The tendency to seek explanation

Tolstoy understands perfectly the tendency for humans to seek explanation where none in particular actually exists.
“History is the fiction we invent to persuade ourselves that events are knoweable and that life has order and direction” – Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes
From Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’:
“In historical writings about the year 1812, French authors like very much to speak of how Napoleon sensed the danger of extending his line, how he sought a battle, how his marshals advised him to stop at Smolensk, and to bring forth other similar arguments to prove that even then the danger of the campaign was supposedly understood; and Russian like still more to speak of how from the beginning of the campaign there existed a Scythian war plan of luring Napoleon into the depths of Russia, and one ascribes this plan to Pfuel, another to some Frenchman, another to Toll, another to emperor Alexander himself, pointing to reports, projects and letters that indeed contain hints at such a way of action. But all these hints at foreseeing of what happened, both on the part of the French and on the part of the Russians, are now put forward only because events justified them. If the events had not occurred, those hints would have been forgotten, as thousands and millions of contrary hints and suppositions that were current then, but turned out to be incorrect, are now forgotten. There are always so many suppositions about the outcome of every event which takes place that, however it ends, people will always be found to say, “I said back then that it would be like this,” quite forgetting that among the numberless suppositions, there were some that were completely contrary. The suppositions about Napoleon’s awareness of the danger of extending his line and, on the Russian side, about luring the enemy into the depths of Russia, obviously belong to this category.”  (italics are mine)
It’s incredible that 140 years ago, a man could so aptly describe this natural tendency (the survivorship bias http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Survivorship_bias being part) that has now been documented so well. Though it has a disheartening side. It is apparent that it is very hard to learn the lessons provided by this; that chaos can and does rule so much of human life and that explanations of complex environments are often proximate or simply wrong. It certainly happens in business all the time especially when critics spew every supposition that comes to mind when presented with a new business and whether or not it will fail.
The following article is a well rounded account of this pattern seeking nature by a very reputable source: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=patternicity-finding-meaningful-patterns
Ours is a race of patterns seekers and when presented with random data points, will usually think something is there.
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2 Comments

Filed under All posts, Business, Thoughts, studies and science

2 responses to “The tendency to seek explanation

  1. Kevin

    Great post as always.

    You may like the book, ‘Voltaire’s Bastards’ by John Ralston Saul. It describes how the West have followed Logic and reason far too long, whereas other cultures, notably the Russians are much more able to see the world is far too complex to understand. As such they are Antifragile, where as we in the West are too busy building fragile systems on our belief that we can control complex systems.

    Also the work of Dmitri Orlov is good on this. He is Russian. Nassim Taleb says that pretty much everything he says is spot on.

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