289. Correlation is not causation.

289. Correlation is not causation.

I was expecting my colleague Brian to drop by the office for coffee. He had mentioned that he would do so and so I was not surprised when I opened the door to find him standing waiting to be let in.

What did surprise me was his demeanour. He was teaming with rage. His face was red, his nostrils were flared and the moment I asked the obvious question he released a torrent of rapid-fire vitriol describing his experience while driving to my office.

It seems the driver of a vehicle had come up from behind him, passed him, cut in right in front of him and then sped off.

He could not stop talking about how that f****** a****** had cut right in front of him and forced him to slam on his brakes to prevent a major accident.

And Brian was apoplectic.

I have known Brian a long time and never seen him even close to this level of anger. What surprised me most though was the degree to which Brian connected his anger to the driver of that other car.

We routinely confuse correlation with cause-and-effect. Correlation is not causation. There is clearly correlation between people who drink water and people who die of cardiac disease and yet I have never heard, nor read of any study that suggests in any way or form that drinking water is a contributor to cardiac disease.

In the same way that the above example is no more than a feeble attempt on my part to demonstrate the difference between correlation and causation it is nevertheless important that we understand this distinction because it pays an enormous role in all of our lives.

What is undisputed, at least in Brian’s telling of the story, is that a person driving a vehicle cut right in front of him. Perhaps equally undisputed was Brian’s reaction which caused him to slam on his brakes to avoid the possibility of an accident.

Brian connected his anger to the behaviour of this other driver and that is the lesson we all would benefit from learning.

The driver of the other vehicle did nothing to cause Brian’s anger.

If there was direct cause-and-effect between this driver cutting in front of Brian and Brian becoming angry then it’s safe to say that each and every one of us, in that same situation, would respond with the same level of rage as Brian.

But we know that to be untrue. Perhaps many of us would’ve been as angry, and perhaps of those many, some of us on one occasion might become angry when responding to an event of this nature and on another occasion “go with the flow” and not be remotely bothered by that other drivers erratic behaviour.

What Brian lost sight of is that he, and he alone, is the sole cause of his rage. There is no cause-and-effect between the driver and Brian’s anger. His anger comes purely from the perspective he chose to bring to the experience.

A wonderful Latin phrase, Post hoc ergo propter hoc, unwisely tells us that “after this therefore because of this” is a sensible approach to understanding events of the world.

At best this is a tongue-in-cheek statement. It suggests a link between two or more possibly unconnected events. To say, “after I had dinner I went to sleep” does not mean therefore that because I had dinner I went to sleep.

The quality of our lives really comes down to one word: perspective.

Perspective is all we have to keep ourselves sane or to drive ourselves to extremes.

What happens in our lives does not affect us until we attach perspective to it. I know we have discussed this many times before and Brian’s rage served as a reminder that perhaps it was time to revisit this once again.

The difference between those who are happy and those who are not is not a function of the level of our success, the degree of our wealth, or even necessarily the state of our health.

Our happiness, or absence of it, is solely derived from the perspective we bring into our lives.

I have long said that our ability to understand perspective – our willingness to accept responsibility and ownership for our reaction to any occasion – is the most liberating gift we can ever provide ourselves.

I stand by that and when I reminded Brian of this he smiled and said, “I don’t know why I do this to myself. But I keep doing it. And while I know it wasn’t that a****** cutting in front of me that made me angry, it was me making me angry I just can’t seem to remember the role I play in my own torment.”

His words are the message of this posting, “… The role I play in my own torment” a truly powerful reminder that we own every emotion we have and when our perspective changes it takes everything else along with it.

Let’s work on this lesson. Our lives will be enriched by doing so.

Till we read again.

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