Seeing Causality

Seeing Causality

In Thinking Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman describes how a Belgian psychologist changed the way that we understand our thinking in regard to causality. The traditional thinking held that we make observations about the world and come to understand causality through repeated exposure to phenomenological events. As Kahneman writes, “[Albert] Michotte [1945] had a different idea: he argued that we see causality just as directly as we see color.”


The argument from Michotte is that causality is an integral part of the human psyche. We think and understand the world through a causal lens. From the time we are infants, we interpret the world causally and we can see and understand causal links and connections in the things that happen around us. It is not through repeated experience and exposure that we learn to view an event as having a cause or as being the cause of another event. It is something we have within us from the beginning.


“We are evidently ready from birth to have impressions of causality, which do not depend on reasoning about patterns of causation.”


I try to remember this idea of our intuitive and automatic causal understanding of the world when I think about science and how I should relate to science. We go through a lot of effort to make sure that we are as clear as possible with our scientific thinking. We use randomized controlled trials (RCT) to test the accuracy of our hypothesis, but sometimes, an intensely rigorous scientific study isn’t necessary for us to make changes in our behavior based on simple scientific exploration via normal causal thinking. There are some times where we can trust our causal intuition, and without having to rely on an RCT for evidence. I don’t know where to draw the line between causal inferences that we can accept and those that need an RCT, but through honest self-awareness and reflection, we should be able to identify times when our causal interpretations demonstrate validity and are reasonably well insulated from our own self-interests.


The Don’t Panic Geocast has discussed two academic journal articles on the effectiveness of parachutes for preventing death when falling from an aircraft during the¬†Fun Paper Friday¬†segment of two episodes. The two papers, both published in the British Medical Journal, are satirical, but demonstrate an important point. We don’t need to conduct an RCT to determine whether using a parachute when jumping from a plane will be more effective at helping us survive the fall than not using a backpack. It is an extreme example, but it demonstrates that our minds can see and understand causality without always needing an experiment to confirm a causal link. In a more consequential example, we can trust our brains when they observe that smoking cigarettes has negative health consequences including increased likelihood of an individual developing lung cancer. An RCT to determine the exact nature and frequency of cancer development in smokers would certainly be helpful in building our scientific knowledge, but the scientific consensus around smoking and cancer should have been accepted much more readily than what it was. An RCT in this example would take years and would potentially be unethical or impossible. Tobacco companies obfuscated the science by taking advantage of the fact that an RCT in this case couldn’t be performed, and we failed to accept the causal link that our brains could see, but could not prove as definitively as we can prove something with an RCT. Nevertheless, we should have trusted our causal thinking brains, and accepted the intuitive answer.


We can’t always trust the causal conclusions that our mind reaches, but there are times where we should acknowledge that our brains think causally, and accept that the causal links that we intuit are accurate.

Will We Lose Conversations?

With the internet social media world we live in, you can always find the perfect niche community for your interests. I love podcasts and like geology and there is a perfect show for me: The Don’t Panic Geocast. I enjoy stoicism and thoughts about overcoming obstacles and I can literally find forums on Reddit all about Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle is the Way. In many other areas of my life I am able to find the perfect group of strangers online who share my interests, want to talk about the things I want to talk about, and share the same general worldview and background as me. This is fantastic for me personally and I am very comfortable listening to the geology podcast and reading about stoicism, but if I only engage in these communities then I risk losing my ability to communicate beyond these small niches.


Colin Wright describes his fears of a world where conversation becomes impossible in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. He writes, “One of the fundamental challenges we’ll face in the coming years, I think, will be figuring out how to have conversations … about anything and everything. How to have discussions about important things and relatively mundane things, and how we might have those conversations with a shared understanding that we’re trying to achieve the same thing, even if that might not immediately appear to be the case.”


The fear that Wright has is that we will become so accustomed to communicating within our own sub-communities that we won’t be able to have real conversations outside our groups. The words we use and the definitions we attach to those words will begin to shift and overtime will signify who is part of the group and who is not part of the group. Sometimes this will be obvious to both insiders and outsiders, but sometimes it won’t be obvious to either, and conversation will break down as each side fails to recognize that words are not being use in the same way. Similarly, certain things will become running jokes within a circle (like ice is a mineral in the Don’t Panic Geocast community) and we will make references that either intentionally or unintentionally leave other people out. This might help with bonding for our small group, but it can be alienating to people outside our group and can drive wedges further between our niche communities and the outside world.


If we end up in a world where we become so enclosed within our niche communities that we can’t have any real conversations beyond them, then we face a lot of negative consequences as a country and planet. Pragmatically working to solve problems may take a back seat to trying to enhance the status of ones community, or ones place within the community. Shared meaning could break down, preventing us from having real discussions about real values and priorities. If we cannot come together and step beyond our niche communities then we won’t be able to avoid identity politics and we will feel more isolated in the real world even if we feel deep connections with our online communities.

Kickstarting Conversations

When you are coaching someone professionally, meeting with a colleague or associate, or just hanging out with a spouse or friend, how do you really get around to having important conversations? In my life, I too frequently have quick chats about mundane topics like the weather that often don’t lead to something more interesting. Sometimes, I bring up the Don’t Panic Geocast (a fantastic geology podcast that I highly recommend) and get too deep into the science of a given weather patter or how that weather shapes some aspect of earth science. Some days and in some situations getting a conversation going is a challenge, and sometimes the conversation we get started is not the conversation that we both actually want to have. The question for us, when we want to have meaningful conversations, is how do we get a conversation going and avoid simply talking about a Podcast, TV show, or the weather?


In his book on how to be an effective coach and create habits that lead to meaningful coaching interactions, Michael Bungay Stanier offers a solution to the conversation initiation conundrum. He offers what he calls a Goldilocks Question that is just right to get a meaningful conversation flowing. He looks at this question specifically in the realm of coaching, but it can certainly be used across the board when conversation about sports teams has died out or when you don’t want to talk to the 17th person about that day’s weather. Bungay Stanier’s question is simply, “What’s on your mind?” which he describes as “An almost fail-safe way to start a chat that quickly turns into a real conversation.”


The power of this question, according to Bungay Stanier, is that “its a question that says, Let’s talk about the thing that matters most. It’s a question that dissolves ossified agendas, sidesteps small talk and defeats the default diagnosis.”


In a coaching relationship, it can feel like you need to be in control. That you need to direct the conversation and ask intimate probing questions that get the subject to connect new dots and make new discoveries. While asking more questions than speaking is a good thing, the coach does not really need to be in control. When you are helping someone else as a coach, you can use this question to give them a little more control of what is discussed, because they are the one who knows best what issue they are facing and need assistance on. Asking “what’s on your mind?” and not forcing a question toward a specific area will allow the conversation to center around the biggest item that needs to be talked through and ironed out. Rather than getting stuck in a rut with your coaching, this question requires you to be nimble and on your feet as conversations go where the subject needs them to go, not where you are comfortable with the conversation going.


In my life I have not been good at remembering this question. It is one that I hope I can return to and one that I hope can help me have deeper conversations with my wife, my uncle, and some of my friends.