Monday, 18 January 2016

Causal Illusions and Success

Helena Matute
Today the Imperfect Cognitions blog has published an interview by Anneli Jefferson with Helena Matute who has been working on causal illusions and illusions of control.

Here is an extract, particularly relevant to the question whether some illusions lead to success:

AJ: In your work, you point to negative consequences of seeing cause-effect relations where there are none, as for example when this leads people to uncritically believing in unscientific forms of medicine such as homeopathy. Do you think causal illusions have predominantly negative effects? Can they also be ‘positive illusions’, to borrow Taylor’s famous phrase?
HM: Oh, they surely have positive consequences as well. Otherwise they would have not been retained to this day. This is a trend that evolution has favored, which means that those individuals who in the early times developed the illusion that they were controlling their environment had an evolutionary advantage. They were probably more active and more persistent in their attempts to survive and so were more successful. 
Those who believed that they had no control over their environment quite possibly reduced their motivation to act, and their actual chances to survive, as in learned helplessness phenomena. When Overmier, Seligman and Maier first described learned helplessness effects in 1967 they found their dogs had lost their motivation to initiate voluntary responses after exposure to uncontrollable events. If believing (or realizing) that you have no control leads you to feel depressed, passive, and unresponsive, then a lack of causal illusion in those cases can be quite damaging. So, yes, causal illusions do have a positive side in many real life situations, but today there are also many situations in which illusory beliefs can be quite damaging. For instance, it might have been positive to believe that an innocuous herb could heal you in the times when no scientific medicine existed. However, maintaining such beliefs at present may have disastrous consequences. 
To conclude, it is important to keep in mind that we cannot spend our life looking for biases, illusions and errors all the time, so we should be aware that we will suffer from some degree of illusory perception of causality from time to time. Thus, what I believe that what we should do is (1) be aware that we are all victims of these illusions, so we will be ready to detect them when they occur, and (2) recognize those situations in which causal illusions would have negative consequences for us and for those we love, as it is in those cases that we need to be particularly vigilant to detect and combat them. In other cases, just forget or make fun of your superstitions and illusions.

No comments:

Post a Comment