image1 image2 image3


First principles and pigeon religions

As part of an experiment, several pigeons in cages were provided food at random times of the day for several weeks. After a few days, the pigeons started repeating the activities they happened to be doing when they received food in the previous days thinking that it was those actions that led to them getting food. This is called a pigeon religion.

This is how superstitions come to life. When we do not have a logical reason to describe cause and effect, we begin to attribute the cause to anything that seems remotely plausible. We like to be in control of our outcomes. We like to think we can do things to affect those outcomes. When the outcomes are outside our control, we are helpless and start worrying what might happen. That is when attributing cause helps.

The alternative is hard work and an open mind.

The only way to accurately attribute effect to a cause is by digging deep and understanding precisely how the effect could have come about and then selecting the cause that fits the actuality. This is tedious and tiresome and not necessary most of the time. Because our experience in attributing cause is accurate enough most of the time.

The key skill lies in identifying when this is the case and when it isn't. And when it isn't, there is no alternative but to look at the effect from first principles and deduce the cause.

A lot of organizations are obsessed with metrics and data driven decisions these days, but I make the case here for having a healthy balance of making decisions on data and making decisions on experience.

On a side note, I recently started watching this show called 'Forever' where the protagonist is a cursed man whose curse is immortality - he is cursed to live forever. He helps a detective with her cases, and quite often brings about this distinction of going with experience and going with first principles. 

Share this: