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The Search For Causes

A great passage from Erik Hollnagel’s Barriers And Accident Prevention on the search for causes:

Whenever an accident happens there is a natural concern to find out in detail exactly what happened and to determine the causes of it. Indeed, whenever the result of an action or event falls significantly short of what was expected, or whenever something unexpected happens, people try to find an explanation for it. This trait of human nature is so strong that we try to find causes even when they do not exist, such as in the case of misleading or spurious correlations. For a number of reasons humans seem to be extremely reluctant to accept that something can happen by chance. One very good reason is that we have created a way of living that depends heavily on the use of technology, and that technological systems are built to function in a deterministic, hence reliable manner. If therefore something fails, we are fully justified in trying to find the reason for it. A second reason is that our whole understanding of the world is based on the assumption of specific relations between causes and effects, as amply illustrated by the Laws of Physics. (Even in quantum physics there are assumptions of more fundamental relations that are deterministic.) A third reason is that most humans find it very uncomfortable when they do not know what to expect, i.e., when things happen in an unpredictable manner. This creates a sense of being out of control, something that is never desirable since – from an evolutionary perspective – it means that the chances of survival are reduced.

This was described by Friedrich Nietzsche when he wrote:

[T]o trace something unknown back to something known is alleviating, soothing, gratifying and gives moreover a feeling of power. Danger, disquiet, anxiety attend the unknown – the first instinct is to eliminate these distressing states. First principle: any explanation is better than none … The cause-creating drive is thus conditioned and excited by the feeling of fear.

Hollnagel, continues:

A well-known example of this is provided by the phenomenon called the gambler’s fallacy. The name refers to the fact that gamblers often seem to believe that a long row of events of one type increases the probability of the complementary event. Thus if a series of ‘red’ events occur on a roulette wheel, the gambler’s fallacy lead people to believe that the probability of ‘black’ increases. … Rather than accepting that the underlying mechanism may be randome people invent all kinds of explanations to reduce the uncertainty of future events.