Causality

How We Trick Ourselves Into Believing the Wrong Causes of Any Problems

Do you cringe every time Mercury is in retrograde? Do you avoid leaving your house during the full moon because you find that people act differently during that time? There are so many unpredictable aspects of life that it is tempting to find ways to make sense of our world by making false connections.

We trick ourselves into making connections.

Most people are convinced that the full moon makes other behave strangely even though there is no scientific evidence to support that claim.1 This belief in the connection between two unrelated things is called an illusory-correlation bias.2

We’re all kidding ourselves when we don’t understand the difference between correlation and causation.

Causal analysis can help you determine whether two variables have a relationship base on correlation or causation. Through causal analysis you can identify problems, determine their causes, and develop a plan to correct the situation.3 When two variables correlate, it means that they have a linear relationship.4When you wore your lucky shoes and nailed that job interview, there is a linear relationship between the shoes and the interview.

Causation is the extent to which the two variables depend on one another. When the sun beats down on pavement, we know that the pavement will be warm. The sun causes the temperature of the surface to rise. In this case the sun and the heat of the pavement have both a correlative and a causative relationship. Your lucky shoes didn’t cause you to ace your interview, though.

How can we apply causal analysis to our lives?

Wouldn’t it be nice to understand which variables really led to your success instead of giving all your power to your lucky shoes? Identifying root causes not only enables us to prevent problems, but it can help us understand the great things we are already doing. Maybe on the day of your interview, you were confident, prepared, and passionate. Give yourself some credit!

To use a practical example, causal analysis could show a restaurant manager that the full moon isn’t what led to the rush of uncooperative customers at dinnertime. During that shift, the most inexperienced employees were scheduled to work together on the busiest night of the week, which happened to coincide with the full moon. The food came out slowly, which frustrated the servers. The customers were unhappy because they had to wait, and their dinner got cold in the process.

If the restaurant manager continued to blame the moon, he or she would miss an opportunity to prevent another disastrous night. In the future, the manager might choose…

Why Do We Always Find Ourselves Doom Looping a Mistake?

it’s the friend who keeps falling for the wrong person, the employer who can’t seem to make things better at work, or the individual who won’t stick to a healthy routine, we all know someone caught in a negative cycle. The concept of the vicious cycle is nothing new. In yogic philosophy, the repeating patterns that manifest in our lives are called samskaras.1

Samskaras can be positive or negative. They are reinforced by repetition until they become second nature. Some yogis use the imagery of a butter knife running along a pat of butter as a way to explain samskaras. The knife leaves tiny ridges on the butter, and as you continue to run the knife along the same pattern, the grooves become deeper. When we develop positive patterns, they become easier to maintain over time. When our samskaras are negative, we enter into what is referred to in systems thinking as “doom looping.” Doom looping is as ominous as it sounds–problems compound and initial solutions don’t seem to have a positive effect.

It really isn’t easy at all to get out of a doom loop.

It’s easy to get caught in a vicious cycle. Imagine, for instance, a person trying to lose weight. This person may vow to exercise daily and eat better food. The morning begins full of commitment to the goal of living a healthier lifestyle, but then the person encounters a big pile of doughnuts in the break room at the office. This individual, feeling the mid-afternoon energy-slump that is perpetuated by their unhealthy body and schedule, eats a doughnut or two. He or she gets through the work day on a sugar high, but after arriving home, there’s dinner to cook, the sugar buzz has worn off, and ultimately the person becomes too tired to exercise.

Despite all those good intentions, the individual reinforced a negative pattern that will be harder to break tomorrow. Tomorrow when they get up, they will feel the cumulative effects of poor habits plus their recent failure to stick to a goal. Thus, they have initiated the doom loop.

But breaking the vicious cycle is the only way to stop negativity from coming back.

Employee turnover, poor health, and unhappiness are a handful of the many symptoms of being caught in a doom loop. In some cases, struggle may feel so natural that it is the only condition that people know. The cycle of poverty is a classic example of this.2 Even though people in this situation understand that there are better possibilities, they lack access to them because of a series of compounding factors. This sort of cycle must be broken at a systemic level, and is not likely to be resolved through the power of a single individual.

In other cases, businesses or entities may become reactive to…

Proximate vs Root Causes: Why You Should Keep Digging to Find the Answer

“Anything perceived has a cause.
All conclusions have premises.
ll effects have causes.
All actions have motives.”
— Arthur Schopenhauer

***

The Basics

One of the first principles we learn as babies is that of cause and effect. Infants learn that pushing an object will cause it to move, crying will cause people to give them attention, and bumping into something will cause pain. As we get older, this understanding becomes more complex. Many people love to talk about the causes of significant events in their lives (if I hadn’t missed the bus that day I would never have met my partner! or if I hadn’t taken that class in college I would never have discovered my passion and got my job!) Likewise, when something bad happens we have a tendency to look for somewhere to pin the blame.

The mental model of proximate vs root causes is a more advanced version of this reasoning, which involves looking beyond what appears to be the cause and finding the real cause. As a higher form of understanding, it is useful for creative and innovative thinking. It can also help us to solve problems, rather than relying on band-aid solutions.

Much of our understanding of cause and effect comes from Isaac Newton. His work examined how forces lead to motion and other effects. Newton’s laws explain how a body remains stationary unless a force acts upon it. From this, we can take a cause to be whatever causes something to happen.

For example, someone might ask: Why did I lose my job?

  • Proximate cause: the company was experiencing financial difficulties and could not continue to pay all its employees.
  • Root cause: I was not of particular value to the company and they could survive easily without me.

This can then be explored further: Why was I not of value to the company?

  • Ultimate cause: I allowed my learning to stagnate and did not seek constant improvement. I continued doing the same as I had been for years which did not help the company progress.
  • Even further: Newer employees were of more value because they had more up-to-date knowledge and could help the company progress.

This can then help us to find solutions: How can I prevent this from happening again?

  • Answer: In future jobs, I can continually aim to learn more, keep to date with industry advancements, read new books on the topic and bring creative insights to my work. I will know this is working if I find myself receiving increasing amounts of responsibility and being promoted to higher roles.

This example illustrates the usefulness of this line of thinking. If our hypothetical person went with the proximate cause, they would walk away feeling nothing but annoyance at the company which fired them. By establishing the root causes, they can mitigate the risk of the same thing happening in the future.

There are a number of relevant factors which we must take into account when figuring out root causes. These are known as predisposing factors and can be used to prevent a future repeat of an unwanted occurrence.

Predisposing factors tend to include:

  • The location of the effect
  • The exact nature of the effect
  • The severity of the effect
  • The time at which the effect occurs
  • The level of vulnerability to the effect
  • The cause of the effect
  • The factors which prevented it from being more severe.

Looking at proximate vs root causes is a form of abductive reasoning- a process used to unearth simple, probable explanations. We can use it in conjunction with philosophical razors (such as Occam’s and Hanlon’s) to make smart decisions and choices.

In Root Cause Analysis, Paul Wilson defines root causes as:

Root cause is that most basic reason for an undesirable condition or problem which, if eliminated or corrected, would have prevented it from existing or occurring.

In Leviathan, Chapter XI (1651) Thomas Hobbes wrote:

Ignorance of remote causes disposeth men to attribute all events to the causes immediate and instrumental: for these are all the causes they perceive…Anxiety for the future time disposeth men to inquire into the causes of things: because the knowledge of them maketh men the better able to order the present to their best advantage. Curiosity, or love of the knowledge of causes, draws a man from consideration of the effect to seek the cause; and again, the cause of that cause; till of necessity he must come to this thought at last that there is some cause whereof there is no former cause.

It were infinite for the law to consider the causes of causes, and their impulsions one of another; therefore it contented itself with the immediate cause, and judgeth of acts by that, without looking to any further degree.

A rather tongue in cheek perspective comes from the ever satirical George Orwell:

Man is the only real enemy we have. Remove Man from the scene, and the root cause of hunger and overwork is abolished forever.”
The issue with root cause analysis is that it can lead to oversimplification and it is rare for there to be one single root cause. It can also lead us to go too far (as George Orwell illustrates.) Over emphasising root causes is common among depressed people who end up seeing their existence as the cause of all their problems. As a consequence, suicide can seem like a solution (although it is the exact opposite.) The same can occur after a relationship ends, as people imagine their personality and nature to be the cause. To use this mental model in an effective manner, we must avoid letting it lead to self blame or negative thought spirals. When using it to examine our lives, it is best to only do so with a qualified therapist, rather than while ruminating in bed late at night. Finding root causes should be done with the future in mind, not for dwelling on past issues. Expert root cause analysts use it to prevent further problems and create innovative solutions. We can do the same in our own lives and work.

“Shallow men believe in luck or in circumstance. Strong men believe in cause and effect.”

Establishing Root Causes

Establishing root causes is rarely an easy task. However, there a number of techniques we can use to simplify the deduction process. These are similar to the methods used to find first principles:

Socratic questioning
Socratic questioning is a technique which can…