforting to most. By seeking straightforward explanations at every turn, we preserve the notion that we can always affect our condition in some meaningful way. Unfortunately, that idea is a facade. Some things don’t have clear answers. Some things are just random. Some things simply can’t be controlled.

I like the reference to Taleb here. His books make just this argument: people want to see patterns when they don’t exist and thus are completely unprepared for changes in the stock market, governments, or the natural world. The trick is to know when you can rely on patterns and when you can’t – and Taleb even has general investment strategies in his most recent book Antifragile that try to minimize loss and try to maximize potential gains.

I wonder if this isn’t lurking behind the discussion of big data: there are scientists and others who seem to suggest that all we need to understand the world is more data and better pattern recognition tools. If only we could get enough, we could figure things out. But, what if the world turns out to be too complex? What if we can’t know everything about the social or natural world? Does this then change our perceptions of human ingenuity and progress?

h/t Instapundit

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