“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” So says the Roman senator Cassius in the opening act of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.  The line captures a common sentiment: that we are responsible for our misfortunes. It is a sentiment that often lies behind another societal pattern: we tend to blame others for their misfortunes. Are we right to do so?

In a recent essay for Psyche, SFI Omidyar Fellow David Kinney did the math. Kinney argues that we are not right to blame others for their misfortunes. It’s not simply that empathy is more humane; it’s that we have far less predictive power than we might think.

For Kinney, when the human brain tries to account for all of the variables that bear on a possible future outcome, it struggles in a way that is analogous to a computer trying to solve what theorists call an NP-hard problem. As he writes, “given a general dataset, it can be fiendishly hard for an algorithm to learn the causal structure that produced it. In many cases, as more variables are added to the dataset, the minimum time that it takes any algorithm to learn the structure of the system under study grows exponentially.” The result is that the problem cannot be solved.

Since human beings often face unfathomable number of variables when they make future-oriented decisions, they can never fully predict outcomes. They are, even with the best judgment, subject to unexpected changes in the causal patterns they anticipate. To judge a person for falling into misfortune after an attempt to anticipate the future, then, is like blaming someone for failing to solve an impossible problem.

Read the article in Psyche (January 18, 2021)