Aug 202015 4 Responses

What Facebook Gets Horribly Wrong

Causation versus correlation.

While Facebook is a cesspool for false information, the main source of deception is a confusion of causation and correlation.

Know the Difference

We are terrible at knowing the difference between causation and correlation. We are especially vulnerable in the places of our greatest pain—a daughter with a medical condition, a waistline which feels out of control, the symptoms of aging which we want to avoid, or a lingering disease which just won’t respond to treatment. (See: Start Making Good Decisions)

In these moments we are more likely to believe what we want to be true than what actually is true. We will confuse correlation for causation.

And the confusion will most often come through a marketers secret weapon–the personal testimony.

Salespeople love a personal testimony for two reasons:

1. You can’t argue someone’s story. We can debate facts, but it is very difficult to tell another person that what they believed happened actually didn’t happen. When it comes to a personal testimony, we have to just listen. (See: Love Your Friends, Don’t Listen to Them)

2. People can claim whatever they want. If I make a claim about a product, I have to prove it or I run the risk of getting sued. Yet when someone makes a personal testimony about a product, they can say whatever they want with very little repercussions.

Causation vs. Correlation

I have a buddy who travels once a year to a road game of our favorite team. They always lose. As we look at next football season, should we prevent him from going to the road game our team will play against the number one team in the nation? If he goes, are we destined to lose?

I took two pictures. In between taking the pictures I took two bites of ice cream. In the first picture my stomach sticks out and it’s obvious I need to lose weight. But in the picture right after eating the ice cream my stomach is flat as an ironing board. Should people who want a flat belly eat more ice cream?

A doctor has noticed the most sound sleep he gets is when she sleeps with her scrubs on instead of changing into pajamas. Should people with sleep problems buy scrubs in order to cure their insomnia? (See: What a Timeshare Presentation Taught Me About Bad Decisions)

The answer to each question is an obvious “no.”

My friend can go to whatever road game he desires. His presence does not cause a loss. He can’t run, tackle, or throw a ball. The team’s losing streak isn’t because he is at the game. The streak has occurred because each year he attends the toughest road game of the year. It’s the game our team is most likely to lose.

There is a dramatic difference in the “before” and “after” pictures of my body, but sadly ice cream is not a miracle weight loss drug. The difference is I sucked in.

While the doctor does sleep better in scrubs, sleeping in scrubs will not cure anyone’s sleeping problems. She sleeps better because the only time she sleeps in scrubs is after a long day where she is too tired to change into pajamas. She sleeps better because she is exhausted, not because of what she has on.

In each case, the difference is between correlation and causation. If we confuse the two, we will believe the key to a better life is eating ice cream, wearing scrubs to bed, and making sure our best friend never attends a road game of our favorite team. But none of those things will give us the results we desire.

Who needs to know?

Knowing the difference between causation and correlation is useful for everyone, however it is vital for a few: (See: Dr. Seuss Said You Are Bad at Decision Making)

Parents. Our children do not have the ability to know the difference between causation and correlation. Anytime two events occur at the same time, children will always assume causation. It is important for parents to discern the difference so that we can properly lead our children.

Business owners. Many businesses chase the wrong metrics because the leaders do not recognize the difference between causation and correlation. Business schools talk about the difference between “lead measures” and “lag measures.” The latter are often correlated with success. The former are what actually cause success.

Thought leaders. Influencers must know the difference between the two so that we do not lead others down a frivolous path. While blurring the lines between the two can be profitable for us, it is not productive for humanity.

The Need for Experts

Because of our confusion between correlation and causation, we need experts who can inform us of the difference. We need people who know if a product or action actually causes what it claims to cause.

We need:

  • Doctors
  • Lawyers
  • Bankers
  • Theologians
  • Psychologists
  • Counselors

Each of these experts can assist us (within their specific field) to make sure we aren’t making foolish decisions. Ironically, each of these professionals are at a great risk to confuse causation and correlation in a field outside of their expertise. Because I can quickly spot the difference in the field of theology, I can easily assume I could never be scammed within the medical or legal fields. My knowledge in one area puts me more at risk in another area.

Yet when I lean on fellow experts, they provide a safety valve to protect me from myself.

Be Careful

While confusion between causation and correlation is everywhere, it is at its worst on social media. Through channels like Facebook, average people have large audiences to tell their stories. There is nothing wrong with those stories as long as we understand them as a layperson’s perception of reality. Rarely is perception reality. (See: What to do Right When You’ve Already Done Wrong)

With a little research, a little humility, and a little common sense we can discover if a person has accurately described causation or has sadly misunderstood correlation.

4 Responses to What Facebook Gets Horribly Wrong
  1. Mike Schmidt Reply

    Very good points. Unfortunately your confidence in experts is misplaced. Who do you think comes up with much of the confused causation in the first place?

  2. Mike Schmidt Reply

    By the way, the above comment was not a criticism. Thank you very much for your insightful blog. I appreciate it.

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