The Fallacy of the False Cause
by Rick Brenner
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
to make costly errorsAlthough 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.
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:
It's not what we don't know that hurts; it's what we know that ain't so.
Top Next Issue
The 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? Send 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.
More articles on Emotions at Work:
- Those Across-the-Board Cuts That Aren't
- One widespread feature of organizational life is the announcement of across-the-board cuts. Although they're announced, they're rarely "across-the-board." What's behind this pattern? How can we change it to a more effective, truthful pattern?
- What We Don't Know About Each Other
- We know a lot about our co-workers, but we don't know everything. And since we don't know what we don't know, we sometimes forget that we don't know it. And then the trouble begins.
- Creating Trust
- What can you do when you discover that the environment at work is permeated with distrust? Your position in the organization does affect your choices, but here are some suggestions that might be helpful to anyone.
- Scope Creep, Hot Hands, and the Illusion of Control
- Despite our awareness of scope creep's dangerous effects on projects and other efforts, we seem unable to prevent it. Two cognitive biases — the "hot hand fallacy" and "the illusion of control" — might provide explanations.
- Why Scope Expands: Part II
- The scope of an effort underway tends to expand over time. Why do scopes not contract just as often? One cause might be cognitive biases that make us more receptive to expansion than contraction.
See also Emotions at Work, Critical Thinking at Work and Rhetorical Fallacies for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming May 6: Compulsive Talkers at Work: Addiction
- Incessant, unending talking about things that the listener doesn't care about, already knows about, or can do nothing about is an irritating behavior that harms both talker and listener. What can we do about this? Available here and by RSS on May 6.
- And on May 13: Compulsive Talkers at Work: Power
- Compulsive talkers are unlikely to change their behavior in response to your polite (or even impolite) requests. In this second part of our exploration, we consider the role of power — both personal and organizational. Available here and by RSS on May 13.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
Contact Rick for details at rbrenner@ChacoCanyon.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
- Managing in Fluid Environments
- Most people now work in environments that can best be characterized as fluid, because they're subject to continual change. We never know what's coming next. In such environments, managing — teams, projects, groups, departments, or the enterprise — often entails moving from surprise to surprise while somehow staying almost on track. It's a nerve-wracking existence. This program provides numerous tools that help managers who work in fluid environments. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
- Most of what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Decision-Making for Team Leaders
- Effective group decision-making requires far more than knowing how to organize a discussion or take a vote. This program is designed for both new and experienced team leaders or team sponsors, managers, project managers, portfolio managers, program managers, and executives and general managers. It is especially valuable to people who work in organizations that confront fluid environments, in which decisions must be made in the context of uncertainty. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Cognitive Biases and Workplace Decision-Making
- For most of us, making decisions is a large part of what we do at work. And we tend to believe that we make our decisions rationally, except possibly when stressed or hurried. That is a mistaken belief — very few of our decisions are purely rational. In this eye-opening yet entertaining program, Rick Brenner guides you through the fascinating world of cognitive biases, and he'll give concrete tips to help you control the influence of cognitive biases. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program: