Graeme Newell

Proportionality bias

Most of us believe that the major events shaping our lives happen for a reason. We worked hard and got that big promotion. We were a good person and attracted our spouse. We were patient parents and our kids turned out great.

But the brain science clearly shows that randomness plays a much bigger role in shaping our lives than most of us acknowledge. Problem is, our brain really hates this idea. Our brain likes to believe that if danger or opportunity arise, we can actively bring about a desired outcome. It’s just disconcerting to think about living in a world where life-changing outcomes are determined by a roll of the dice.

Your wonderful kids’ positive attitude may have little to do with your parenting skills and everything to do with the genetic traits they inherited. You may have gotten that big job because the better candidate had a bad cold the day of the interview. 

It’s time we all gave ourselves a break from perpetual self-determination. A lot of time, there’s nothing you can do to change the outcome. Financial markets perpetually undulate, and the suckers fret over every pulsation. Remember the jobs from early in your career, and how people fretted over every clash of office egos?

It’s our brain’s denial of the science of probability that makes us mightily susceptible to cognitive biases like proportionality bias. This played out in tragic ways during the pandemic, but it also has devastating consequences in our own personal lives.  

When a good or bad major life event happens, we rarely give randomness its due. When we get that big promotion, do we ever say, “I got the job because all the other candidates stunk.” Instead, we bolster our ego and attribute the win to our exceptionalism. When we get that big accolade at work, we never say, “It had nothing to do with my performance. The boss was just in a good mood.”

Cognitive biases will lure us to believe we alone shape our destiny. So when both good and bad things happen in our life, the important thing to do is to take care of ourselves. 

We need to stop looking so hard for causality. The more we can learn to accept the very normal ups and downs of daily life, the happier we’ll be. Don’t fight the current. Ride the wave.