Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 1, Issue 28;   July 11, 2001: The Fallacy of the False Cause

The Fallacy of the False Cause

by

Although we sometimes make decisions with incomplete information, we do the best we can, given what we know. Sometimes, we make wrong decisions not because we have incomplete information, but because we make mistakes in how we reason about the information we do have.

Ginny was getting pretty steamed. "We tried code inspections back in Release 5, and you know what happened then. Everything slowed down, we got nothing done, everyone got into fights, and Morgan left the group. If we have to do inspections, you can count me out." Ginny's argument, in essence, was that since some unpleasant events happened shortly after inspections began, the code inspections caused them.

Arguments based on the
Fallacy of the False Cause
lead organizations
to make costly errors
Although her argument is convincing to many, it doesn't prove her case. It's an example of a rhetorical fallacy called post hoc ergo propter hoc — Latin for "after this, therefore because of this." Ginny argues that since the unpleasant events followed the adoption of code inspections, the code inspections caused the problems, and therefore all code inspections, of any kind whatever, are bad.

U.S. Budget Deficits

U.S. budget deficits, 1965-2025. Note the sudden expansion of deficits in 2009, coincident with the beginning of the Obama administration. Those opposed to President Obama's policies point to this phenomenon as evidence of his unsuitability for office. However, according to general consensus among economics experts, the sudden expansion of deficits in 2009, and their lingering at high levels, is due instead to the efforts to repair the U.S. economy following the onset of the Great Recession in 2008, though one might argue that alternatives to his policies might have had a marginal advantage. Nevertheless, it is certain that among those criticizing President Obama for his budgetary performance are many who know well that the sudden increase of deficits is not a result of his decisions. Image courtesy the U.S. Congressional Budget Office.

A more convincing argument would exclude other possible causes. For example, were the inspections run badly? Were people inadequately trained? Were inspections introduced when people were too busy to learn how to do inspections?

The Post Hoc fallacy is a special case of a more general type of fallacy — the fallacy of the false cause. In Post Hoc, the apparent causal connection relates to the timing of the two events. But connections can also be unrelated to timing:

All of the projects Gerhard has managed in the past few years have been late and over budget. Since people now believe that Gerhard was the cause of the overruns, he can no longer get assignments as a project lead. Nobody seems to remember that each of Gerhard's project sponsors had either reduced his budget or expanded requirements so many times that no project manager would have had much of a chance to perform well.

Gerhard's management skill was the most obvious factor common to the failed projects, but it wasn't the cause. In this case, faulty reasoning damages a career and deprives the company of a skilled manager.

How can you spot this kind of error in the heat of debate? The fallacy of the false cause might be lurking if the argument states that:

Since A was present when B occurred, then A was the cause. Or Since A preceded B, A caused B.

To respond to arguments that use this fallacy, use examples in which A was present, but B wasn't. Your debate partner might not be convinced, but it's your best shot.

Educate your colleagues about the Fallacy of the False Cause. When we understand how much it can cost, and when we understand how to avoid it, we can save much pain and frustration. Perhaps Will Rogers said it best (though the thought has been attributed to many others as well):

It's not what we don't know that hurts; it's what we know that ain't so.

Go to top Top  Next issue: Look Before You Leap  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenaQDNIOOHmWASXcSTner@ChacxGdINJlpLKNNxYOUoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Emotions at Work:

Nez Perce moccasinsThe Fundamental Attribution Error
When we try to understand the behavior of others, we often make a particularly human mistake. We tend to attribute too much to character and disposition and too little to situation and context. When we seek a better balance, we can adopt a more accepting view of events around us.
Ice on Challenger's launch pad hours before the launchUnintended Consequences
Sometimes, when we solve problems, the solutions create new problems that can be worse than the problems we solve. Why does this happen? How can we limit this effect?
The Purchasing Managers IndexHow to Avoid a Layoff: The Inside Stuff
These are troubled economic times. Layoffs are becoming increasingly common. Here are some tips for changing your frame of mind to help reduce the chances that you will be laid off.
World global temperature departuresConfirmation Bias: Workplace Consequences Part I
We continue our exploration of confirmation bias, paying special attention to the consequences it causes in the workplace. In this part, we explore its effects on our thinking.
A tire reef off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, FloridaManaging Hindsight Bias Risk
Performance appraisal practices and project retrospectives both rely on evaluating performance after outcomes are known. Unfortunately, a well-known bias — hindsight bias — can limit the effectiveness of many organizational processes, including both performance appraisal and project retrospectives.

See also Emotions at Work, Critical Thinking at Work and Rhetorical Fallacies for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A computer mouse, the tool we use so often to hijack our own mindsComing December 7: Preventing Meeting Hijacking
Meeting leads, meeting Chairs, and facilitators must be prepared to deal with meeting hijackers. Hesitation, or any ineffectual action, enhances the hijacker's chances of success. Here are suggestions for preventing hijacking. Available here and by RSS on December 7.
Bee with pollenAnd on December 14: Dealing with Meeting Hijackings
When you haven't prevented a meeting hijacking, and you believe a hijacking is underway, what can you do? How can you regain control? Available here and by RSS on December 14.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenjobOpZrracdXafOBner@ChacZNPRfhznHZpzZgisoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Strategic Thinking for Project People
When Strategic Thinking for Project Peoplewe think tactically, our focus is the "next doable step," or perhaps, the next two or three doable steps. When we think strategically, we place far more emphasis on the longer-range objective. In project work, effective strategy can dramatically reduce the level of tactical effort required to achieve the longer-range objectives. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
MasteChanging How We Change: The Essence of Agilityry of the ability to adapt to unpredictable and changing circumstances is one way of understanding the success of Agile methodologies for product development. Applying the principles of Change Mastery, we can provide the analogous benefits in a larger arena. By exploring strategies and tactics for enhancing both the resilience and adaptability of projects and portfolios, we show why agile methodologies are so powerful, and how to extend them beyond product development to efforts of all kinds. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Conflict Resolution Skills for Leaders
ConflConflict Resolution Skills for Leadersict is inherent in collaborative work. When conflict is constructive, it produces better outcomes. When it's destructive, it can be an insurmountable obstacle to success. In this program, we explore the connections between the outcomes of collaboration and conflict in both of its forms. And we emphasize the skills needed most by leaders. The leader's task is to manage conflict so as to ensure that the group achieves its objective with its capacity to collaborate intact, or even enhanced. Rick Brenner shows team leaders and team sponsors the techniques they need to manage team conflict for relationship safety and better outcomes. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Influencing Outcomes Without Authority
Your Influencing Outcomes Without Authorityability to influence others — whether upward, downward, laterally, or within a team — always depends on both the quality of your relationships with the people you influence, and on your perception and their perception of your personal power. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you the techniques for making things happen not by using formal organizational power, but by using informal, personal power. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Strategies for Leading Teams in Hard Times
When Strategies for Leading Teams in Hard Timesa project team is on task, the contributions of leaders are important, and little noticed. Sometimes the team encounters unexpected difficulty, or requirements change, or budgets are reduced, or any of a number of other things might happen. In these cases, the leader must make or facilitate decisions about how to respond or how to revise the plan. We get through it somehow. Hard times are something else altogether. Despondency, disillusionment, resource shortages, unexpected and severe failure of the plan, and toxic conflict can erode morale. How can leaders deal with such situations? Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
Reader Comments About My Newsletter
A sampling:
  • Your stuff is brilliant! Thank you!
  • You and Scott Adams both secretly work here, right?
  • I really enjoy my weekly newsletters. I appreciate the quick read.
  • A sort of Dr. Phil for Management!
  • …extremely accurate, inspiring and applicable to day-to-day … invaluable.
  • More
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.