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  Home > InfoWrite > Modes of Exposition > Cause and Effect

InfoTrac College Edition

Cause and Effect


Cause and effect writing seeks to determine reasons and predict results.


Establishing causes demands collecting sufficient evidence and exercising critical thinking. Make sure you do not make assumptions or rely on first impressions. Even experienced researchers have difficulty avoiding three common lapses in critical thinking:

Confusing a time relationship for a cause
. Events happen in time, whether measured in milliseconds or millions of years. Just because an event preceded another does not prove a causal relationship. The fact that Ford sales increased following a new ad campaign does not prove the commercials caused improved sales. Bad publicity about competing brands, decreased interest rates, increased employment, and a number of other factors could be responsible for boosting Ford sales.

* To prove a cause and effect relationship, you need to eliminate other potential causes.

* Cause and effect can be easier to ascertain if events can be repeated through research or experimentation. An ad agency that could demonstrate that its commercials consistently boosted sales for a variety of products could counter arguments that its effect on Ford sales was a coincidence.

Mistaking an effect for a cause. It is often easy to confuse an effect for a cause. For instance, a doctor might assume that a depressed patient's loss of appetite is caused by his or her depression. In fact, the patient's depression and loss of appetite could both be the result of an underlying medical problem. Does poverty cause crime, or are both poverty and crime the effects of racism?

Confusing associations with causes. In the 1920s some doctors began to suspect that smoking caused lung, throat, and mouth cancer. A large number of patients with these cancers were heavy smokers. But not all patients with lung cancer smoked, and many heavy smokers remained free of the disease. It took decades of research before the Surgeon General made his famous announcement in 1964, stating that cigarettes caused cancer.

It can be difficult to determine the cause of an effect. If a number of employees in a chemical plant become ill, is the illness caused by the chemicals, by the food served in the cafeteria, by pollution coming from the factory next door, by the high power lines behind the factory, or by recently installed carpeting in the lobby? Only careful research can isolate and measure each factor.


Establishing or predicting results is not easy. No matter how much evidence you assemble about a problem or issue, it is never easy to determine what the results will be. What has been the effect of a federal regulation? Has it made highways, aircraft, or food safer, cheaper, or better? Predicting outcomes is especially difficult. Will an increased minimum wage affect employment, lower poverty, hurt small businesses? In trying to determine effects, writers have to exercise critical thinking:

Anticipate unexpected changes
. The difficulty in predicting outcomes lies in the fact that nothing remains static. Scientists trying to determine if a drug will help improve cardiac function might follow a thousand patients taking the drug. If some of the heart patients improve, can it attributed to the new drug or a new diet and exercise program? If patients' cardiac function worsens, does it indicate that the drug is not working, or might it be caused by patients who gain weight or resume smoking? At one point in the late nineteenth century it was predicted that America would run out of trees by the 1920s. At the time, the writers could not foresee that soon coal and oil would replace firewood as heating fuel. In the mid-twentieth century some scientists predicted that a copper shortage would stall industrial expansion because nearly all phone and communications lines used copper wire. The crisis never occurred because long before copper became scarce, fiber optics and computer chips replaced the need for wire.

Avoid .slippery slope. predictions. Do not assume that changes will start a trend that will continue without stop. Do not assume that if a city bans handguns, it will automatically begin to seize shotguns or conduct house-to-house searches.

Do not assume that past actions will continue into the future. The fact that the stock market has steadily risen for ten years does not guarantee that it will increase during the next decade. Future scientific discoveries, political events, environmental changes, and market trends may create unexpected results. During the oil crisis of the 1970s, many experts predicted the price of oil would continue to rise to over a hundred dollars a barrel. But the rise in oil led to conservation and further exploration; by the 1990s the price of oil actually dropped to ten dollars a barrel.


Your paper may outline causes or effects or discuss both causes and effects. If your instructor does not assign a topic, you might consider one of the following items. Select a topic then explore its possibilities using one or more prewriting strategies:

Explain the causes of the following topics:
Sexual harassment
Militia groups
Teen pregnancy
The rise or fall of a band, political leader, movement, or fad
Popularity of talk shows, game shows, or soap operas
A campus scandal
Obesity among young Americans
Low voter turnout
Popularity of comedy clubs, coffee houses, or a local bar
The failure of a local business, campus organization, or recent movie

Predict or describe the effects of the following:
The information superhighway
The aging baby boom generation
Changes in gun laws
Welfare reform
Global warming
Children who grow up in daycare
Graffiti's impact on a neighborhood
Children watching talk shows
Sex education
Violence on television



TOPIC: graffiti--causes


Who paints graffiti?
What motivates young people to paint graffiti?
What role does peer pressure play?
Is there any political or social meaning behind graffiti?
Would graffiti painters express themselves in other ways?
Why does graffiti appear in some neighborhoods and not others?

TOPIC: the failure of a local restaurant


Were the prices too high?
Was the location inconvenient?
Was the staff incompetent or unhelpful?
Was the menu inappropriate for the clientele?
Who was the restaurant supposed to appeal to? Why did it fail to interest these customers?
Did the restaurant promote or advertise enough?
Were there too many restaurants in the area?

Use questions to narrow the scope of your paper. Rather than attempt to address every issue you can come up with, it may be better to restrict your thesis to one or two items:

Graffiti is caused, in part, by the need for disadvantaged young people to assert a connection with something that gives them a feeling of identity or power.
Despite its unique promotion, reasonable prices, and excellent service, Powers Steaks failed because the limited market for red meat was already dominated by Spencer's and The Red Lion Inn.


TOPIC: Graffiti - Effects


What is impact on neighborhoods?
How does graffiti affect property values?
What impressions does it make on visitors?
Do people assume graffiti indicates the presence of gangs, and therefore crime?
Do graffiti abatement programs have any impact on property values, crime, local business?

TOPIC: Welfare Reform


Has welfare reform lowered poverty?
Have companies hired former welfare recipients?
Have recipients benefited from reform?
Will participants remain in entry level jobs?
What has been the experience of participants in this program?
What opinion do employers have about the program?
What statistics have been generated about reduced welfare rolls? Are they accurately reported and interpreted?

Use questions to narrow the scope of your paper. Rather than attempt to address every issue you can come up with, it may be better to restrict your thesis to one or two items:

Graffiti has lowered property values, dissuaded new businesses from moving into the neighborhood, and led consumers to shop in suburban malls.

The effects of welfare reform are mixed. County statistics report lowered welfare rolls, but an increasing number of participants and their employers argue that the program will only help a handful of recipients move into good-paying jobs.


Whether detailing causes or effects, you must rest your evaluations on research or observation. Inform readers the methods you are using to make judgments:

Based on interviews with fifteen participants in the state's new welfare to work program, it is clear that the program is producing mixed results.

In some instances it is important to consider alternative viewpoints, especially about controversial subjects:

Most people see graffiti as vandalism, caused by anger, apathy, and rebellion. But current research, based on interviews with "taggers", reveals that loneliness and feelings of vulnerability are the driving forces that send kids into the streets with spray cans.

Although it is important to state your thesis strongly, it is useful to qualify your remarks, admitting limitations to your interpretations:

Demand for computer seminars is likely to decline as most freshmen learned to use computers in high school. However, if the university sees a rise in adult enrollments, there may be an increased need for these introductory courses.



1. Is your thesis clearly stated?

2. Are causes clearly stated, logically organized, and supported by details?

3. Are conflicting interpretations disproved or acknowledged?

4. Are effects supported by observation and evidence? Do you avoid sweeping generalizations and unsupported conclusions?

5. Do you anticipate future changes that might alter predictions?

6. Do you avoid making errors in critical thinking, especially hasty generalization and confusing a time relationship for cause and effect?

7. Have you tested your ideas through peer review?

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From The Sundance Reader, Third Edition, Web Site by Mark Connelly.