Being certain is emotionally satisfying. Whether it is knowing an answer in a pub quiz, retrieving the name of someone you haven’t seen for ages, or working out why the dishwasher has stopped working, there is a tiny release of positivity when we ‘know’ something.
The neurologist Robert Burton calls this feeling ‘the sensation of knowing‘ and argues it is a primary emotion, like fear or elation. It is involuntary and powerful. At its most potent, we experience the ‘Aha!’ moment.. In more everyday situations we may describe this feeling as a ‘click’. Things suddenly make sense.
If you think about it, we would be quite lost if we did not know when we know something. Attaching a sensation to knowing is useful in evolutionary terms. It gives us that ‘got it’ moment which signals that we can move on to the next thing. Once we have a satisfactory answer, it would be inefficient for us to keep searching. How would we ever get anything done?
However, the click of knowing can also let us down, particularly when things are not as knowable as they might appear. Once we have an answer – one that appears to make sense – we are emotionally ready to move on, but in doing so we stop testing our assumptions. One example of when this becomes problematic is when we make causal inferences. A causal inference is a theory about why something happened. We create these theories all of the time. If we can readily identify a plausible explanation for events or someone’s behaviour, we will often be satisfied by the story we create. However, in complex social situations, events rarely have single or a few causes. As the philosopher of science, Nancy Cartwright, points out, ’causes work in teams’.
Imagine we are providing constructive feedback to a colleague on their lesson. It doesn’t go well. The colleague reacts badly and the discussion ends in conflict. We are bruised by this encounter and attribute our colleague’s reaction to their inability to accept criticism.
Then later that day, we find out that a close relative of the colleague is seriously ill. We revise our assumptions and attribute their behaviour as an atypical reaction given the emotional strain they are under.
You relay this story to a close colleague. After an awkward silence they tell you that in fact this individual has never forgiven you for a disagreement between you last year. You remember this disagreement but had long since moved on. Your colleague, it would appear, has not.
Finally, you decide to speak with your colleague and clear the air. You ask them about your previous disagreement and express your view that you both need to move on and be able to work together. You are surprised when they tell you that you have read the situation wrong. What they are exasperated about is the high stakes accountability system at the school and the pressure they and their colleagues feel when they are observed.
When you walk away you are wiser, but do you know everything by this point? Probably not. And can you construct a plausible explanation for what transpired? Perhaps. What you may realise is that there is not one factor which resulted in the conflict which occured. Causes work in teams. You may also reflect that there is no simple solution. Where once you were able to attribute events to a flaw in someone’s character, you must now accept that this story also involves you and a multitude of other people and circumstance.
If the story we tell ourselves is predicated on single causes it will be very unlikely to get close to explaining the behaviour of complex beings in complex situations. Few of us would do so, surely? But we will all reach a point where we get that satisfying ‘click’ when the story we construct makes sense. We readily fall into certainty as we are primed to do so. And yet, holding on to doubt – pushing ourselves to countenance the notion that we probably do not know all of importance there is to know – may make our actions more cautious and wise. Certainty feels good, but resisting its emotional pull may be prudent as we probably don’t have the full story.
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