What if There Are No Dots to Connect?

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After decades on the planet, I’ve come to think of the idea of causality in human affairs as problematic.

The idea of causality is such a comfortable mental device. It frequently allows us to take the mystery out of an action by labeling a plausible cause. Early in my career I had a brazen certainty that Action X will produce Result Y. But especially in the realms of human conduct and attitudes, we are still a long way from claiming accurate causal chains. “Serendipity” is not a term one is likely to hear very much from social scientists who seek explanations for conduct in so many forms of human affairs. Too bad, because we need to allow uncertainty to have its place. We are maybe on slightly firmer ground to talk about one individual’s influences. But just when that road seems promising, we encounter persons with responses that have boomeranged far away from predicted linkages to parents, mentors, influencers and friends. None may work out as particularly good predictors.

There are about 100 billion neurons in the brain, creating an incalculable number of neural pathways that might be activated to produce certain actions or attitudes. Some of those neural highways could be activated by heredity or the chemistry of the body. Others probably arise from the ineffable forces of individual experience accumulated over time. But many are far too obscure to be measured with the relatively crude tools of psychology, neural imaging, or the discovery of predictive antecedents. Even what seems like a simple and straightforward persuasive message may not produce attitudes we would expect.

One study trying to get  teens to lower the volume coming into their earbuds thought another teen explaining the risks might be a good source.  Not so. That particular study showed the boomerang of a slight increase in their post-message listening levels. Go figure.

All of us who teach and write about persuasion should be a bit embarrassed to be so clueless.  After all, rhetorical strategies are predicated on the idea that if an individual takes a certain verbal approach to an audience, it should yield more or less predictable results. Like most realms of theory, there is the implicit promise of finding an “if-then” sequence. Call a person a “jerk” and they will not react well. Even so, I am constantly surprised by the unpredictability of audiences.  Even in our text on the subject, for the sake of clarity we more or less settled disputes about causal factors that are–in truth–not quite so neatly resolved.

Every new case of a mass shooter or some other form of human depravity leaves me scratching my head and scoffing at the journalists who want to identify specific causes now.  How could a new mother abandon her four-year old to die in an alley? What was mass murderer John Wayne Gacy thinking? What could explain how a professional clown who was hired out to do children’s parties could turn into such a monster?

It is possible to build causality claims using the laws of physics or chemistry, but human nature is far less predictable. 

It’s the rare “expert” who says, “I don’t know.” We have a natural compulsion to sort out the motives of others. It is one of the narrative lines that must be filled in when we parse human behavior. Try out a few random movements around your friends and watch the wheels start to turn as they try to figure out what’s up with you. Wanting to know the causes of everything is natural instinct. And we clearly know a lot about the chemical and biological causes of many conditions and diseases. But assigning  motives to a human can be a fool’s errand. What Hollywood usually wraps up by the time the credits roll remains largely unwrapped by the police professionals left to sort out real mayhem. In the study of crime, knowing who did some action is easier than knowing why.

After recent demonstrations at Columbia University, New York’s Deputy Police Commissioner Kaz Daughtry held up a book on terrorism at a press conference and said, “there’s somebody. . . [who is] radicalizing our students.”  He surely had causes in mind. But that rhetorical flourish doesn’t stand up very well. What person would have that kind of power? And are the protesters so uniform as to be influenced by the same persons or groups? It is more likely that many students have absorbed news of Palestinians living in what some have called “the open-air prison of Gaza,” mustering youthful outrage for the status quo. And even that simple causality chain could be suspect.

Thankfully, not every case is so difficult. Apple recently ran an advertisement selling a new tablet.  You may have seen the ad where a room full of creative tools–a piano, a guitar, paints, a record player, books, a trumpet–are slowly crushed in real time by a giant industrial press, leaving a tableau of shards and ruin. The tag line suggested that all of these wonderful tools are not needed if you have an Apple tablet. Only in advertising can a person be so cluelessly reductionist. Within hours media and arts creators of all sorts reacted with horror at the idea that this is what the company thought of their tools. Actor Hugh Grant called it “The destruction of the human experience. Courtesy of Silicon Valley.” The revulsion was real, and clearly not what Apple’s marketing geniuses predicted.

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The Looming Calamity of Multitasking

There’s near unanimity in the research that critical thinking declines when we fragment our attention.

There are any number of YouTube videos offered by experienced pilots and investigators assessing what went wrong after an airplane was involved in an accident. Fortunately, these accidents do not always result in deaths. And as many have noted, the riskiest part of flying in commercial aircraft is driving to the airport. But what is noticeable in these useful post accident “debriefs” is that the person in command of a flight often forgets one of the first rules of aviating: first and always, Fly the Plane. Distraction is a major contributor to mishaps. Confusing instrument readings, incorrect settings and a hundred other things can go wrong. And they can begin to consume all of the attention of those in the cockpit. Problems dramatically escalate if a captain forgets to monitor the basics, including maintaining sufficient airspeed, keeping safe altitudes and choosing the right headings. Long troubleshooting checklists are useful, but also distracting. They contribute to the same delusion most of the rest of us share that we can do several things well at once. We can’t. Our brains have not evolved to undertake simultaneous and  complex actions at the same time.

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This can apply to driving as well. The comparison is apt because driving safely on America’s roads has become an all-hands-on-deck endeavor. To be less than present is to be a looming danger to oneself and others. For example, a driver on a handheld phone has the reduced competency we associate with alcohol impairment. They can no longer monitor conditions to act defensively. This partly explains the rise of pedestrian deaths, resulting from drivers who have found too many other things to do while supposedly minding their two ton machine. What applies in the air applies even more on the ground. first, Drive the Car.  

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We are simply not wired to split short-term memory between a variety of stimuli. We may think otherwise. But there’s near unanimity in the literature on comprehension that critical thinking and response rates decline when we fragment our attention. To put it simply, multitasking makes us a little bit stupid. As researcher Clifford Nass famously noted, multitaskers are “suckers for irrelevancy.”  Because “everything distracts them,” their intellectual performance on important tasks deteriorates. Sometimes the person addicted to a digital stew of stimuli is the last to know that they have become intellectually impaired. It’s a common mistake to assume that being “busy” means being “fully engaged.” We perform our busyness as a badge of honor. But it is closer to the truth that the more we construct lives around external stimuli, the less we are able to get past the self-induced distraction that they create.

On America’s campuses the sacred cow of full connectivity makes it a virtual certainty that, while students may be placing their bodies in the classroom, their minds are elsewhere. Multi-tasking in educational settings is the norm. One Stanford faculty member notes that his research indicates a full quarter of his students are trying to use four different media at the same time while there are ostensibly focused on writing term papers. And the results are not pretty. Distracted writers give themselves the mental acuity of a child.

Try a simple experiment. Attempts to read your e-mail or a series of text messages while also listening to someone explain how to get to an address on the other side of town. No GPS allowed. An active and full-time listener will probably process the directions correctly, or ask questions until they have the mental map they need. The encumbered listener is more likely to end up lost, often compounding their distraction by calling from a moving car to get new directions.

The fragmentation of daily life into competing activities undermines competencies we value.

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Of course there are still those from all walks of life who still have the will to track the exposition of a complex idea for an extended period; younger readers happily caught in the thrall of a writer or literary genre; newspaper consumers who will follow an investigative story across three pages of a broadsheet; or the curious who are sufficiently engaged to listen to another for a sustained amount of time. But these individuals increasingly seem to be cultural outliers. We now tend to notice the rare person capable of full devotion to just one thing, sometimes flipping the arrows by wondering if they have some sort of condition.

So the caution stands: the fragmentation of daily life into competing multiple activities undermines competencies we should want to nurture. Lie to yourself if you must; but you are not exempt. The things worth doing in life –-if they are truly worthy of our time–are too important to be compromised by incessant interruption. My guess is that Joseph Haydn would have never gotten around to writing 106 symphonies if he had owned a smartphone and an e-mail account. How would he have had the time?

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