The Incredible Allure of the Simple Explanation

The most irritating thing we do whenever someone kills a bunch of people is that we immediately want the easiest answer we can find, accuracy be damned. Everyone combs through everything they can find about the person looking for one simple explanation.

Oh, he’s an atheist, that’s why he did it. Of course. Case closed.

Oh, he had mental problems, that’s why he did it. Of course. Case closed.

Oh, he was just upset about a parking space, that’s why he did it. Of course. Case closed.

Oh, he owned guns, that’s why he did it. Of course. Case closed.

Oh, he hated Muslims, that’s why he did it. Of course. Case closed.

I think we do this because the act is so horrifying and nonsensical to us that we yearn for the easiest, most obvious solution. Anything more nuanced than that is psychologically upsetting to us because it might require us to think more deeply about the situation than we want to do. We want it all wrapped up in a neat little bow, and as quickly as possible, so that we can put it away and not have to deal with it. And it might even require us to do some self-reflection or recognize something bad about our in-group, something humans almost always try to avoid.

But if we want to be rational people, if we want to understand the world and the behavior of people in it, we can’t settle for that. We need to recognize that human beings are rarely so simple, that there can be and nearly always are multiple inputs to our behavior, some of them even in conflict with one another. We need to learn to recognize that ambiguity and take the time to carefully gather the evidence and do the hard thinking required to understand how all of those factors interact with one another. The world is almost never as simple as we want it to be for our own short-term psychological comfort.

And I use the term “we” here very intentionally. I’ve done it too. I’ll probably do it again. I bet you have, too. But it’s something we should strive to avoid. Doing so takes effort, but it’s worth it.

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  • moarscienceplz

    Very true, Ed, and well put. However, if he hadn’t had that gun strapped to his hip I can just about guarantee that nobody would be dead. We all have the capability to seriously want someone dead, but handguns make it all too easy to follow through.

  • Sastra

    I think it was skeptic Ben Goldacre of “Bad Science” who put out a t-shirt saying “Actually, it’s more complicated than that.”

    My own guess is that it’s going to be a combination of a lot of things. I predict a very contrite defendant who will probably plead guilty. The ideals on his anti-theism website included repeated calls for tolerance and nonviolence. If he was somehow following his principles, they weren’t the ones he was openly professing.

    The FFRF put out a press release which described the Chapel Hill shooter as “mentally unstable” and a bunch of people took after them for too easily assuming, blaming, and thus stigmatizing mental illness. But looking at the wording, they need not be talking about psychosis or even neurosis.

    This was a triple homicide with three bullets to the respective heads — preceded by a long history of angry incidents all over the place. I think it’s actually pretty safe to say that Hicks was mentally unstable. Stable people control their temper better.

  • flyv65

    I fly fish, and one of my favorite authors who writes on the topic says “There is never just one thing happening on a trout stream”. I’ve found over the years that this doesn’t just apply to fishing…

  • lofgren

    I think we do this because the act is so horrifying and nonsensical to us that we yearn for the easiest, most obvious solution.

    That would be more convincing if people only did this with horrifying and nonsensical things.

  • Larry

    I’ve found over the years that this doesn’t just apply to fishing

    I fish as well and have often found that the one thing that ISN’T happening while doing so is my catching them. ;(

  • raven

    FYI. Just going to repost from a previous thread.

    Accused shooter of 3 Muslim students had earlier run-ins

    .By MICHAEL BIESECKER and EMERY P. DALESIO1 hour ago

    Charged with three counts of first-degree murder is Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, who has described himself as a “gun toting” atheist. Neighbors said Wednesday that he always seemed angry and confrontational. His ex-wife said he was obsessed with the shooting-rampage movie “Falling Down” and showed “no compassion at all” for other people.

    and

    A woman who lives near the scene described Hicks as short-tempered.

    “Anytime that I saw him or saw interaction with him or friends or anyone in the parking lot or myself, he was angry,” Samantha Maness said of Hicks. “He was very angry, anytime I saw him.”

    This is going to be like the Sandy Hook school shooting or the Colorado Batman movie shooting.

    No matter how hard you try to understand it, it never makes any sense!!!

    From this article, this guy went around in a perpetual rage, often carrying a gun with a legal CC permit. It was a matter of time before someone ended up dead.

    I suspect the victims being Moslem made them a bit more likely to end up dead. But if it wasn’t them, it probably would have been someone else.

  • raven

    We may or may not ever know what was going through Hick’s mind.

    But whatever it was, it wasn’t very smart or coherent.

    He killed three people over a parking spot dispute.

    Well, now he is looking at life in prison and that parking spot isn’t ever going to do him any good. While he won his parking spot contest, he lost his freedom for life. This was not a good cost/benefit analysis.

  • http://mostlyrational.net tacitus

    @1: moarscienceplz

    That would be my point too. The gun didn’t cause the tragedy, but the presence of the gun at the scene of the confrontation certainly made it far far [sic] more likely. In fact, it’s safe to say that without the gun, at most there would have only been one death, and almost certainly none at all.

  • gshelley

    Despite some people’s insistance that it can’t have been over a parking spot, as people don’t do that, people do in fact kill over a parking spot

    A quick google search brings up an incident in Baltimre this year, one in Santa Fe Springs in October last year, one in Atlanta in November 2012, one in Powder Springs in September 2013 and doubtless others

    Of course, there may be something else going on in all of these cases. Some are long standing neighborhood arguments, others seem to be isolated incidents, some are guns deaths, others with knives.

    The endless speculation and insistence we are seeing that it can’t be “just a dispute over parking” is not helpful or useful

  • Carlos Cabanita

    A couple of years ago I was producing a criminal investigation manual for the Portuguese Judiciary Police (our kind of FBI) and I spent some time with some police inspectors. There was one thing they told me that disturbed me a lot: practically everyone, under the right (or wrong) circunstances can become a murderer. I wanted to disagree with them, but they were writing the manual on criminal investigation and I always remained in the calm side of the law. So I shut up.

  • matty1

    @10 I think that is a big part of why we look for certain types of explanation, not just simple causes but causes that are different between the murderer and ourselves. It is harder to realise that -this was caused by ten factors, six of them actually apply to me and the other four could in certain circumstances.

  • abear

    I thought it was already settled that Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris made him do it.

  • mithrandir

    I thought it was already settled that Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris made him do it.

    Since I haven’t even seen anyone saying that, I can’t imagine how it could already be settled.

  • Nick Gotts

    abear@12,

    I thought it was already settled that it was about ethics in game journalism.

  • http://mostlyrational.net tacitus

    It is harder to realise that -this was caused by ten factors, six of them actually apply to me and the other four could in certain circumstances.

    But if that were true, the murder rate would be far higher than it is. In reality, in places where the rule of law prevails, there are extremely few cases where personality, motivation, and circumstances combine to cause someone to actually commit murder.

    You may think you might be capable of it given the right circumstances, but I suspect that even then would be very unlikely to go through with it.

  • http://composer99.blogspot.ca composer99

    mithrandir:

    Obviously Dawkins and Harris were beaming the command to kill teh Muslimzz into his brain. He should have been wearing an aluminum foil hat to prevent their signals.

    Come to think of it, abear, you should look into that too. You never know if Dawkins and Harris are beaming signals into your brain.

  • abear

    composer99 wrote:

    Come to think of it, abear, you should look into that too. You never know if Dawkins and Harris are beaming signals into your brain.

    I’ve gone ten steps better than aluminum foil hats. I’ve soaked my skull with A+ so that the evil philosophies of misogyslamophobic ideas by the likes of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens just bounce right off! :-)

  • D-Dave

    @abear:

    So… you’re abear with Dawkins-proof Feminist Hair™ then? I can’t decide if that’s the best or worst mental image of the day.

  • raven

    Headline a few minutes ago:

    Chapel Hill Suspect Was Threat With ‘Equal Opportunity Anger,’ Neighbors Say

    Not sure if this helps.

    Apparently, this guy was perpetually angry and walking around with his legal CC gun.

    What could go wrong here?

    PS The claim that anyone can be murderer isn’t too helpful although it probably has a grain of truth. The fact is, some people are much more likely than others. Such as perpetually angry, unemployed males carrying a gun.

  • EnlightenmentLiberal

    @OP

    Bravo. Well said.

  • my2cents

    I’m not at all surprised with anyone wanting a simple explanation. That is what our media does, they look for simple explanations so our simple minds can handle it.

    What I don’t like is the (il)logical position the media is taking that, He is an atheist, they were muslim, therefore this is obviously a hate crime. It plays right into that negative stereotype atheists deal with that we hate religious people and have no morals, which is exactly what most people in this country think of us.

  • abear

    Wait a minute- we shouldn’t let Dawkins, Harris, et. al. off the hook so easily. Skepchick Rebecca Watson has apparently found a clear connection between them and the shootings. No way that Rebecca would be a toxic hate filled hack that would attack fellow atheists for no other reason than generating clicks for her crappy blog!

    On the one hand, it is easy to say that this appears to be about a parking spot only, with nothing to do with religion or race. But on the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine what would drive someone to murder three people over something so stupid, unless the murderer for some reason did not see his victims as full humans deserving of the right to life. And if you have paid any attention to the current state of capital-A-Atheism, you would have to see the growing problem with the continued dehumanization of Muslims, women, and other marginalized groups by community leaders like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Lawrence Krauss, the organizations that support them with awards and speaking engagements, and the mass of young and angry atheists on sites like Reddit.

  • mithrandir

    On the one hand, it is easy to say that this appears to be about a parking spot only, with nothing to do with religion or race. But on the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine what would drive someone to murder three people over something so stupid, unless the murderer for some reason did not see his victims as full humans deserving of the right to life. And if you have paid any attention to the current state of capital-A-Atheism, you would have to see the growing problem with the continued dehumanization of Muslims, women, and other marginalized groups by community leaders like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Lawrence Krauss, the organizations that support them with awards and speaking engagements, and the mass of young and angry atheists on sites like Reddit.

    Seems reasonable to me, and also doesn’t say Dawkins and Harris made him do it. Got any actual arguments against this paragraph?

  • abear

    mithrandir wrote:

    Seems reasonable to me, and also doesn’t say Dawkins and Harris made him do it. Got any actual arguments against this paragraph?

    I read sections of Hicks’ facebook where he explicitly said that not all muslims should be tarred with the same brush as the violent extremists and that he was in favor of the building of the “ground zero mosque”. I haven’t seen any evidence from his writings that he was a bigot. Not only his soon to be ex-wife, but also several of his neighbors have stated this guy was an equal opportunity hothead that had been brandishing his gun and going off different people about the parking space.

    When Watson says there has to be a bias motive involved, ever heard of road rage? Maybe try googling murder and parking spots. The facts are that people do fly into a rage and kill for petty reasons.

    Another problem I have with Watson’s statement is her assertion that Dawkins, Harris, and Krauss have been promoting the dehumanization of muslims and others. I call bullshit.

    The only hateful atheists I see is Watson and her clique that never miss an excuse to aim a low blow at Dawkins and others.

  • abear

    Also, mithrandir:

    She doesn’t say Dawkins and Harris made him do it but if she didn’t think they had contributed to the motive why bring them into it? It seems unless you have a pretty good connection between what they have said and what happened rather than some vague speculation as to what formed the motive before you start naming names and associating them with a terrible crime like this.

  • lofgren

    Seems reasonable to me, and also doesn’t say Dawkins and Harris made him do it. Got any actual arguments against this paragraph?

    What seems reasonable to you? There’s no argument here. Just one completely baseless speculation and two emotion-laden assertions, and the insinuation that somehow all three are connected due to simple proximity.

    I haven’t gone to check out the original post yet (a link would be nice since Rebecca is active on like seven or eight different platforms). Maybe abear has edited the quote to make it seem like Rebecca is implying something that she isn’t. But unless the very next sentence is “But of course, I have no fucking clue what I am talking about,” this looks pretty despicable. My bias is generally pro-Rebecca but this wouldn’t be the first time she has crossed the line from irreverent to just plain sleazy in my opinion. “Hateful” seems a bit excessive.

  • abear
  • lofgren

    Well she is obviously preaching to her choir because she doesn’t even attempt to defend her arguments, which appear to be at least 50% speculation anyway.

    Her conclusion that we should “retire” that cartoon is completely at odds with her actual statements anyway. The cartoon depicts a militant Islamist committing a suicide bombing, a militant Christian shooting up an abortion clinic, and a “militant” atheist having a beer. Rebecca says we should retire it because Dawkins once tweeted something that she disagreed with. Because Dawkins tweeting something that Rebecca disagrees with is totally the same as a suicide bombing or something. Her very argument proves the relevance of the cartoon. Which is weird because “militant” atheists who get called that just for speaking out about their beliefs usually get the label from people of religion, not from other atheists.

  • Carlos Cabanita

    The discourse about the exceptional evil nature of Islam is common to the Christian right and the atheist right. If Islam is so terrible, the war on terror is justified and the historical interference and warmongering of the US in the Middle East is whitewashed. The maybe (or maybe not) unintended consequence is the encouragement of the xenophobic speech and behavior against Muslims.

    That’s one factor. Another one is the lighting up of human passions in the presence of firearms. As I indicated before, it is possible that many of us can commit murder once triggered by the right events. Anyway, that must be very rare and the moments when the killing impulse is present are probably not sustained. I mean, if no easy tool to kill is available the passion may cool off safely.

    The homicide rate in Portugal is 1.26 per year per 100,000 and in the USA it is 5. Are there drastic differences in the genetics or culture? No. The Portuguese have killing rages too, but find no guns immediately available. By the time they would have solved the logistics of procuring a gun, saner thoughts would have prevailed. Even so, there is a perceived preponderance of murders in the country, where shotguns are more vulgar and are sometimes used to end arguments.

  • tfkreference

    @flyv65:

    Is that author the Fonz?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=827538816 nickcan

    I’m not sure about that. I think that there is a simple (but somewhat unsatisfying) explanation to a tragedy like this. This guy killed three people, and the trigger was something as basic and simple as a parking space. There may be underlying frustrations in his past, and this was simply the time that he acted violently, but a simple explanation exists.

    This guy is an asshole.

    Everyone gets angry at times, everyone gets frustrated. But if you fail to control yourself in a situation like this and overreact to the point where three people are dead by your hand, then you are quite simple an asshole. No amount of explanation or reasons can detract from the fact that this guy is an asshole.

  • Nick Gotts

    Pretending that Dawkins does not show a special animus against Muslims as such is completely dishonest. He is now aligning himself with the American religious right, figures such as Pamela Geller and Richard Spencer.

    Rebecca says we should retire it because Dawkins once tweeted something that she disagreed with. Because Dawkins tweeting something that Rebecca disagrees with is totally the same as a suicide bombing or something.

    Disingenuous crap.

  • Nick Gotts

    Faulty link@32. Should be this.

  • lofgren

    Disingenuous crap.

    it’s time that atheists as a group decide to retire this cartoon, which may have been true once but hasn’t been relevant at least since Dawkins started Tweeting about why women who don’t abort fetuses with Downs Syndrome are immoral

    There is no other way to interpret that.

  • abear

    Nick Gotts @32:

    That Loonwatch article you linked to is supposed to prove what?

    Summary of Richard Dawkins’ actions

    1. There is a direct connection to Robert Spencer’s inner circle. As confirmed by the URL link supplied by Richard Dawkins in quote #11, Dawkins has definitely been using that cabal’s anti-Muslim propaganda as a source of “information” for his own statements; Dawkins specifically links to the “Islam-Watch” website, which is a viciously anti-Muslim site in the same vein as JihadWatch and Gates of Vienna (both of which were the most heavily cited sources in the terrorist Anders Breivik’s manifesto). More pertinently, as confirmed by this affiliated webpage, the core founders & members of that website include the currently-unidentified individual who uses the online alias “Ali Sina”. This is the same fake “atheist Iranian ex-Muslim” who is a senior board member of “SIOA”/“SION”, an extremely anti-Muslim organisation whose leadership is formally allied with racist white supremacists & European neo-Nazis and has even organised joint public demonstrations with them. “Ali Sina” himself was also cited by Breivik in his manifesto.

    So Dawkins linked to an article in “Jihad Watch” ( a website that gathers news articles on islamist terrorism).

    That website has links to Jihad Watch and Gates of Vienna that Anders Breivek read.

    Do you consider that evidence that Dawkins is “aligning himself with the American religious right?

  • abear

    correction, that should read:

    So Dawkins linked to an article to Islam Watch (a website written by ex-muslims containing articles on islamist extremism).

  • lofgren

    Whether or not Dawkins has an animus towards Muslims is irrelevant. Some of his comments have been dehumanizing to Muslims, but they are of the “‘Islam believes X’ when in reality only some Muslims believe X” variety, rather than the “Muslims are cockroaches that should be exterminated” variety.

    And of course the suggestion that the murders were the result of Hicks absorbing Dawkins’ dehumanizing rhetoric is rank speculation, so what Dawkins does or doesn’t believe or said or didn’t say merely might matter, and even then matter only a very little.

    The comparison between Dawkins’ comments and MRA rhetoric is ridiculous, and only exposes how mildly offensive the former’s was compared to the latter’s outright and unvarnished bile against women.

  • Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    Wait a minute- we shouldn’t let Dawkins, Harris, et. al. off the hook so easily. Skepchick Rebecca Watson has apparently found a clear connection between them and the shootings. No way that Rebecca would be a toxic hate filled hack that would attack fellow atheists for no other reason than generating clicks for her crappy blog!

    Ed, don’t you EVER take out the trash?

  • gshelley

    Yeah, what she said was odious enough without misrepresenting it because of dislike of something she said in the past.

  • abear

    Azkyroth Drinked the Post-modernist KoolAid Too:

    You shouldn’t need Ed to silence people that disagree with you to maintain your faith.

    Just plug your ears, close your eyes, and repeat loudly 100 times; ” Becky good, Dawkins bad”. All the confusing thoughts that contradict your tightly held dogma will just fade away.:-)