Strategic Communications: The Illusion of Cause

The Saint Reportsaintblog, Thought Leadership

Owen Eagan, Vice President and Senior Consultant

Cat in a tin foil hat looking up

What would you do if you were developing a new project for an electric utility company and were faced with angry constituents at a public hearing who were concerned about exposure to EMFs, or electric and magnetic fields? Would you simply dismiss their concerns by saying that the American Medical Association and others have found no conclusive evidence that they pose adverse health effects?

The good news is that the research is on your side. The bad news is that the website for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention lists numerous studies on the subject but leaves the reader to interpret the research for him- or herself. This obviously presents a problem because no one is going to read all of these studies. And, even if they did, very few people are going to be able to evaluate them.

So, you can’t ignore these concerns but you also can’t give them undue attention either. That is, no amount of scientific evidence that you present is likely going to convince those people who adamantly believe in the harmful effects of EMFs. Therefore, you need to present your arguments to decision-makers and the public, and then focus on building support for your project.

Most often, this is the best approach when addressing intractable opposition. However, there are more insidious ways in which the arguments of opponents can influence others. This is because many people are susceptible to an “illusion of cause.”

This is generally defined as the predisposition to attribute outcomes to certain conditions without sufficient justification and is one of several ways in which we can be deceived by what we intuitively believe. In fact, even best-selling business books such as Good to Great have been cited as evidence of this tendency.

According to Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, authors of the book The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us, it is primarily the result of three biases. These biases include our tendencies to detect meaning in patterns, infer that coincidences have a causal relationship and believe that events that happened earlier caused events that happened later.

For instance, the pain that arthritis patients believe they experience on cold and rainy days is indicative of the first bias. Though there is no statistical relationship between weather and pain, individuals that participated in experiments on this subject still insisted that there was. This is due to “select matching,” in which participants focus on either subsets of the data or experiences they remember.

As an example of the second bias, the media routinely report associations that don’t actually exist. This is evident in headlines that announce a causation between events when there may only be a correlation. This is because the only way to determine causation is if an experiment is conducted that varies an independent variable to see its effect on the dependent variable.

Fortunately, Chabris and Simons created a simple test to identify this illusion. That is, if it would have been impossible, too expensive or unethical to assign people to experimental and control groups, then causation cannot be determined. The authors provide the headline “Bullying Harms Kids’ Mental Health” as a good illustration since it wouldn’t be ethical to assign kids to bullying conditions.

In regard to our earlier reference of Good to Great, the criticism of this book and others like it stem from the fact that they only consider those companies that succeeded and don’t examine those companies that might have adopted the same practices and failed. Asking yourself whether these types of case studies require an experimental design based on their conclusions is another useful exercise.

The third bias can be demonstrated by the purported association between vaccinations and autism. This belief originated from an article that was published in 1998 by Andrew Wakefield, a prominent London physician, suggesting a link between autism and the MMR vaccine. However, even though the article stated that the association had not been proven, Wakefield’s promotion of an association in his press conference was widely reported by the media. This notion was further popularized as people such as Jenny McCarthy, whose son was diagnosed with autism, campaigned against vaccinations.

This association has been exacerbated by the fact that autism is typically diagnosed during preschool, which is also around the time that language skills start to accelerate and the MMR vaccine is given. Therefore, the timing of the vaccination further contributed to this illusion of cause. As a result, Chabris and Simons found that 29 percent of people in a national survey agreed with the statement “vaccines given to children are partly responsible for causing autism.” Yet, there is no association whatsoever which has been established by overwhelming evidence. In the meantime, parents who refuse to vaccinate their children put them at risk of serious illnesses.

So what does this mean for developers? It means that claims that you might think are not worth responding to might be more persuasive than you think. For instance, our casino clients routinely face opponents who talk about the negative impacts casinos have had in other communities and the demise of Atlantic City as evidence of the folly of gaming. The problem with stories like these is that they rely on anecdotal evidence that cannot be applied in a broader context. Nevertheless, this type of characterization can seem plausible to many people.

Therefore, the best way of combatting this illusion is to be aware of these biases and address any issues in which they might manifest themselves. This will help ensure that the public is aware of which causes are likely and not likely to occur, and will dispel any illusions people might have about your project in the process.

Owen Eagan is a Vice President and Senior Consultant for Saint Consulting, an international management consulting firm specializing in land use politics.  He is also an adjunct faculty member at Emerson College, the nation’s only four-year institution dedicated exclusively to communication and the performing arts. Email