Blinded by coincidence (i.e. sometimes s#!t happens)
THIS POST was first published in June 2012. It's been updated to include new lessons and research in the science and craft of decision-making.
Humans feel comforted when events that affect them can be explained. Uncertainty creates anxiety, while believing that we understand why things happened relives that distress. So, we seek—and often demand—explanations and causal links between such events without considering that they may be random and unrelated. Decision-makers should take notice because the notion that there is always someone or something to credit or blame for the unexpected can undermine the quality of decisions and leadership. Why are we predisposed to belief that there is some agent behind most consequential events? The economist Thomas Sowell traces it to primitive cultures: “perhaps the simplest and most psychologically satisfying explanation of any observed phenomenon is that it happened that way because someone wanted it to happen that way… Some events are in fact the result of purposeful activity towards the goal achieved, but the general presumption that this must be the case can be classified as the animistic fallacy.”
This fallacy was common among primitive peoples who believed that physical and environmental changes like the swaying of grasses and leaves were caused by deities and demons acting on them. Science has dispelled such superstitions but not our tendencies to seek intentional causes and links in most events. Our versions of deities and demons are reflected in the boundless information available on the Internet and the parades of experts ready to pinpoint the who and whys behind most events.
Coincidence is a valid explanation that is often rejected and devalued. This tendency in decision-makers promotes illusory correlations and a belief that consequential events were intentionally directed by someone or something.
Why do we find coincidence such an unsatisfying explanation? Some research suggests that it’s because coincidences don’t require consistency with the world we know and feel too simple and intellectually lazy. We want explanations from experts offering thoughtful, often complicated opinions consistent with our expectations and concepts of reality. In this context, consistency is a critical component of trust.
Psychologist Robert Cialdiny points out that “a high degree of consistency is normally associated with personal and intellectual strength. It is at the heart of logic, rationality, stability, and honesty… But because it is so typically in our best interests to be consistent, we easily fall into the habit of being automatically so, even in situations where it is not the sensible way to be. When it occurs unthinkingly, consistency can be disastrous.”
These findings help explain why we find complex explanations of interconnectedness and intent more plausible than random, simple coincidence. This mindset serves us well in environments where events and outcomes are caused by others intentionally pursuing desired objectives. Unfortunately, these inferential prejudices promote illusory correlations and comforting fictional explanations that assign credit and blame where none exist and causally link events that are purely random. These in turn lead to predictable biases and mental traps that undermine the quality of decision-making.
I will discuss in upcoming posts strategies for coping and overcoming damaging cognitive potholes. We need these strategies because research and experience found that we cannot eliminate them through simple awareness and calls for better thinking.
 Sowell, Thomas. Knowledge and Decisions: 2nd Edition. Basic Books, 1996. Nook edition, page 123.  Cialdini, Robert B. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Harper Collins, 2009. Nook edition, page 56.  Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. Nook edition, pages 424-425.