Beware of single cause explanations

As human beings we are very effective information processors. Our senses are exposed to a huge amount of data every minute we are awake. If you don’t believe me, just look around the room that you are in. Look at the colours, the shapes, the textures. Add to that what you can hear, what you can smell and what you can touch. And, of course, the raw data is just the surface – we also need to look below that surface to take account of the meanings we attach to each of those bits of sense data (and how those bits fit together to make a coherent whole).

So, on a daily basis we are processing and filtering a huge amount of information. In order to remain sane we need to be able to work out which bits of information are important to us and discard the rest, or at least put it to one side for now. We do that by processing the information through two sets of filters, rational and emotional. The rational filter tells us which bits of information matter to us in terms of what we are trying to do, whatever activity we are involved in. For example, if we are reading, as you are doing right now, we focus on the text in order to make sense of it and filter out other information – the keyboard if you are reading on a computer, and so on.

The emotional filter will focus on what matters to us in terms of our feelings, giving attention to those things that appeal to us (at one extreme) and those things that threaten us (at the other). For example, as someone who gets great pleasure from music, I will tend to ‘tune in’ to any music I come across, whereas others who are not great music lovers may not even notice there is music in the background.

One of the implications of all this is that we are perpetually simplifying the complex world around us, constantly finding ways of making hugely complex situations intelligible. This is a necessary part of dealing with the information overload we face on a daily basis. So, this is a good thing. However, there is a danger associated with it – namely, we can try to explain very complex situations in very simple ways. This is where single cause explanations (or monocausal explanations, to use the technical term). It is very rare that that things happen for a single reason. It is usually a combination of factors.

The key term here is ‘confluence’. It refers to how different forces come together to produce a single result. For example, imagine a conflict developing between two people. It could easily be explained monocausally by saying simply: ‘Here are two people who don’t get on’. But, if you look at it more closely, that leaves a number of causal factors out of the picture (not least why they do not get on with each other). Consider the timing. If they don’t get on, why did the conflict arise today, rather than yesterday or tomorrow? Why has it arisen at all? Many people who do not get on simply bypass one another and avoid conflict. And so on.

The notion of confluence means that we need to think holistically – that is, to look at the big picture (what is sometimes called helicopter vision – the ability to rise above a situation). Without this, a reliance on monocausal explanations can lead us into all sorts of difficulties because it involves oversimplifying – and therefore distorting – whatever situation we are involved in.