Organizational leaders often misinterpret social science data. That might be okay on a quiz show like “Whad'Ya Know?”, but not when making important organizational decisions. The problem is that executives, like all human beings, are wired to see causal relationships between behaviors and events Invisiblegorilla that happen at approximately the same time. Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons talk about this problem in their new book, The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us.

Everyone is susceptible to what these authors call the” illusion of cause.”  Even David Brooks, a highly respected journalist and editorial columnist for the New York Times, demonstrates this bias toward causation in his December 7, 2010 column. He summarizes behavioral research that was reported to him by Kevin Lewis, a social science writer. In these brief summaries Brooks implies causal relationships between behaviors and events. These are the causal relationships Brooks describes in his column:

  • Periods of peak fertility in females makes them avoid male relatives
  • People who strongly doubt their own beliefs will strongly argue in favor of those beliefs
  • Touching among team members improves the team’s performance
  • Daylight savings time lowers SAT scores
  • Gun shows have no effect on crime
  • Low glucose levels result in a loss of self-control and increase the likelihood someone will commit murder
  • Extroverted leaders do best when their employees are passive and don’t take the initiative
  • Men increase risk-taking in the presence of attractive women
  • Men are not attracted to women who dumped their last boyfriends, whereas women are attracted to men who dumped their last girlfriends

Each of these findings from social science research is an excellent example of how even very smart people make the mistake of attributing a causal relationship to two variables that, although correlated statistically, might each be caused by a third variable or the interaction of four, five, six, or more other variables. Maybe when sports teams are winning, players are more likely to touch each other in the excitement of the moment. Maybe when things are going well in a company led by someone who is extroverted, employees don’t see a need to initiate new programs. Many alternative theories can explain why each of those findings summarized by Brooks could be untrue. The problem Brooks, Lewis, and the social scientists have is the "illusion of cause".

Within companies the “illusion of cause” occurs, for example, when executives attribute business success or failure to their leadership, or to a new marketing program, or to a reorganized sales department, or to innovative products, or to a change in the economy. These events might be highly correlated but they are not necessarily the cause of business success or failure. Another area where leaders suffer from the "illusion of cause" is in judgments about the value of employee training and development programs. If there is no significant improvement in the performance of employees who go through training, the training is considered ineffective when, in fact, it could be a host of other behaviors and events that are barriers to learning and to learners applying what they learned. Conversely, if leaders observe an improvement in individual or team performance, they attribute it to the training. That might also not be true for the same reasons. What are examples of the “illusion of cause” that you see played out in your organization?