On the Limits of Our Causal Imagination

This morning, while I was driving my boys to school, my 13-year-old son said:

When I was a kid, I thought you controlled the car with the steering wheel. I would see you go like this <pushes arms out> and like this <pulls arms in> and thought that was how you made it go.

What a perfect illustration of how our minds imperfectly construct causality. Sitting in the back seat when he was younger, my son couldn’t see my feet as I drove; he could only see my hands. When he wondered what caused the car to speed up and slow down, he built a complete mental model from observed materials. It didn’t occur to him that I might be doing things he didn’t see—that the real causes of the car’s acceleration and deceleration might lie hidden from his view. Only in retrospect did that idea seem silly. At the time, that mental model made complete sense to him, and he implicitly entrusted his life to it every time he climbed in that car.

Think about that next time you’re trying to explain something as complex as the flow and ebb of a social movement or the collapse of a state.

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