Cause and effect refers to the causal relationship between two events or things. In this relationship, the second event (or thing) is the result of the first.
In psychology, cause and effect can be seen in behaviors, thoughts, and emotions. For example, we often see it in applied behavior therapy, where psychologists measure how their intervention leads to a behavioral change.
A cause is a catalyst that provokes a reaction, while an effect is a resultant condition created by this cause. Causes are what incite effects: they spark reactions and set in motion occurrences or results.
Definition of Cause and Effect
A cause-effect relationship suggests that one event is the impetus for another to occur. In other words, when something happens, it triggers a resulting consequence or outcome.
According to Taberski & Burke (2014), cause and effect:
“…is the relationship between the reason (or “why”) something happens and the consequences of that action” (p. 22).
Brown and Greg (2018) state that:
“…it is the idea that, for every action, there is a reaction (illustrated by a domino rally – once one domino is pushed, it causes another to do so, and another, until all of the dominos have fallen” (p. 55).
A cause is the origin of an effect, while the effect is the result of an action. Together they form a cycle in which cause and effect continuously interact.
Cause-effect relationships are found in all aspects of life, from social interactions to physical phenomena. Cause and effect are used in psychology to explain behavior, thoughts, emotions, and more (Nicholas, 2008).
It can be both positive and negative and demonstrates consequences of actions. For example:
- A student does well on an exam (effect) because they studied persistently throughout the course (cause).
- A student does not do well on an exam (effect) due to lack of studying (cause). The lack of studying was the cause, and the low grade was the effect.
So, in simple terms, cause and effect explain how an action or event leads to inevitable consequences.
10 Examples of Cause and Effect
- Stress causes anxiety: When a person is burdened by work, school, or domestic issues, this can trigger uncomfortable feelings of stress and anxiety. Such sensations frequently result in frustration and being overwhelmed.
- Insulting someone can lead to an argument: If someone says something harmful and hurtful to another person, it can cause an argument or physical confrontation.
- Sleeping too little causes fatigue: If an individual does not get enough rest, they will feel tired and lethargic throughout the day. Such fatigue can affect concentration, decision-making, and other cognitive processes.
- Loneliness leads to depression: Social isolation can be highly detrimental to emotional wellness, potentially leading to depression due to the lack of social connection and corresponding support. In addition, this absence of companionship can bring forth emotions such as sadness and hopelessness.
- Poor eating habits lead to health issues: Eating unhealthy, processed, or sugary foods can take a toll on the body. It can result in weight gain, high cholesterol, and other health problems. Besides, it can also raise some psychological issues such as lack of satisfaction, feeling guilty, etc.
- A new medication created to treat depression can lead to addiction: When someone relies on a specific medication to manage their depression, it can quickly become an addiction that is difficult to break.
- Lack of communication can cause misunderstandings: When individuals fail to express their emotions and ideas effectively, confusion ensues. Such miscommunication can lead to outrageously tumultuous conflicts, resulting in distress and despair.
- Abuse can lead to psychological trauma: Abuse can have a profound and long-lasting impact on an individual, not just emotionally but psychologically as well. These effects may manifest as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, or depression, which could all be caused by prolonged abuse.
- Watching violent movies can make people more aggressive: Viewing movies with violent content has been linked to increased aggression in individuals, likely because they are more inclined to imitate what is portrayed on the screen.
- Bullying can lead to low self-esteem: Experiencing persistent bullying or harassment can be incredibly damaging to one’s self-worth, leading to a lack of confidence and insecurity.
To establish a cause-effect relationship, three criteria must be met. They include temporal precedence, covariation, and eliminability (Oppewal, 2010).
- Temporal precedence: It refers to the notion that the cause must precede the effect in time. For example, when a child falls off their bike, the cause of the injury is the fall rather than the injury itself.
- Covariation: It means that if a cause is present, then an effect should follow. If a child eats ice cream every day and starts to gain weight, then we can assume that the cause of their weight gain is eating ice cream.
- Eliminability: According to this criteria, if a cause is eliminated, then an effect should also be eliminated. Suppose a person stops smoking cigarettes and their health improves. In that case, we can conclude that smoking cigarettes is the cause of their poor health.
Law of Cause and Effect
The law of cause and effect assumes that most events in the world have their own root, from which everything begins, and outcomes that depend on it.
A person needs to be aware of the causes and consequences of their own actions to analyze their successes and failures, as well as correct the mistakes of actions in an attempt to change the result (Tiwari, 2009).
The law of cause and effect states that all successes and failures necessarily have a reason and a result. Every action in life is performed for some purpose, sometimes unconscious, and always has inevitable consequences.
From this, we can conclude that victories and successes are often not a successful combination of circumstances but the result of work and achieving goals.
The law of cause and effect works almost always: in different areas of life, ages, and people with varying types of personalities, thinking, and behavior. The critical condition here is the freedom of choice of a person (Tiwari, 2009).
If individuals can make their own decisions, their whole life depends only on themselves.
In most cases, when a person goes to the goal, clearly imagining the result, they know the reason for their behavior and understand what consequences they should expect.
So, the law of cause and effect provides a framework to examine how events can be connected.
Thorndike’s Law of Effect
Thorndike’s Law of Effect states that behaviors followed by satisfying consequences tend to be repeated, and those followed by unpleasant consequences learn to be avoided.
Thorndike’s law of effect is an extension of the law of cause and effect, introduced by Edward Thorndike in the early 20th century (Thorndike, 2019).
It is based on the idea that behavior is driven by its consequences. According to this law, rewarded behaviors will be repeated while those that are punished or unrewarded will not.
It also suggests that when a behavior is rewarded, it strengthens the connection between it and its reward. Conversely, when a behavior is punished, it weakens the relationship between the behavior and its reward (Thorndike, 2019).
Thorndike’s law of effect can be used to explain why people continue to engage in certain activities, even when they can be harmful to their well-being (Thorndike, 2019).
For example, a person may continue to engage in an addictive behavior even though they know it will have negative consequences.
Such happens because the behavior has been rewarded in the past, creating a solid connection between the behavior and its reward.
However, as negative consequences become more likely, the connection between the behavior and its reward is weakened. The same idea can be applied to explaining why some people become victims of bullying.
When someone is consistently subjected to harassment, the behavior may become reinforced, and the person may not be able to find the means to escape the situation due to feelings of worthlessness and insecurity (Thorndike, 2019).
By understanding Thorndike’s law of effect, we can gain insight into the connections between cause and effect and why certain behaviors are repeated.
- Behaviorism in education
- Operant conditioning
- Classical Conditioning
- Observational learning
- Vicarious learning
Cause and effect is a fundamental law of life. Every action, decision, and choice we make has consequences on our lives, whether positive or negative.
Thorndike’s Law of Effect is an extension of the law of cause and effect that highlights how behavior can be shaped by reinforcement.
It suggests that behaviors followed by pleasant consequences are more likely to be repeated, while those followed by unpleasant effects are less likely to be repeated.
By understanding how cause and effect works, we can understand why certain behaviors are repeated and develop strategies to modify them. As a result, it will help us lead more rewarding lives, both personally and professionally.
Brown, D., & Greggs, A. (2018). Philosophy of religion for OCR. Polity.
Nicholas, L. J. (2008). Introduction to psychology. Uct Press.
Oppewal, H. (2010). Concept of causality and conditions for causality. Wiley International Encyclopedia of Marketing. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781444316568.wiem02059
Taberski, S., & Burke, J. (2014). The common core companion: What they say, what they mean, how to teach them. Corwin.
Thorndike, E. L. (1927). The law of effect. The American Journal of Psychology, 39(1/4), 212–222. doi: https://doi.org/10.2307/1415413
Tiwari, A. K. (2009). Psychological perspectives on social issues and human development. Concept Pub. Co.