Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Causality and Errors in Attribution

We all have good luck charms or rituals that we follow before a big event. Some boxers used to refrain from having sex for a few days before the Big Fight. A salesman might pump himself up in front of a mirror before making the Big Pitch. This is even reflected on a corporate level. Pixar, for instance, has its own good luck charm in the form of John Ratzenberger, who has voiced acted a significant role in every one of Pixar's films.

One of my friends in college was really superstitious when it came to football games. When our team was losing, he'd take off his hat and put his ticket stub in it while muttering something about needing to "change our luck". I've been prone to this kind of sports superstition as well. But every time I think about doing something different to "change our luck", I think about how ridiculous I am for thinking that I could change the outcome of a game being played hundreds of miles away from where I am.

I've also seen Bud Light light commercials lampooning this kind of behavior with the tagline "It's only weird if it doesn't work." I think it's an absolutely brilliant and humorous commercial that really nails down a flaw in human psyche: attributing causality to things that, on second thought, have no way of affecting the outcome to something.

In politics, a politician will keep on the same staff that got in on the ground floor on his career. And as he climbs up the ladder in prestige and capacity, he gets introduced to increasingly talented and experienced political operatives that might be much more effective than his original staff, but he'll stick with his guys anyway.

Some people may attribute that to loyalty. But what good is loyalty if you lose? Today's politician cares only about winning the next election. Losers are shunned and marginalized. Rick Santorum dropped out of the Republican primary campaign right before the Pennsylvania primary because he didn't want the loser label to stick (he had lost his reelection bid by 18 points in 2006). Politicians stick with the guys who have been with them at the beginning because they are the politician's good luck charms.

Once the game or election is over, people love nothing more but to look back on the events and assign attribution. This play was when the game was lost. That debate was when the tide had turned. The decline and fall of the Roman Empire happened, according to Edward Gibbon, because of the adoption of Christianity as the state's official religion. Kennedy won the election because of a sweaty and unkempt Nixon being untelegenic in the first ever nationally televised Presidential debate. And, as a more recent example, the financial crisis and recession happened because....

Because what, exactly? Investment banks bundling up opaque mortgage backed securities? Predatory mortgage lending practices by the banks? Irrational exuberance on the part of prospective and existing homeowners? Or maybe all 3? Or maybe something else entirely unrelated like the spillover effects of the Asian Financial Crisis and the Dotcom bubble prompting a low interest rate policy by the Federal Reserve?

 It's so easy to assign attribution and causality to certain events, but the thing is we can never really know. We grasp for straws and we come up with explanations that, in all likelihood, do a better job of explaining our prejudice and intelligence more than it does explaining what happened and why.

But I'm pretty sure things like good luck charms and pre-game rituals are shortcuts that allow people to function without trying to constantly second guess themselves. You can listen to two "intellectuals" from opposing ideologies argue constantly for hours and be none the wiser. So why not just go with tradition and superstition and see what unfolds?

The day after November 6 will bring forth a host of journalists, writers, pundits, politicians, and the rest of the people who make up the chattering class trying to explain why the election unfolded the way it did. They'll cite past examples in history as affirmation of their own theories. And none of it will be provable.

There's a very good quote on this kind of navel gazing, even though it's mainly used to deride neoconservative ideology:
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
But it actually contains some very good advice: Make the best decision possible in the given moment, then accept and live with the consequences. Keep moving forward and don't get trapped in the past.

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