Sunday, April 29, 2012

Our Causal Mind

Causal (not to be confused with “casual”) is a word that is not often used or heard in our daily life.  Yet the word describes a concept that is deeply imbedded in our minds and influences how you and I behave all the time.  Looking up the dictionary, you will find that the word causal means ”relating to or arising from a cause and the noun causality (and causation) is about the cause-effect relationship of events.  That is, these words describe the familiar notion that one event (the effect) is a consequence of another event or set of events (the cause). 
Don’t we all resist the idea that things/events can happen with no reasons?  Don’t we all like to believe that if we had known every piece of information and actions, then we could have predicted where we would have been?  By the same token but going backward in time, don’t we also naturally feel that given an outcome, it would be possible (at least in principle) to identify what have caused it?   Unfortunately, such feelings and beliefs, while comforting, may not always be correct and sometimes are outright illusionary.  But, since it is practically impossible to replay alternate path completed with all the factors minus the causes, we happily convince ourselves to accept the universality of causation anyway even when it is not certain or true. 

Narrative fallacy (see the book The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb) is a consequence of our causal minds.  We love stories.  Journalists report and write stories of the news events.  In the process of making sense of the events and happenings, we willingly become victims of our “Illusion of Understanding”.  What makes it worse is that according to Professor Daniel Kahneman discusses in his recent book Thinking, Fast and Slow, we also have a remarkable ability in sense-making.  As we attempt to make sense of the world, we usually reconstruct a coherent story after the fact and make sure it is consistent with the outcome.  This is done regardless if one had different beliefs or predictions and psychologists call it hindsight or the outcome bias.   When talking to your aging parents, haven’t you ever wondered where did they get their distorted stories from?  Have you ever realized that one day it is where you will end up to be at too? 

What about experts’ opinions?  Consider the daily headlines of the financial market and sports news.  We are always told reasons why the stock market went up or down and why a pro sport team won or lose, after the fact.   Perhaps we can sympathize with pundits and commentators who are subject to tremendous pressure that they need to explain and predict things for which they are supposed to be the experts.  But professional stock pickers, traders, company CEOs and political leaders are not exempted from this problem either.  Illusion of skills” and downplaying “luck” (or more accurately, chance) is necessary and natural for those who eager to justify their existence and rewards.  We the consumers of these “goods” certainly play a huge role as we provide the insatiable demand for such behaviors.

The truth is that our minds just love and yearn for causal explanations.  Statistics is a useful tool but we don’t seem to handle statistical information and complexity well.  We (well-educated ones included) routinely overlook and ignore the sound advice and logic that CORRELATION DOES NOT IMPLY CAUSATION.  Many glaring traps and examples can be found the health related areas.  When was the last time you heard a claim, a report, or controversy about what may help with an illness or improve your heath?  When was the last time you received tempting information about certain diet supplements or therapy that will make you healthy?  More often than not, such information are either interpreted incorrectly due to ignorance or simply designed to prey on our tendency of substituting causation for correlation, hoping by chance the cure will turn into certainty.

What tops all among our inadequacies is perhaps what Donald Rumsfeld, the former Secretary of Defense, referred to as “there are things we do not know we don’t know” or for short “unknown unknowns” (when he addressed the intelligence challenges early 2002, prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq ).  This is related to the phenomenon what Professor Kahneman called WYSIATI – What You See Is All There.  It is simply impossible to take into account of information that does not even come to your mind because you never knew it is there to begin with!   One trivial consequence of this flaw is we rarely recognize or reward those tremendous efforts that prevented a disaster from happening.  Instead we celebrate heroism in a disaster all the time which is simply the mirror opposite of the former.  Sadly, out of the four quadrants including known knowns, known unknowns, unknown knowns, the quadrant of unknown unknowns is for sure the largest although we will never know how big it really is.

In sum, we misconstrue noisy data and confuse complex, non-sequential events with simple, plausible, time-ordered, causal explanations.  Satisfied with our story, we congratulate ourselves and gladly move on with confidence.  Perhaps such optimism is necessary for evolutionary reasons and survival.  In his recent book, Professor Daniel Kahneman also tells us that our brains are “wired” as two counterbalancing systems feeding and driving each other: a Fast System that is instinctive and responds instantly to received stimuli based on a model; and a Slow System which is deliberate and analytic in digesting the experiences and updating the model used by the Fast System.  The model used by our fast and intuitive system appears to have all the characteristics of a causal one.

Further, our Slow System thinks and pursues answers to the questions of whys and tries to make sense of the world “off-line”.  While it is slow and tend to be lazy (or has a limited energy?), we are lucky that as a social-economic animal, we do share the results and discoveries, and learn from each other.   The most familiar examples can be found in fields of science, engineering and technology.   We wouldn’t be where we are if it weren’t because many have devoted so much of their energy to pursue relentlessly the answers to what’s, why’s and how’s.  

Science is definitely not the only way we make sense of the world.  Spiritual and philosophical approaches are far more popular and prevalent in the history of mankind.  Confronting the difficulty of having satisfactory explanations and the impossibility of knowing and predicting accurately, religion offers a comforting solution.   To begin with, one can find his/her answers by attributing all unexplainables (and sometimes explainables as well) to some supernatural entities (gods).   Abrahamic religions for instance (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) believe in omnipotence that god is in control of everything.  Some take a step further and believe in omnicausality that god is the cause of all things.  Indian religions (Hinduism, Buddhism included) on the other hand, discuss the concept of Karma extensively which is about the cycles of cause-effects.  All these demonstrate just how strong the desire is for a causal model of the world by human.  

Are you as surprised as I am that despite all the flaws and shortcomings, we seem to be doing ok so far?   But do you really think our causal mind is the best design?  

Talk to you soon!

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