The ‘Single Cause’ Trap

There has been yet another school shooting in the USA, and the usual rhetoric has kicked up again. The pro-gun and no-gun lobbies are amping up the noise on their agenda; the religious conservatives are bemoaning the loss of family values and ‘Christian’ morals in American youth; the techno-luddites have trained their guns on social media and the narcissism they believe it breeds; the Red Pill crowd talks about how spree violence is a consequence of the pressures of “being a man” in today’s world; there are also those who say something about “toxic masculinity”.

Taken in isolation, each and every one of these causes falls apart. Wealthy Switzerland, Middle-Income Philippines, and low-income Yemen are awash with guns, but nobody there is shooting up schools every three days. Much of Scandinavia, where gun ownership is high, has strayed from its Lutheran roots. You don’t hear of weekly shooting sprees in these countries. Oh, there was that one Nutty Norwegian, whose rampage skewed national averages, but taken objectively, it was just one incident. The current criticism of social media is nothing new. It’s the same chant that rang out against videogames, television, rock and roll, and even cinema. And as for those who blame the pressures of being a man or toxic masculinity – they would be foolish to not realise that gender and sexuality are now accepted to be spectra rather than absolutes, and social acceptance is widening beyond the classic stereotypes – there’s a space for everyone.

As an investigator and risk consultant, I see that clients often latch on to single factor in the mistaken belief that a unidimensional approach to an incident will help mitigate risk and that ultimately, finding a single point to focus all blame makes all the bad go away.

There NEVER is a single cause.

Whether a security, integrity, market, or societal calamity, there are contributing factors, accelerating factors, and a trigger. Looking at each event as a campfire – a contributing factor would be the stack of wood and the kindling, the accelerant would be the camp fuel, and the trigger would be the Zippo that sets the whole heap aflame. It’s easy to blame the Zippo as the cause of a fire, but the wood, the kindling, and the fuel played a significant if not essential role.

As an investigator, one of my favourite tools is the Ishikawa – or Fishbone Diagram. I’m going to attempt a crude Fishbone for this particular event. (NOTE – this is not a professional opinion or analysis of this incident, but just an example to illustrate the use of this tool)

parkland fishbone

Managing risks requires the intellectual horsepower to separate events into causal buckets like this and tackle them individually. This of course, is the approach for someone who is sincere about tackling a problem. An analysis of these causal buckets will lead to an accurate analysis of where the blame lies. More importantly, this analysis will yield crucial feedback on what can be done to reduce the probability of a repeat occurrence.

Of course, such an analysis must be founded on a genuine desire to see that such tragedies do not reoccur. The current discourse is far from that. Each tragedy is being leveraged in a political blame game or to promote vested interests.

So when you’re a spectator to a media circus around a calamity – do not feel pressured to take sides with the blinkered mobs that think there is a one-step solution – they may each be partially right, but are usually completely wrong.