Wednesday, July 16, 2008

How clear cut is cause and effect?

One worrying consequence of the results-driven society in which we live is the perception that there must be a clear cut explanation for everything.

I was listening to a radio DJ a few days ago who was guffawing at the thought of some or other A-list celeb suffering from depression. He listed all the things the celeb should be grateful for (megamillions, looks, beautiful house, thousands of adoring fans, etc.) and asked, "What has she got to be depressed about?"

This indicates a complete lack of understanding about depression. Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you here and now that one doesn't get depressed 'about' something. You can be in the midst of the most positive circumstances imaginable get deeply depressed. On the other hand, you can be in the middle of a complete crisis, and cope just fine, even if you're prone to depression.

We live in a society that wants an explanation for everything: Why are you depressed? How can you be lonely? Why can't you understand this? Why aren't you getting As at school? How on earth did you manage to lose your way?

I was listening to Eric Weiner talking about his new book The Geography of Bliss today, and he described how the Thai culture doesn't feel the need for this. They also consider excessive thinking to be bad for you, and have an expression which translates as "Don't think so much" and another which translates as "Let it go". These are both traits I could stand to learn! I agonise over everything and I want that big pink bow: resolution/closure.

I am all in favour of teaching our kids that their decisions have consequences, and a proponent of letting them learn how to deal with the consequences of their choices (within reason) in a safe environment. However, perhaps we should consider whether we haven't taken this one a little too far.

The famous prayer comes to mind:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
The courage to change the things I can;
And the wisdom to know the difference.


Anonymous said...

You know Karen, I find the cause and effect thing goes much deeper then this. I think people look for and draw cause and effect conclusions much too rapidly. I also feel that it is at the source of much of the prejudice we see. Of course that Hollywood celebrity should not be depressed. She has what millions of girls wants. How dare she!! Well...

What do we know about her day to day life? What do we know about the pressure she's under to succeed because of what's been invested in her? Or the insecurity she feels when a tabloid disses her or says she's fat? Or the compromises she's made to get to where she is (which she's more then likely not so sure she should have made)? These are called variables and they have a great impact on the outcome.

I believe that people will stop looking for these black and white answers once they start learning to look at things with a broader and more critical perspective. Just the other day, I was having a conversation with a man who was, on paper, highly educated. The subject was also Hollywood related (how à propos) and I stated my opinion to him which was: “I find Tom Hanks "overacts" in his great epic drama films and I have a hard time forgetting I’m watching Tom Hanks and believe in the character he’s playing” – that is my opinion and I have no problem having people contest it or have a debate with me on it. I also studied film in my undergrad, so though I’m no leading expert, I have somewhat of a critical eye. His response to me was “Well you’re wrong. Tom Hanks is a great actor; otherwise he wouldn’t have won all those Oscars”. I won’t even go into obvious political reasons of why that statement is so absurd. The point is that the argument was based on cause and effect rather then on critical analysis. It’s like people have this tendency of taking a situation that has some kind of a correlation and transposing it on to others thinking that the variables are the same. Wrong!!

In business, I see people using this tactic often. They look at what the competition is doing. My competitor rebuilt his website and his numbers went up. If I rebuild my website, so will mine. There is no time taken for analysis of conditions, needs, variables, etc. It’s all "shoot from the hip!"

Anonymous said...

@technogenii So, on the one hand we're oversimplistic and on the other, we have a tendency to behave like 'sheeple' where it is not tolerated to have an opinion that differs from that of the masses? You're probably right.

And as I read your comment, I realised that I have been guilty of this many times in my own life:

I will regularly come away from a shopping trip filled with abject self-loathing because nothing fits me. Garment after garment produced for the fictitious Ms Average is too tight here and too loose there, so the fault must lie with the way I am built (although I am always delighted to find that American clothes are more closely suited to my hourglass figure than UK clothes, which are designed for women shaped like surfboards!). Forty odd years of media exposure to what constitutes the 'right' shape and an equal number of years of bombardment with the subliminal message broadcast by almost every garment on almost every coathanger in almost every store...


Get a grip, Karyn!

Jackie Cameron said...

Overthinking! I read about that a while back and it made me smile. So we need to stop it...and just enjoy the moment.
Thanks for repeating the prayer Karen - it is good to be reminded

Kristina said...

Karyn, a recent shopping experience + your response + a Dave Pollard post inspired me to write more on this topic!

Anonymous said...

First, you have to remember that a radio DJ is paid to shoot his mouth off in a way that some group of people will find entertaining. (See Limbaugh, Rush.)

Second, when it comes to difficult problems, the world is filled into the next nine dimensions with clear, simple answers that are completely worthless.

Third, and perhaps most important: while people do need to take responsibility for their own actions, they also need to recognize that they cannot in fact control many things outside themselves. (Or inside, really, but that's a different musing.)

It's difficult for hard-working, goal-focused people to admit that (a) this isn't going to work, or (b) this isn't going to work any time soon, much less (c) I don't think I understood how hard this was going to be.

As for compelling people to live with the consequences of their actions, you'll find that the strongest advocates are almost always talking about other people.

Anonymous said...

@Dave You make some good points. I'm not sure if I should be saying "Ouch!" to that last little riposte ;o)

I don't know about 'compelling' - I think perhaps 'allowing' might be a better word. 'Compelling' implies the active implementation of punitive measures, whereas 'allowing' simply implies the absence of a rescue operation.

It starts when your kids are little and they make choices you know are going to make them unhappy. You also know that they are not going to be in any real danger. So, when your advice is rejected/ignored you let them discover for themselves that (say) spending all their pocket money on day 1 on a trashy toy that will break in 5 minutes is perhaps not a smart move.