Fallacy of the Single Cause

There’s a specific form of logical fallacy or cognitive bias that I’ve never seen explicitly listed in collections of such fallacies or biases. It is related to the “Fallacy of False Cause” and to the “Illusion of Control” bias. I call it the fallacy of causation, or the fallacy of the single cause.

I don’t think we’re wired very well to reason about outcomes that result from many different inputs. My experience is that most people have a natural intuition that every event can be traced back to a prior event that caused it. This is even seriously proffered as a self-evident axiom of our reality: the “there is no effect without a cause; there is no creation without a creator” trope is a standard justification for creationist stonewalling.1

What is notable is that we are biased to think in terms of a single prior event as a cause. When there is a scandal or disaster we immediately try to find a villain. Inevitably the media seizes upon a single person, or a cohesive group all of whom are described as conspiring together to cause the event. Blame seldom (if ever) falls on multiple completely independent villains: the finger should point in one direction and one direction only.

In addition to this, we seem to naturally want to mark people as either responsible or not responsible for some outcome, with little space for gradations of responsibility. This is used just as often for exoneration as for vilification: disasters involving bureaucracies are often chalked up to “systemic problems”, with every actor claiming that because they weren’t completely responsible for the disaster they can’t take the blame.

It should go without saying that such an intuitive model is fundamentally wrong—every event has many causes, and responsibility for an outcome is shared by many people whose choices led to that outcome—but that doesn’t make it any less appealing. Religion, our legal system, and Freudian analysis all seem to be built upon the assumption of single causes. In many cases I’m sure the assumption of single causes is a reasonable simplification, but such simplifications become less tenable for outcomes dependent on complex interactions between multiple actors. As society has become more complex, outcomes only seem more dependent upon more complex interactions between more actors.

Job Creators

The meme that has brought this to mind lately is use of the euphemism “job creators” in place of “rich people”. The idea seems to be that someone making a million dollars a year (the modern definition of “millionaire”) is likely to hire a maid, a nanny, a personal assistant, etc.;2 a middle-class family making under a hundred thousand dollars a year is unlikely to have any full-time employees. Giving a millionaire an extra few hundred thousand a year might mean they hire a new chauffeur, and that certainly feels like “creating a job”. Giving a few hundred families an extra thousand a year would likely mean only that they have a few more meals a year out at a restaurant; the few minutes of work each such meal creates for waiter, busboy, and cook don’t have quite the same resonance. A single rich person gets to claim the title of job creator all on their own; middle-class families earn the title as a group as thus nobody claims it at all.

(Note that one need not take a stance on trickle-down economics to note the asymmetry of the “job creator” label. All I claim is that extra middle-class income clearly creates some jobs; whether the effect is larger or smaller than the same total sum distributed to wealthier families is a question for economists…although I can’t pretend I don’t have my own expectations on the matter.)

  1. My main problem with creationism is not religious, but intellectual. Saying that complex intelligent creatures were created by another complex intelligent creature is no more interesting than explaining that people give birth to other people. Creationism is thus not an intellectual theory; it’s an excuse to stop thinking about the issue of origin. 

  2. I’m explicitly addressing personal income here. While the profits of small businesses can be taxed at the same rates as individual income, the term “job creators” is being applied to individuals, not businesses. (Given that employee salaries are not taxed as profit, any connection between tax on profits and hiring by businesses is much less direct.)