Cognitive psychologist, George Lakoff, wrote in a recent article about understanding Donald Trump that there are two ways of dealing with a visible problem… that is, understanding the problem as having a direct and unique cause, or understanding the problem as part of a complex system. He wrote….
Direct vs. Systemic Causation
Direct causation is dealing with a problem via direct action. Systemic causation recognizes that many problems arise from the system they are in and must be dealt with via systemic causation.
Systemic causation in global climate change for example, explains why warming over the Pacific can produce huge snowstorms in Washington DC: masses of highly energized water molecules evaporate over the Pacific, blow to the Northeast and over the North Pole and come down in winter over the East coast and parts of the Midwest as masses of snow. Systemic causation has chains of direct causes, interacting causes, feedback loops, and probabilistic causes — often combined.
- Direct causation is easy to understand.
- Systemic causation is more complex and has to be learned.
Political Implications and Trump
Empirical research has shown that conservatives tend to reason with direct causation and that progressives have a much easier time reasoning with systemic causation. Many of Trump’s policy proposals are framed in terms of direct causation.
- Immigrants are flooding in from Mexico — build a wall to stop them.
- For all the immigrants who have entered illegally, just deport them — even if there are 11 million of them working throughout the economy and living throughout the country.
- The cure for gun violence is to have a gun ready to directly shoot the shooter.
- To stop jobs from going to Asia where labor costs are lower and cheaper goods flood the market here, the solution is direct: put a huge tariff on those goods so they are more expensive than goods made here.
- If ISIS is making money on Iraqi oil, send US troops to Iraq to take control of the oil. Threaten ISIS leaders by assassinating their family members (even if this is a war crime).
- To get information from terrorist suspects, use water-boarding, or even worse torture methods.
- If a few terrorists might be coming with Muslim refugees, just stop allowing all Muslims into the country.
All this makes sense to direct causation thinkers, but not those who see the immense difficulties and dire consequences of such actions due to the complexities of systemic causation.
Direct causation is easy to understand and because we live in a complex living system, it is also generally wrong…..