The teleological fallacy and our common delusion of control

The teleological fallacy improperly infers causes from outcomes. A good or bad outcome of an initiative by a general counsel does not derive, necessarily, from a good or bad cause, be it an idea, design or implementation. A loss at trial doesn’t mean the legal work done was shoddy. A patent granted doesn’t prove the application was well drafted and prosecuted. Outside counsel costs might rise even though a number of solid steps were taken to moderate those costs. The teleological error is to make inferences about the relationships between what happens and what was done before what happens.

“The illusion that we have more control over our lives than we possess, that we understand more about the world and the future than we do or can, is pervasive.” Along with the teleological mis-attribution, this depressing point is made by John Kay, Obliquity: why our goals are best achieved indirectly (Profile Books 2010) at 127. The delusion that we directly influence big effects on our lives teaches that we should experiment, we should take steps and study the results as best we can, we should be open to new ideas and to change course.

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