Making sense of terrible things POST HOC

Posted by on Apr 26, 2007 in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

C_15 Picture:

More on how we persist in seeking simple/simplistic(?) causal explanations (with apologies to Big Ian)

I suspect it’s a cultural thing in the West but one which echoes and amplifies how our brains seem to work.

From today’s Guardian (my italics):

The gunman who carried out the massacre on the campus of Virginia Tech fired more than 170 rounds in nine minutes and died with a bullet to his head in a classroom surrounded by his victims, the police said yesterday, providing more details ont he incident. But investigators still do not know what made Cho Seung-hui do it.

…State police superintendent Colonel Steven Flaherty said the investigators had compiled 500 pieces of evidence from Norris Hall, but still had no answers about what motivated Cho to carry out such a bloody killing spree.

We certainly don’t have any one motive that we are pursuing at this particular time, or that we have been able to pull together and formulate,” he said. “It’s frustrating because it’s so personal, because we see the families and communities suffering. They want answers.”

Yes, it’s “frustrating” not to be able to explain things simply.

Yes, people “want (simplistic) answers”,…to “stop their suffering”.

But that doesn’t make that kind of answer true or useful beyond providing comfort.

If – like me – you see individual behaviour in the larger context of human systems, you’re not going to be surprised that the causal factors at play for things like this are hard to disentangle.

‘Cause that’s how it is – things may make more sense retrospectively (as all complex phenomena do) but even that won’t tell you how it happened – what the causal relationships are – or when it’ll happen again.

You need a different kind of thinking and analysis for that. Sorry.


  1. ian
    April 27, 2007

    I’m not sure what you’re saying here that any thinking person would disagree with. Your argument reduces to:
    1. There are no simple answers to the question of why the VT massacre happened
    2. The causes lie in the individual perpetrator’s relationships with other human beings.
    (1) is a truism. So is (2) – you call it ‘human systems’, other people call it ‘society’ or ‘community’. Only a zealot or an idiot would disagree.
    As as for ‘complex phenomena make more sense retropectively’…er, isn’t that, like, all phenomena?

  2. Mark Earls
    April 27, 2007

    Ian. Glad you agree – my point is clearly broader than VTech: it’s hard to understand what people do and why they do it. When we look back at what has happened we would like simple “answers”/”causes”/ “explanations” to make it al
    Spun forward we use the same faulty reasoning: we imagine that cause relationships and “motivations” are simple, understood at the level of the individual and well, just…easy.
    It’s the application of this faulty reasoning that gets us into trouble in thinking about social issues, organisations, markets and the media.