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Enhancing Organizational Performance

Cause and Effect

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“Maybe she sat on the couch, on the same exact spot he had sat upon and that is how she got pregnant”? So hypothesized my young daughter on discussing how one person she knew may have conceived. What is very interesting about her comment, after the smile that is brings, is that she knows it is not possible to conceive that way. She is an avid fan of the Discovery and Science channels and watches all shows that have anything to do with how babies, whether human or another animal, are conceived and born. So why would she have responded that way?

Prior to making that hypothesis she had a conversation with my wife regarding this pregnancy. She was curious how it was possible since this person she knew was not yet married and so did not fit her definition of when babies were to be conceived. In her world babies were conceived when two individuals got married and began living together. Her notions did not fit this new situation and hence she was looking for a new answer as to how it might have happened, even if the answer was one she knew was incorrect.

Cause and effect, what causes what? That is a sometimes very difficult question to answer, especially when the answers staring at you may not fit your preconceived notions or cherished beliefs.  

Did you know that there is a relationship between going to the hospital and dying? Yes, there is a tendency for those who are rushed to the hospital, especially by ambulance to die. The casual observer to this relationship could conclude that the last thing you want to do, especially if you are really sick is go to the hospital. Because people who are really sick and go to the hospital have this nasty tendency of expiring. Does going to the hospital in and of itself cause the expiration? No of course not, but the potential to draw erroneous conclusions from that causal relationship is there. There is a concentration of very sick people in hospitals, who have a greater chance of expiring due to their various illnesses and not do to their physical location. I could look at another relationship, the percentage of very sick people who go the hospital and recover vs. the percentage of similarly ill people who don’t go to the hospital and recover and draw very different conclusions.

Observers to causal relationships have been drawing erroneous conclusions for millennia. The phenomenon is exacerbated tremendously when we are observing things that are beyond our comprehension. Arthur C. Clark, the noted science fiction writer and physicist stated that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. I would add “for those who do not understand the technology or the naturally occurring event they are witnessing”. The implication for his statement in this context is that erroneous conclusions could be draw from an observer to an event, attributing the event to “magic”, rather than understanding the advanced form of technology being observed.

A casual observer to an oil drilling platform, one who is completely ignorant of geology, upon seeing the oil rushing out of a newly drilled well, might assume that the Earth, under it’s top layer, is floating on a sea of oil. All you have to do to get at this oil is drill a sufficiently deep hole. If this observer needed some oil of their own and had the resources, based on that limited knowledge, they might conceivable rush around drilling holes here and there, wondering why the drill holes were not gushing with oil. 

So how can we draw correct conclusions from the events we observe? One approach is the scientific one which involves using experimental design with control groups to try to tease out cause and effect, but even then the room for various interpretations, partly due to the limitations of field vs. laboratory experimental design, can be large. For instance, cigarette companies for years put up a strong defense based upon their own “scientific” studies, arguing that the evidence that smoking caused cancer was just not there, was not proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. Meanwhile millions of people died.

Today similar debates rage around global warming. Do mankind’s activities have enough of an impact on the Earth to cause global climate change or are the changes we are currently seeing simply natural patterns? Part of the flaw in asking the question that way is that it assumes that the answer is one way or the other. Either humans are having an effect or they are not and either we are seeing a natural pattern or not. Maybe we are seeing a natural pattern that is exacerbated by human actions, or humans are having a tremendous impact that is exacerbated by a natural pattern. The question in my mind is largely irrelevant (see Virtuous and Deleterious Cycles) and by the time the definitive answer is known it will likely be too late to prevent a looming catastrophe regardless of the cause. In this case it would seem to be only prudent to limit to a minimum the emissions we as a species emit.

In the world of business cause and effect are often just as muddied; sometimes on purpose to serve a political agenda, sometime due to the limitations of the person doing the interpretation and sometimes due to legitimate differences of opinion. Upon entering a situation where the cause and effect must be divined in order to solve issues, the very first step in helping you draw conclusions is to put off drawing hasty conclusions. Often times in the rush to judgment (I am talking about a real rush to judgment, not the people who want to take a wait and see approach to climate change), people take positions before all or enough of the information is in, positions which may simply become hardened if those people are challenged by differing opinions (after all if I change my opinion I am admitting that I made an initial error, something that cognitive dissonance makes difficult to do). 

I remember an experiment that described how many interviewers, when interviewing candidates for a job, made up their mind about the potential employee within 30 seconds of beginning the interview (that is a rush to judgment). The most effective interviewer training was to train the interviewer to delay their decision making and judgment calls about the candidate for as long as possible into the interview time period, the longer the delay the higher the quality of the final decision.

The human tendency to rush to judgment, to quickly categorize and our sometimes gullibility has been utilized by others, in fact has been counted upon, to shape our opinions. Advertisers count on it when they imply in their ads that all you have to do is use their product and you too will look like the models they employ, or become more attractive, lose weight, or make money on real estate, or advance your career, or never have to buy another kitchen utensil etc.  Politicians count on it when they imply that the effects we desire in our nation can be achieved by signing onto their cause and voting for them.

One trend that I have noticed is the increasing use of “scientific studies” to create credibility around the cause and effect relationship, scientific studies that are anything but. The notion of simply labeling something “scientific” is that it gives instant credibility (however at the same time it can give legitimate science a bad name). Even in the world of survey research I come across work that makes broad generalizations about populations, about cause and effect without proper design or sufficient “n” to justify the conclusions drawn.

The list of individuals and organizations who try to manipulate our understanding of cause and effect goes on and on. I wonder then, given the assault we are constantly under is our ability to determine what is really going on diminished?  So maybe she did sit on that couch, on that exact same spot that he did, but that is not how she got pregnant. (I am pretty sure.) Better not touch any dirty door knobs, you could have twins.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 26, 2009 at 12:48 am

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