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Cause and Effect Relationship: Definition & Examples

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Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

The relationship between cause and effect will be explored in this lesson. Learn about the criteria for establishing a causal relationship, the difference between correlation and causation, and more. Updated: 07/24/2020

Cause and Effect Definition

Think about when you woke up today. In all likelihood, you were probably woken up by the sound of an alarm clock. The loud sound of the alarm was the cause. Without the alarm, you probably would have overslept. In this scenario, the alarm had the effect of you waking up at a certain time. This is what we mean by cause and effect.

A cause-effect relationship is a relationship in which one event (the cause) makes another event happen (the effect). One cause can have several effects. For example, let's say you were conducting an experiment using regular high school students with no athletic ability. The purpose of our experiment is to see if becoming an all-star athlete would increase their attractiveness and popularity ratings among other high school students.

Suppose that your results showed that not only did the students view the all-star athletes as more attractive and popular, but the self-confidence of the athletes also improved. Here we see that one cause (having the status of an all-star athlete) has two effects (increased self-confidence and higher attractiveness ratings among other students).

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  • 0:04 Definition
  • 1:15 Cause-Effect Criteria
  • 4:14 Correlation
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An all-star athlete can represent a cause and effect relationship.
An all-star athlete can represent a cause and effect relationship

Cause-Effect Criteria

In order to establish a cause-effect relationship, three criteria must be met. The first criterion is that the cause has to occur before the effect. This is also known as temporal precedence. In the example above, the students had to become all-star athletes before their attractiveness ratings and self-confidence improved. For example, let's say that you were conducting an experiment to see if making a loud noise would cause newborns to cry. In this example, the loud noise would have to occur before the newborns cried. In both examples, the causes occurred before the effects, so the first criterion was met.

Second, whenever the cause happens, the effect must also occur. Consequently, if the cause does not happen, then the effect must not take place. The strength of the cause also determines the strength of the effect. Think about the example with the all-star athlete. The research study found that popularity and self-confidence did not increase for the students who did not become all-star athletes. Let's assume we also found that the better the student's rankings in sports; that is, the stronger they became in athletics compared to their peers, the more popular and confident the student became. For this example, criterion two is met.

Let's say that for our newborn experiment we found that as soon as the loud noise occurred, the newborn cried and that the newborns did not cry in absence of the sound. We also found that the louder the sound, the louder the newborn cried. In this example, we see that the strength of the loud sound also determines how hard the newborn cries. Again, criterion two has been met for this example.

It can be difficult to determine the cause of a baby crying.
It can be difficult to determine the cause of a baby crying.

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