Big things, big causes?

Posted by on Jul 14, 2007 in Uncategorized | 3 Comments


Good piece in this week’s New Scientist by Patrick Leman on “Major event – major cause” reasoning (how we seem to be programmed to intuit major causes for events which have widespread and major effects on the world) and our contemporary love of conspiracy theories…

“I gave volunteers variations of a newspaper story describing an assassination attempt on a fictitious president. those who were given the version where the president died were significantly more likely to attribute the event to a conspiracy than those who read the one where the president survived, even though all other aspects of the story were equivalent”

Leman explains why this would seem to be important to us:

“To appreciate why this form of reasoning is seductive consider the alternative: major events having minor or mundane causes – for example, the assassinationf of a president by a single, possibly mentally unstable, gunman, or the death of a princess because of a drunk driver. This presents us with a rather chaotic and unpredictable relationship between cause and effect. Instability makes most of us uncomfortabl: we prefer to imagine we live in a predictable safe world, so in a strange way, some conspiracy theories offer us accounts of events that allow us to retain a sense of safety and predictability”

Which insight I commend to the more excitable/paranoid in the bloggersphere…

But seriously…it’s really important to understand name and head-off for this bias as we look to explain why a particular seismic shift in mass behaviour has taken place (Feels like my Olevel “Causes of the First World War” notes, now). The bigger the shift, the more likely we are to attribute that shift to a big cause.

Watch out!


  1. Johnnie Moore's Weblog
    July 15, 2007

    Big event – Big cause?

    Mark Earls has a good post on a cognitive bias that leads us to see conspiracy where they may only be a cock-up….

  2. Charles Frith
    July 15, 2007

    Great post Mark.

  3. Fiona Cox
    July 18, 2007

    I have a question for you Mark, do you have an email? I can’t find a contact here! Hugh MacLeod pointed me in your direction.
    Many thanks