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9.5: Cause and Effect

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    Figure: Image by Pixabay

    The Purpose of Cause and Effect in Writing

    It is often considered human nature to ask, “why?” and “how?” We want to know how our child got sick so we can better prevent it from happening in the future, or why our colleague got a pay raise because we want one as well. We want to know how much money we will save over the long term if we buy a hybrid car. These examples identify only a few of the relationships we think about in our lives, but each shows the importance of understanding cause and effect.

    A cause is something that produces an event or condition; an effect is what results from an event or condition. The purpose of the cause-and-effect essay is to determine how various phenomena relate in terms of origins and results. Sometimes the connection between cause and effect is clear, but often determining the exact relationship between the two is very difficult. For example, the following effects of a cold may be easily identifiable: a sore throat, runny nose, and a cough. But determining the cause of the sickness can be far more difficult. A number of causes are possible, and to complicate matters, these possible causes could have combined to cause the sickness. That is, more than one cause may be responsible for any given effect. Therefore, cause-and-effect discussions are often complicated and frequently lead to debates and arguments.

    Distinguishing between cause, effect, and correlation is very important in avoiding making overgeneralizations. Making an overgeneralization is illogical and weakens arguments, so to write strong arguments, it’s important to know the difference between cause, effect and correlation, even if you haven’t taken a statistics class.

    A cause is something that comes first – something that’s already there that may or may not cause a reaction. If that cause can vary or change, and it is there first, it is considered an independent variable. For example, wet or dry weather in the fall is something that happens in Northern California. It is something that just happens. It is a cause of how good the wine grapes are that are harvested in the fall. Now, if every time the weather is wet in the fall, the grape harvest is poor or of bad flavor, and every time the weather is dry in the fall, the grape harvest is good and sweet, then we know that the weather can cause the quality of the grapes to change. Now what if we looked at the wind, also? If we looked at wind and found the quality of the grapes changed when it was windy versus when it wasn’t, we might not be able to say that the rain (or lack thereof) is the cause of the grape harvest quality – it might be the wind. Until we could test this further, we would have to say that the rain or dryness is correlated to the quality of the grape harvest. It’s not necessarily the only cause.

    When there are two or more variables, -- rain/sun and wind/no wind – more specific scientific testing needs to be done to see if the independent variable is a cause. The test would need to set up each of the four possible combined conditions (rain/wind; rain/no wind; sun/wind; sun/no wind) with everything else being the same (soil, pH, type of grape, etc.) and measure each of those against the quality of the harvest. The tester could then run statistical tests to see the likelihood that one of these independent variables caused the difference in grape quality. The tester would also have to decide how sure he would need to be to make sure this was true. Usually they feel they need to be 95% or 99% sure (which can be figured out with statistics).

    Until the test actually showed that one (or more) variables caused (with 95% or 99% confidence) a difference in grape quality, we can only say that sun/rain and wind are correlated with grape quality.

    Why is this important? Imagine if someone made a personal decision or if a company or government agency makes a policy based only on correlation when something else was really the major influence or cause. The policy or decision could be ineffective or even have really bad consequences. A lot of money, time, and mental energy can be wasted, and the real cause might be ignored

    Exercise 1

    Decide whether the following conclusions are correct, by determining whether the underlying assumptions show cause or correlation and whether the conclusion seems valid based on that.

    A. The growth in murders is caused by violent video games.

    B. Skin cancer patients are more likely to have certain other kinds of cancers.

    C. The size of one’s vocabulary determines how good of a reader you will be.

    D. Smoking causes lung cancer; therefore, if you smoke, you will develop lung cancer.

    E. Eating too much McDonald’s causes early puberty.

    F. People who live in old housing are more likely to be violent because lead paint causes people to be more aggressive.

    G. Dogs are more easily tamed then cats; therefore, dogs like being with humans more than cats.

    H. Older people don’t need as much sleep as younger people.

    I. Hockey players get in a lot of fights on the ice rink, so they must not have been treated well as children.


    Use the complex nature of cause and effect to your advantage. Often it is not necessary, or even possible, to find the exact cause of an event or to name the exact effect. So, when formulating a thesis, you can claim one of a number of causes or effects to be the primary, or main, cause or effect. As soon as you claim that one cause or one effect is more crucial than the others, you have developed a thesis.

    Exercise 2

    Consider the causes and effects in the following thesis statements. Identify which part of the thesis statement shows cause and which part shows effect.

    1. The growing childhood obesity epidemic is a result of technology.
    2. Much of the wildlife is dying because of the oil spill.
    3. The town continued programs that it could no longer afford, so it went bankrupt.
    4. More young people became politically active as use of the Internet spread throughout society.
    5. While many experts believed the rise in violence was due to the poor economy, it was really due to the summer-long heat wave.

    Exercise 3

    Write three cause-and-effect thesis statements of your own for each of the following five broad topics.

    1. Health and nutrition
    2. Sports
    3. Media
    4. Politics
    5. History

    The Structure of a Cause-and-Effect Essay

    The cause-and-effect essay opens with a general introduction to the topic, which then leads to a thesis that states the main cause, main effect, or various causes and effects of a condition or event.

    The cause-and-effect essay can be organized in one of the following two primary ways:

    1. Start with the cause and then talk about the effects.
    2. Start with the effect and then talk about the causes.

    For example, if your essay were on childhood obesity, you could start by talking about the effect of childhood obesity and then discuss the causes, or you could start the same essay by talking about the cause of childhood obesity and then move to the effects.

    Regardless of which structure you choose, be sure to explain each element of the essay fully and completely. Explaining complex relationships requires the full use of evidence, such as scientific studies, expert testimony, statistics, and anecdotes.

    Because cause-and-effect essays determine how phenomena are linked, they make frequent use of certain words and phrases that denote such linkage. See Table 9.5, “Phrases of Causation,” for examples of such terms.

    Table 9.5 - Phrases of Causation

    as a result consequently
    because due to
    hence since
    thus therefore

    The conclusion should wrap up the discussion and reinforce the thesis, leaving the reader with a clear understanding of the relationship that was analyzed.


    Be wary of resorting to empty speculation. In writing, speculation amounts to unsubstantiated guessing. Writers are particularly prone to such trappings in cause-and-effect arguments due to the complex nature of finding links between phenomena. Be sure to have clear evidence to support the claims that you make.

    Writing a Cause-and-Effect Essay

    Choose an event or condition that you think has an interesting cause-and-effect relationship. Introduce your topic in an engaging way. End your introduction with a thesis that states the main cause, the main effect, or both.

    Organize your essay by starting with either the cause-then-effect structure or the effect-then-cause structure. Within each section, you should clearly explain and support the causes and effects using a full range of evidence. If you are writing about multiple causes or multiple effects, you may choose to sequence either in terms of order of importance. In other words, order the causes from least to most important (or vice versa), or order the effects from least important to most important (or vice versa).

    Use the phrases of causation when trying to forge connections between various events or conditions. This will help organize your ideas and orient the reader. End your essay with a conclusion that summarizes your main points and reinforces your thesis. See Chapter 15 to read a sample cause-and-effect essay.

    Example Cause-and-Effect Essay

    Effects of Video Game Addiction

    Video game addition is a serious problem in many parts of the world today and deserves more attention. It is no secret that children and adults in many countries throughout the world, including Japan, China, and the United States, play video games every day. Most players are able to limit their usage in ways that do not interfere with their daily lives, but many others have developed an addiction to playing video games and suffer detrimental effects.

    An addiction can be described in several ways, but generally speaking, addictions involve unhealthy attractions to substances or activities that ultimately disrupt the ability of a person to keep up with regular daily responsibilities. Video game addiction typically involves playing games uncontrollably for many hours at a time—some people will play only four hours at a time while others cannot stop for over twenty-four hours. Regardless of the severity of the addiction, many of the same effects will be experienced by all.

    One common effect of video game addiction is isolation and withdrawal from social experiences. Video game players often hide in their homes or in Internet cafés for days at a time—only reemerging for the most pressing tasks and necessities. The effect of this isolation can lead to a breakdown of communication skills and often a loss in socialization. While it is true that many games, especially massive multiplayer online games, involve a very real form of e-based communication and coordination with others, and these virtual interactions often result in real communities that can be healthy for the players, these communities and forms of communication rarely translate to the types of valuable social interaction that humans need to maintain typical social functioning. As a result, the social networking in these online games often gives the users the impression that they are interacting socially while their true social lives and personal relations may suffer.

    Another unfortunate product of the isolation that often accompanies video game addiction is the disruption of the user’s career. While many players manage to enjoy video games and still hold their jobs without problems, others experience challenges at their workplace. Some may only experience warnings or demerits as a result of poorer performance, or others may end up losing their jobs altogether. Playing video games for extended periods of time often involves sleep deprivation, and this tends to carry over to the workplace, reducing production and causing habitual tardiness.

    Video game addiction may result in a decline in overall health and hygiene. Players who interact with video games for such significant amounts of time can go an entire day without eating and even longer without basic hygiene tasks, such as using the restroom or bathing. The effects of this behavior pose significant danger to their overall health.

    The causes of video game addiction are complex and can vary greatly, but the effects have the potential to be severe. Playing video games can and should be a fun activity for all to enjoy. But just like everything else, the amount of time one spends playing video games needs to be balanced with personal and social responsibilities.

    Contributors and Attributions

    This page most recently updated June 6, 2020.

    This page titled 9.5: Cause and Effect is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Athena Kashyap & Erika Dyquisto (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .