I’m in the middle of a situation at the moment. My landlord (a hideous multi-million pound corporation) has cut short my contract and is throwing me out of my flat (they gave me notice on Christmas Eve). They want to sell the flat. But they don’t have a buyer lined up, they haven’t put it on the market and they don’t even know what the flat looks like.
When we asked for a month’s extension, they refused.
I’ve taken this opportunity to see if I can afford to buy a flat, and at the moment I’m waiting on the seller to come back to me. It’s a hideous experience, and the most stressful thing of my life.
A few times now, when thinking about my project to “write about something new I’ve learnt every day”, I’ve thought that if I get this flat I’ll write about how disasters are an opportunity. And if I don’t I’ll write about how sometimes you have to know when to walk away.
However, this is ridiculous. I’m arguing it both ways. And an explanation that works both ways is meaningless. It can explain anything. I came across this idea in Thinking Fast and Slow a few days ago:
A story in Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan illustrates this automatic search for causality. He reports that bond prices initially rose on the day of Saddam Hussein’s capture in his hiding place in Iraq. Investors were apparently seeking safer assets that morning, and the Bloomberg News service flashed this headline: U.S. TREASURIES RISE; HUSSEIN CAPTURE MAY NOT CURB TERRORISM. Half an hour later, bond prices fell back and the revised headline read: U.S. TREASURIES FALL; HUSSEIN CAPTURE BOOSTS ALLURE OF RISKY ASSETS. Obviously, Hussein’s capture was the major event of the day, and because of the way the automatic search for causes shapes our thinking, that event was destined to be the explanation of whatever happened in the market on that day. The two headlines look superficially like explanations of what happened in the market, but a statement that can explain two contradictory outcomes explains nothing at all.
Again, this is something I’d come across before (and even written about before) in a talk by Michael Blastland:
It’s amazing how powerful these beliefs can be. Michael Blastland tells the story of a journalist looking at the figures for alcohol consumption during the recession. He saw that alcohol consumption had gone up.
“Oh,” he thought, “that follows, since people have lost their jobs and have gone out to drown their sorrows.”
Then he realised, this was before the recession had started. After this, alcohol consumption had actually gone down.
“Oh,” he thought, “well, that makes sense, since during the recession people have less money and so can’t afford to go out.”
Then he realised the figures were for 2007.
In each case, he was able to justify the figures by fitting them into his existing worldview. The point is, he could have justified it either way, and then used it as a headline to support his argument.
The point in both of these things is that as humans we look for “agency”. By that, I mean we assume there is a reason for things. In fact, often there isn’t. Often stuff just happens.
As Daniel Kahneman explains:
The prominence of causal intuitions is a recurrent theme in this book because people are prone to apply causal thinking inappropriately, to situations that require statistical reasoning.
I think this is a key thing. And there’s a confirmation bias here as well. When we do something, and then things go well, we assume that things went well because we did that thing. If we pick our lucky number, or pray or even something that seems logical, like make a compelling argument, and then something happen, we think we made it happen. In fact, that thing might have happened anyway for a different reason entirely.
If you want to get to the heart of something and make a difference, you need to fight against this view. Which is very difficult because we’re hard-wired to think like this. There’s a video of some triangles moving around, created psychologist Fritz Heider. It’s just shapes, but as you watch it it’s almost impossible not to create personalities for the different triangles.
Sometimes, you have to avoid seeing patterns where there are no patterns.