Cause and Effect

This article is provided by Matt Michel.

Our Shetland Sheepdog, Humphrey Bogart, likes to herd things and to protect the house. It's instinctive. Unfortunately for Humphrey, we don't keep sheep or cattle in our backyard and the squirrels and rabbits have learned to keep their distance. So what's a Sheltie to do? Chase aircraft!

We live north of DFW Airport and can easily see planes flying over our house on final approach. Humphrey can see them too. He doesn't like them.

Humphrey used to leap into the air trying to catch the planes, but never got close. Now, he just barks at them until they leave. As far as Humphrey's concerned, he's chasing the planes away. He knows it's
happening because every time he barks at one, it goes away.

Humphrey associates his barking with the plane's leaving and concludes one causes the other. In a way, he's right. The plane shows up and Humphrey barks until it leaves.

Getting cause and effect wrong is all too common. Service callbacks increase. Is this the result of a lack of training, poorly designed incentives, bad products, or something else? It could be anything. The mistake is to note a correlation and draw a conclusion without understanding the relationships.

In another example, a business owner hears from the media about the poor state of the economy. Nervous, he reduces expenses, cutting marketing and delaying business investment. Sure enough, business falls off, but the slide is more a result of the owner's actions than the economy.

A competitor fills the void left by the first owner by increasing marketing and investing in growth. He figures the economy might make growth more difficult, so he needs to put forth more effort.

In any economy, companies prosper and fail. This suggests the economy may not be as important as the actions of the owner.

Shelties can't tell the difference between correlation and cause and effect. You can. Where have you noticed a correlation that's mistaken for cause and effect?

(C) 2011 Matt Michel

Updated: April 4, 2011 — 11:27 am

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