The Mystery Behind Cause And Effect

What’s The Meaning Behind That?

I remember several years ago I was driving down the freeway, in a hurry to get someplace. I forget where, so obviously it couldn’t have been very important. I was zipping in and out of traffic, checking for cops behind me every few minutes. Just as I was about to shift over to the lane to my left, a car on the other side of my destination lane merged in, without a signal, without checking, without any obvious sign of recognition that there were other cars on the road.

Furious, I waited until he (at this point I was assuming it was a he) was ahead of me enough so that I could pull in behind him. My plan was to tailgate him for a while, and then pull up along side of him and give him the finger. I tailgated for a couple of minutes, but my rising blood pressure and anger didn’t allow me the patience to torment him long enough, so I pulled quickly up along side to tell him/show him what was what.

Things suddenly changed when I saw who it was.

I remember reading about a strange legal case that happened a while ago. This guy was sitting at one of those Japanese restaurants where they cook in front of you Teppan style. The chef was doing his culinary acrobatics, and one thing led to another, and he tossed a piece of something to the patron sitting there, who was supposed to catch it in his mouth. They had had some dialogue going on, so it wasn’t an out of the blue toss to an unsuspecting customer. The guy snapped his head bad to catch the food, but damaged his neck, due to some extremely strange combination of angles and such. Something that would be nearly impossible to reproduce.

Nevertheless, the poor guy had to be taken to the hospital, and required a couple of surgeries to fix what had happened. The first surgery went OK, they sent him home, but later on he had to go back for another surgery. During his hospital stay after the second surgery, he contracted some kind of infection, and died.

The family tried (unsuccessfully) to sue the restaurant, as they started the whole chain of events that caused his ultimate death. The courts didn’t agree, because there were so many things that happened in between the first event, and his death, that it wouldn’t be reasonable to hold the restaurant responsible.

Then there was that guy who assassinated President Garfield, at least according to the courts. Garfield was getting on a train, and this guy Guiteau shot him a couple times in the back. They weren’t fatal shots; they didn’t hit any major organs. They took him home and his goofball doctors went to work. I say goofball because if in those days (1881) there medical methods were a bit out there. Had they treated him according to standard medical procedures in the day, he may have lived. Instead they did things like check his wounds with dirty hands (despite other doctors having already learned the necessity of antiseptics), they fed him through a rectal tube rather than through his mouth. Almost three months later he died.

At the trial, Guiteau said, “I didn’t kill him, I only shot him. His doctors killed him.” But they hanged him anyway.

Scientists tell us that our brains have evolved a very simple method for determining cause and effect. There are usually several intermediate steps that we overlook when we assume A causes B. It’s usually more like A causes A1, which has an effect on A2, which when combined with A3, has a reinforcing effect on A1, which in turn makes B possible, but not until C has been notified and called into action.

But all we humans see is A, and then B, and assume that A causes B.

They’ve done plenty of experiments on monkeys and babies to see what kind of assumptions we make about cause and effect. The results indicate that we seem to have a pre wired circuitry to assume cause and effect between certain objects. They’ll take a knife, and an apple, and show them to a baby (or a monkey), and then move them behind a screen. Then they’ll show some movement behind the screen, and lift up the screen to show the apple cut in half. This doesn’t get much of a reaction, as it seems to be expected.

Then they’ll take a knife and an apple, but when they lift the screen, they’ll be a balloon or something else completely unexpected. Usually the babies (or the monkeys) stare at this for much longer, as if they are trying to figure out what in the heck just happened.

There’s a whole branch of psychology dedicated to train people to uncouple unhelpful assumptions about cause and effect. We see somebody, they do something, we get angry. We then say that they “caused” our anger. But did they really? Or was it our reaction to our assumption about the meaning of the situation? We say “hi,” and somebody doesn’t return the “hi.” An event. We must give meaning to the event. Their not saying “hi” means they don’t like us. So we must react to that event. Our reaction to them not liking us is hurt feelings. So we react to that. We get angry, how dare they treat us like that. We may utter “asshole!” under our breath.

But what if they just didn’t hear us? What if they were in the middle of some complicated thought, and returning the “hi” would have ruined everything? What if they really thought they said “hi” but their throat was stuck or something?

Our brains are pre wired to survive in an environment that didn’t allow for second-guessing and various alternatives. We had to read the environment, and react quickly, or die. But we don’t have to do that any longer. Since we live in a modern society where we don’t have to hunt for our food, and their aren’t tigers roaming around trying to kill us, we can relax and choose our responses, instead of mindlessly reacting as if we were still cave people. It may take some time, but once you start to practice responding instead of reacting, you’ll notice you have a lot more power and control over your emotions, and it will soon be impossible for anybody to “push your buttons.”

So just as I was about to extend my finger, I saw that it was an old priest at my church that I attended at the time. This guy was about 80 years old, and couldn’t hurt a fly. He was such a gentle old man, that he was guy I went to whenever I used to go to confession. He was always so sympathetic understanding, no matter how horrible I thought my sins were.

Thoroughly ashamed that I had such vicious anger for such a gentle old man, I slowed down, and drove more carefully, and more like a normal human, after that.


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