The Simplest Cause is Rarely the Primary Cause

The Simplest Cause is Rarely the Primary Cause

About this Podcast:

A discussion of the human propensity to assume that the simplest and most easily controlled cause must be the primary cause of a negative effect. An example would be someone with depression believing that taking an SSRI will eliminate their depression rather than acknowledging that depression is a mental state caused by a complex number of factors.

Episode Transcript:

Hi, everybody, and good afternoon. I wanted I was looking through some articles that I've written and looking at posting them to my substack and came across something that I am concept that I see happen all the time. And I certainly will not be the first person to say it. Wiser people than I, I'm sure, have observed it before. But I see it a lot as a therapist and anybody who's a psychologist, therapist, anyone who works with a human condition. Is going to see this tendency or this propensity a lot. And it tends to apply in situations that are very complex, where there's a lot of complexity, there's a lot of intersectionality, there are maybe a multiple number of possible causes of some negative outcome that we're trying to avoid. And some of those causes might actually augment one another and add up on each other, but humans, including intelligent, reasonable, rational humans, and you'll see this in society, you'll see this in the news, you see medicine has been doing this for a long time. So what you see humans do is they'll take a really complex situation, and they will convince themselves that the primary cause, and often they'll convince themselves that the only cause, but even the primary cause of the negative outcome that they don't want, they will convince themselves that it's the thing that we have control over. Meaning, if there are 10 different possible causes and 9 of them are completely out of my control, I will convince myself that the one thing that is in my control is the one that is scientifically responsible for this negative outcome, because then I feel reassured that there's something that I can do about it. So I'm speaking sort of theoretically, but let me give you some examples where I've observed this. Educating children is incredibly complex. You have genetic propensity to IQ. You have nutrition, right? Kids who don't get proper nutrition is going to lower their IQ by a couple of points. We know that, for example, poverty and people living in a lot of stress, cortisol shuts down the more complex parts of the brain. So people and kids in stressful situations can appear less intelligent and do less well in school because Their brain is not resourced, and they're not grounded, and they're dealing with a lot of cortisol. So IQ and in fact, you can have an IQ and not do well in school because you don't interact well with others, or you don't learn orally. You're not good, which is our primary mode is like we want you to read, or we want you to listen to someone talk and tell you. And we know there are many people who learn much better by doing things with their hands. So there are all of these very complex factors. I worked in education research for the Los Angeles Unified School District for a long time and spent thousands and thousands and thousands of hours observing classrooms, gathering data, helping analyze the data, helping put out reports for whoever the PhD was that was running the project. And a lot of that involved interviewing teachers and administrators. And so hearing straight from the horse's mouth, what teachers were dealing with and what was going on. And LA Unified is a huge school district, so I saw some schools that the level of wealth and comfort and the things that were available to the students. That looked like a university campus. And then there are ones that literally look like a prison. There was like razor wire and one gate with an actual police officer, an armed police officer manning the gate, and they would lock and chain it closed. It literally looked like kids going into a prison, and they were often treated like that. So you see that and everything in between it. So you have all of this complexity interacting with how kids do. And also parents are a huge factor in how parents behave in the home and the sort of culture that they develop in the home and also the culture of the community. And when I say culture, I'm talking. I'm not talking about like, oh, this is a Latino community or this is a white, like. I'm talking about, oh, this community is really into science or this community has developed an affinity for engineering. Furthermore, I'm talking about little neighborhoods where - People are really into academics or in this neighborhood, they're not, they're into sports. So human culture, humans developing an affinity for certain types of behaviors create outcomes. So if education is really important and there's a big payoff for that neighborhood, you will see people really invested. So all of this stuff goes into kids doing well, and they're being high IQs and good outcomes. And it's fascinating. Teachers obviously play and parents play in political environments. But it's interesting that 90% of all the political movement of all the belief systems, etc. Nine times out of 10 people point their finger at the teachers. We need to educate the teachers. We need to do X, Y, or Z. And it's not necessarily meant is criticism. It's not ill-meant. It's like, well, we need to support teachers. We need to get them better books in the classroom and a better environment, et cetera, et cetera. But I realized that essentially what society was doing is they were taking the one thing they could control in an incredibly complex situation and going, oh, this is really the cause of kids doing better. Right? So this is a perfect example of an incredibly complex situation with many, many, many complex causes, causes that can augment one another, cancel one another out. And yet most instincts are, oh, we need to work on teaching and teachers. Well, why is that? Because any politician or any bureaucrat who goes after parents is going to lose their job fast. Right? Parents play a huge role in how well kids do, but nobody wants to say that because you're not going to do well if you do. You know, talking about genetic propensities and the role that genes play in IQ, well, nobody wants to talk about that. That's rife with that's such a fraught topic. Like, who's going to touch that? Administrators, money, bureaucrats, politics. None of these things are really under our control. What's under our control? Poor teachers. They're right there. They're visible. Furthermore, they're the most obvious point of contact. And also, they don't have a lot of choice. If the school district decides, wow, you know, the teachers need to be re-educated, or we need to push them to do this or stop them from doing that, or we need to change testing or whatever, that is all within our control. And for the most part, teachers can't really do much about it. And so as a society, I see this tendency for all of us to settle on kind of implicitly blaming teachers or holding teachers responsible for how this comes out, because that's the one thing we have control over when there's no negative backlash, right? You see this again in medicine, and I see this in therapy. So let's start with therapy, which is my purview. The human condition is very complex. People can be depressed in almost in an infinite number of ways. Some people get depressed because they're super, super anxious, and they burn through all their energy and then their nervous system crashes, and they experience this biological depression, right? Which is not the same thing as the classic sort of depression, the CBT sort of depression where someone has been taught and learned this negative triad of beliefs. I have no control over my future. I'm not equal to the task and the world is not fair. Whatever that triad of beliefs is, I don't remember it exactly. And then people become very depressed, and they have learned helplessness because their belief systems essentially lock them up from ever exploring anything and working through anything difficult. And that's sort of the classical sort of depression. Which is different from depression that comes out of grief. Someone's been grieving the loss of their spouse for two or three years, and then they get into a difficult situation where the grief turns into depression, and they're not really processing the grief. So now it's sort of clinically depression. So I'm just giving you some examples of how depression as part of the human condition is incredibly complex. Well, therapists deal with that. We deal with identifying people's belief systems, identifying the causes and going, wow, this is really uncomplicated grief. You actually probably shouldn't be feeling great. This is normal. This is healthy. You're going to struggle for a while because this person was very important to you. Versus, hey, you were taught some really negative belief systems. Let's use some CBT or let's do some things to really work with that. Versus, hey, you have chronic PTSD and your nervous system crashes from being overdrive into these awful depressions. We need to actually lower your nervous system activation, and you will find that you stop crashing. So therapists deal with that. That's complicated. People don't want to hear that. Like, you have to be a fairly skilled therapist to get people to accept that you're like, hey, you're in for a couple of years of work here. Like, we need to work on how you think, on how you hold your body, on how you live, on food you put in, you know, like the whole human condition. What do we do as what's super easy to control? Chemicals. Medicine. As a culture, we've gone so far, as far as I'm concerned, it's a true sickness how every single thing that goes wrong, we're like, well, I'll go to a psychiatrist and MDand they'll prescribe me a medication and I get those clients who come in, and they're like, well, they gave me this and that, and I'm really not feeling better. It's like, yeah, because you've been sold this idea that the simplest, most controllable cause of mental state has to be the right answer because you want it to be the right answer because you can just go pay someone and take a pill and there you go. But 99% of the time, it's not the answer. It could be part of the answer. Medication is important. I'm not against medication. I've used it in the past and I have clients that I recommend that they go see a psychiatrist or an MD It can help. It's like putting a cast on a broken leg. Furthermore, it can help while you're healing. But our insistence that mental illness is just a chemical state of the brain is an infantile level of misunderstanding of how complex our mental and emotional states are. And we as a culture have just decided, well, first, Big Pharma loves it. Yes, that's exactly what it is. You have a chemical imbalance in your brain. I've never heard such absolute BS. Yes, chemicals are imbalanced in your brain, but that's created by an incredibly complex number of causes. If you give me a five-year-old child or a 20-year-old that can't get away from me, and you put them in a room with me three or four days a week and I verbally abuse them, and I'm a sociopath, I can make them depressed. I can imbalance the chemicals in their head just by talking to them. A chemical imbalance is not because you just popped out and happened to have a chemical imbalance, although often the medical and psychiatric industry wants you and Big Pharma wants you to believe that. It's just not the case. I've never met anyone where that was true, except bipolar. One is very genetic and medication does a wonderful job of managing it. Schizophrenia, genetic predisposition. There are situations where we're just born with something wired differently. So I don't want to take that off the table. But what I'm saying is as a culture, we've gotten really sick with this idea that the complexity of the human condition that slowly built up on you and drove you into a condition where your brain just gave up and now your left prefrontal cortex has gone dark, which is a correlate of depression. Right. The prefrontal cortex is very, very important in regulating emotion and helping us regulate and respond to fight or flight and depressed thoughts and emotional responses. So this is another case, obviously close to my heart, in which human beings absolutely insist, totally intelligent, actually informed. Human beings absolutely insist that out of all the causes, the simplest one and the easiest one for me to control must be the actual cause. And when I say it out loud, then you hear how silly it is, how ridiculous it is, because there are cases where the primary cause isn't in our control. There are cases where this is life, like life doesn't have an answer to every single thing. So there are cases where The primary cause isn't something that we can control, but we will convince ourselves. And in fact, we have a society built on, and we have industries that generate billions of dollars based on people going, oh, no, no, no, no, no, no. I have this solution, and it's in your control, and we can do this. And it's like, no, no, no, that is not true at all. Another example I want to mention without going on too long is how incredibly important food and stress management is to medical conditions, to autoimmune diseases, to many, many medical conditions that arise out of putting the wrong things in our body chronically and this adding up to heart conditions and autoimmune diseases and any number of things. And stress and nutrition are the primary movers. But that's really hard to manage. You might be strapped with four kids and have a really shitty job with a shitty boss that you can't really leave right now, and you're really stressed and that's just human, and it's not your fault, and you don't have control over that lever. So someone's going to try to sell you on the idea. That you can just take a chemical and sort it out, when in fact the primary cause, sadly, in this situation is something that you don't have control over right now. Again, that's often the job of a therapist to gently tell you like, hey, maybe you would feel more comfortable if we were just honest and said your job is a big portion of you feeling really stressed and not being able to sleep and having these medical issues come up. Nutrition is another one. It's incredibly complex. The FDA has sold us out many times and allowed really toxic, unhealthy things to be introduced into our food supply. It's very expensive and very complicated to figure out what do you buy? What is good nutrition? And what works for me? Because I might be allergic to something that you're not. You might be great drinking tons of milk. Somebody else, it might make them slowly sick. And so it's this very complex but clear cause. And yet we'll go to the Doctor and just be like, you know, sort it out, do surgery, just tell me something or just give me a patch or give me a medicine, prescribe a medicine, because that's the thing I can control. Therefore, I'm going to absolutely insist that it is the primary cause of the issue. So Without going on too long, I really wanted to speak to this, and clearly you can hear that there's frustration on my part when it comes to therapy and psychology and the human condition, because that's where I encounter a lot. People coming in, even trying to set therapy up as, oh, you're an EMDR practitioner. If you had really, really complex trauma with tons of gaslighting and tons of belief systems installed, et cetera, et cetera, and someone has sold you on the idea that EMDR is effective, it is. It's incredibly effective. But when you have complex trauma, It's much more effective than not doing it, but you're probably still in for minimum two years of cracking away at this and really working to get your mind around the complexity of this thing that happened to you and how many ways you were gas lit and basically brainwashed to believe things are really negative and really hurt your outcomes. So my advice is. moving forward, when you're evaluating, or especially when something is being sold to you. And it's really pretty simple. You just pay this amount and there's just one thing, usually a chemical, or it's just this technique. Oh, is this one weird technique? It's going to solve everything. Sometimes there are things, aspirin is very effective. Like there are things that are gorgeous magically effective. But first, you have to really examine for yourself. You have to stop and really examine for yourself. What are all the possible causes? What are the complex ones? What are the ones that I have no control over? And am I insisting, unconsciously choosing and insisting that the answer just happens to be the thing that I have control over because that soothes me and that reassures me and that makes me feel like I have control over the situation? In the short term, it might feel better. In the long term, it makes us more anxious because we keep getting gamed. You keep buying that solution, and then it doesn't work, and then you feel like nothing works. Well, that's not true. My recommendation is when you're in that situation, if you identify, for example, with nutrition, I identified that it's like nutrition was the biggest culprit in the fact that I felt super, exhausted and felt like I was aging quickly, and it didn't seem natural. It's like I had to do a deep dive for like three or four years and hire a nutritionist and work and see what worked for me and change my habits and psychologically figure out why I couldn't give certain things up, even though I knew that it was not, you know, it was a complex thing. But in the long term, I felt way better. I respected myself way more in my ability to not game myself, not be silly and childish about, well, I need it to be the easy thing. I need it to be that I go to the doctor, and they just tell me, well, here, take this, or you're just aging. Don't worry about it. Doing a deep dive and going, no, like nutrition is a huge part of why I was feeling the way I was. And it required that I be an adult and step up and educate myself to learn to put my hands on that lever and to understand that I'm going to be working with that for the rest of my life because it's very complex. I don't get to pretend that the answer is simple just because I want it to be. So the recommendation is always slow down. Look at the array of all the complexities that can cause something. Be especially careful if you are being sold a simple solution and someone's making money off of the idea that that solution is simple. Be super, super, super cautious. 99% of the time, it's, if not complete bullshit, it's partially bullshit or significantly bullshit. This is the way life is. A lot of the solutions are not simple. So in order to be kind to one another, to not abuse teachers or to choose a scapegoat and go, well, it's their fault, or it's its fault or whatever, we have to be super careful. Not to fall prey to going. The answer to the cause of this negative outcome has to be the thing that's really simple and is easy for me to control. That is a cop out. We hurt ourselves when we do it. We have less respect for ourselves because we don't succeed in the long term. And we also hurt other people. When it's a person, like with the situation with the teachers where we're constantly going like, well, the teachers need to do this, we need to do that. And this incredibly complex situation when most of the teachers I observed were amazing human beings giving everything they had. To help, but they were sort of tacitly being blamed for way more complex things that had much more power over how children did. So that's my message for the day. And I hope you guys have a wonderful afternoon, and I'll see you next time. Take care.

Meet your hosts:

Jon Sorensen


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