Our brain is designed to look for simple cause-effect relationships. Along the lines of ‘When I did this, that’s what happened’. It helps us make sense of the world and gives us immediate closure, so we can stop wasting precious energy on thinking. That’s probably what evolution selected for, it makes us efficient. The brain was never ‘designed’ to make sense of the full complexity of the world, it evolved to help us survive and thrive as a species. Given the complexity of the world we have created now, our brain is struggling. We are struggling to accept random events (like accidents or random illness) and we are also struggling with multi-causal effects. This means we have a preferences for simplistic solutions, even if they demonstrably don’t work. Just look at the standard fare politicians roll out – There’s too much crime, let’s have more prisons and harsher sentencing. Never mind that violent crime rates have been trending down for over two decades and that prisons don’t act as a deterrent for future crime. We fall for the same simplistic ‘solutions’ every time, because we get closure – hear, confirm beliefs and forget.
We see this same approach when it comes to leadership and development in the organisations we work with. Engagement scores are down – let’s run a leadership training program for managers. The desire to reduce complex issues to a simple score already clouds the problem. The actual engagement survey had dozens of questions and all those nuances have been lost when the results are reduced to the final score. Then it’s easy to jump to conclusions and roll out a ‘solution’.
There is a further side effect to this bias to look for simple cause-effect relationships. It means we preference looking for fault in ourselves, not in the system. Whether at work or in society, we blame ourselves for our misfortunes. For example, if you get sick from drinking tap water contaminated from a nearby fracking well, it’s your own fault. You could have moved to a place where the tap water is less contaminated or you could have drank bottled water and then you wouldn’t have got sick. It’s your choice where you live, after all. If instead you take on the corporation that installed the faulty well and the government agencies that failed to enforce regulations on drinking water quality, you may face severe repercussions. That’s why so few of us are prepared to go through with it.
Complexity is here to stay and most issues that matter to us are not accessible to simple cause-effect logic. At the same time not everyone has the time or inclination to delve deeply into intractable problems like poverty, unemployment, mental health, transport gridlock and pollution. There was a working compact in the post-war era – government had the experts and we were happy to trust government to act in our best interest. This compact was shattered in the neoliberal revolution, today trust in government is down to single figures. So we have withdrawn into our own private sphere and happily shut out that which we cannot comprehend.
In the past things we didn’t understand and/or struggled to accept were simply god’s will, thus giving us comfort, giving us a way to make sense of events that didn’t make sense and giving us the closure we crave. Today, the default position is to look for fault in your own individual choices in the lead up to the event and then settle on a plausible candidate so you can blame yourself. No wonder rates of stress and anxiety have been growing across the developed world.
Whilst we don’t have the individual capacity to understand and make sense of the complexity of modern life, we do have the collective capacity to move beyond simplistic solutions. This capacity no longer resides just in government, instead expertise is more distributed and simultaneously more accessible. In the same way we have created Wikipedia as a collective repository of knowledge and information, we need to create a collective, evidence based repository on how best to deal with difficult problems. In most cases this means agreeing on the problem first, which is often much harder than agreeing on solutions. You see evidence of this at work every day – Sales are down, let’s offer a discount! That assumes price was the problem, but was it? The trend of interdisciplinary collaboration and using a ‘big data’ approach is taking us in the right direction when it comes to agreeing on the actual problem.
In the meantime you would be well advised to remember that not everything is your fault, not every experience demands an explanation and that there is a lot more coincidence out there than what the self-help gurus would like you to believe. Despite the relentless mantra of the last three decades, you don’t really make your own luck, there are simply too many other factors at play. Only 4% of start-ups that receive venture capital in Australia are successful, do you really believe that the other 96% just lacked competence or drive? Of course that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a shot at it, but presuming you will be successful or blaming yourself for failure are equally unhelpful (unless you are able to truly isolate a single cause).