"Why are things like this? What is the effect, or result, of this?" and "What causes this?"--These questions guide authors as they analyze or argue about causal relationships, such as "What is the effect of a college education on income?" View fascinating reports on various cause/effect topics and then explore your own causal relationship. Improve your critical thinking skills.

Unlike explanations of processes, which follow a chronological order of events, cause and effect texts are deeply speculative and tentative, relying on causal reasoning and argument. Your purpose is to answer

  1. Why are things like this?
  2. What is the effect, or result, of this?
  3. What is the cause of this?

Analyzing cause-and-effect relationships requires you to question how different parts and sequences interact with each other over time, which is often more difficult than reporting a chronological order of events, as you do when describing a process.

Why Write About Causes and Effects?

Human beings ask why perhaps more than any other question. When we listen to the nightly news and hear about the atrocities of war, we wonder, "What causes the hatred?" When we read about the violence plaguing our country, we ask, "Why does the United States lead the world in violent crimes?" When we read studies that indicate that 28 percent of women in America have been raped and that the occurrence of date rape is rising on college campuses, we ask, "Why is this happening?" When we read about environmental problems such as the depletion of the ozone layer, we wonder, "Why don't we do something about it?" Whenever we make decisions in our daily lives, we ask ourselves, "Why should I do this?"

On a daily basis, we seek to understand why events occurred by identifying the factors that led up to them. For example, if you were not doing well in school and on homework assignments, you might ask, "Did my high school class(es) sufficiently prepare me for this class? Am I studying long enough? Am I taking effective lecture notes? Am I paying too much attention to the course texts and too little to the instructor's lectures? How is my attendance? Is my part-time job interfering too much with my school work? Am I using my time to study effectively? Are some of my friends having a negative influence on my study habits? Am I taking too many courses or putting too much time into another course? What can I do to improve my memory or study skills?" After asking these and other questions, you would eventually be able to identify a variety of causes for your poor performance, and once you recognize the causal relationship, you can set about realistically to improve your grade.

Cause-and-effect assignments are among the most interesting writing projects that you will tackle in school and in professional life. In school, teachers frequently assign process assignments. For example, humanities professors may ask for an analysis of what causes particular music genres or artistic genres to capture the imagination of popular culture; history professors, the impact of cultures on world history; social science professors, the effects of inventions on culture or the effect of gun control laws on violent homicide rates; business professors, the effects of changes in the interest rates on the economy.

Cause-and-effect texts are extremely common in professions--particularly the sciences, where researchers employ the scientific method to seek out cause-and-effect relationships. Writers commonly focus on analyzing causes or effects. A medical writer, for example, might explore the effects of a poor diet or the causes of a disease. A lawyer might argue the effect of an accident on his client. A sports writer might analyze why a team continues its losing or winning streak.

Diverse Rhetorical Situations

The purpose of many cause-and-effect texts is to explain the effects or causes of something. And the tone of these texts tends to be dispassionate and objective. In complex situations, however, the writer's purpose may shift from explaining to speculating or even arguing about an interpretation. Sometimes writers argue about a particular cause or effect because they want to sell you something or because they want to change your mind on a policy or interpretation.

People write about causes and effects for a variety of communication situations, and they employ a variety of media. The shape and content of cause-and-effect reports tend to be more diverse than the shape and content of texts that explain subjects, concepts, or processes, as suggested in the table below.

Purposes Audiences Voices Media
  • Speculate
  • Explain
  • Satirize
  • Argue
  • Sell
  • Mass market audience
  • Decision makers
  • Researchers
  • Individuals
  • Consumers
  • First person
  • Passionate
  • Objective
  • Academic
  • Advertisements
  • Listserv messages
  • Essays
  • Newspapers
  • Magazines
  • Editorials
  • Web sites
  • Videos

Rhetorical Analysis of Cause and Effect Texts

Consider the context, audience, purpose, and media invoked by the following readings. Also examine how ideas are developed in these texts. Are assertions grounded in personal experience, interviews with authorities, questionnaires, Internet and library research, or empirical research?

  1. GHB on Campus: A subtext of a larger Web site created to educate readers about the dangers of GHB, this page summarizes the deadly effects of GHB on college campuses and urges readers to forward a listserv message to their friends, which reveals the deadly effects of GHB. Interestingly, a sidebar seeks readers' input to a survey on GHB usage on college campuses. On the Project GHB home page, the authors explain that Mr. and Mrs. Shortridges began the site following the death of their son to a GHB overdose: This GHB website started out as a quick project with the sole purpose of getting some truth about GHB on the Internet. In doing their original searches for GHB on the Internet, the Shortridges found that most websites advocate its use, etc. Some Internet pages about GHB have seemingly educated reports about GHB. They offer recipes, kits for sale, and tips for "safe" experiences.
  2. Rewards for Justice Program: Prevention of Terrorism Advertising Campaign: The US Government summarizes the successful effects of its rewards program for preventing terrorism. Its purpose appears to be to defend the program, advertise its effectiveness, and outline future rewards.
  3. College graduation rate below 50 percent: Written by a reporter for CNN.com, this texts summarizes academic research conducted by the Council for Aid to Education. The research analyzed why 52 percent of students in public colleges and 45 percent of students in private colleges failed to graduate in 2000. The researcher focused on greater access to college as the cause for the high dropout rate, suggesting that students who are being accepted into college are not prepared and that colleges need to do more to help these students succeed. The author's tone/voice is impersonal and objective. The audience for the original research study was universities, while this report is written for a broader audience--readers of CNN's online education pages.
  4. The Impact of Arts Education on Workforce Preparation.Sponsored by the National Governors Association, this report's primary audience is US governors. The purpose of this summary appears to be to encourage governors to fund arts education. This summary highlights conclusions found in a lengthier review of research: The Impact of Arts Education on Workforce Preparation
    This brief summary seems to present the other study's results as fact as opposed to speculation or argument based on empirical research:
    The arts provide one alternative for states looking to build the workforce of tomorrow -- a choice growing in popularity and esteem. The arts can provide effective learning opportunities to the general student population, yielding increased academic performance, reduced absenteeism, and better skill-building. An even more compelling advantage is the striking success of arts-based educational programs among disadvantaged populations, especially at-risk and incarcerated youth.
  5. Women's Love/Hate Relationship With the Internet: This analysis of the effects of gender on Internet usage begins with a strong, personal voice, yet this student writer quickly abandons the personal voice and adopts the more objective, passive, detached voice of the social scientist. Her chief purpose is to analyze barriers women face to using the Internet and outline ways to overcome these barriers. The writer has created a Web site to support her essay, including several bibliographies.
  6. The State of the World's Children by UNICEF: Mixing evocative pictures with extremely detailed analyses of the effects of poor nutrition on the world's children, UNICEF offers an informative and persuasive account of how countries and communities can and should help their children. Although this document is available on the Web, it lacks internal navigation links. Readers cannot tell how long the document is, either.
  7. It's About Oil by Ted Rall.: Ted Rall's editorial, which appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, argues that our attack on Afghanistan is best linked to America's oil needs rather than the September 11th attacks: Finally the Bushies have the perfect excuse to do what the United States has wanted to do all along -- invade and/or install an old-school puppet regime in Kabul.
  8. Urban Legend: Cause and Effect.: Written anonymously, this humorous account frequently passes across listservs and usenets, explaining, for example, the relationship between the Imperial Roman war chariot and the United States standard railroad gauge: The United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches derives from the original specification for an Imperial Roman war chariot.
  9. The Dead Grandmother/Exam Syndrome and the Potential Downfall of American Society by Mike Adams: Written for a university audience, Mike Adams pokes fun at social science methods and students' "grandmother" problems: Overall, a student who is failing a class and has a final coming up is more than 50 times more likely to lose a family member than an A student not facing any exams.

Focus

When dealing with causes and effects, it is important to keep to a narrow topic. Time constraints and resources should always be kept in mind when pursuing a topic. Example: To find the reasons for world hunger would take years of research and/or tons of hours, so focus on a specific entity of a broad topic. Perhaps you could identify one country's efforts over the past few years.

Writers often bring focus to their work by claiming cause-and-effect relationships upfront, in their introductions. These "thesis statements" guide the writer and reader throughout the document. And they also offer clues as to the writer's voice, tone, and persona. Consider, for example, this tongue-in-cheek analysis of the The Dead Grandmother/Exam Syndrome and the Potential Downfall Of American Society.

The basic problem can be stated very simply: A student's grandmother is far more likely to die suddenly just before the student takes an exam, than at any other time of year.

While this idea has long been a matter of conjecture or merely a part of the folklore of college teaching, I can now confirm that the phenomenon is real. For over twenty years I have collected data on this supposed relationship, and have not only confirmed what most faculty had suspected, but also found some additional aspects of this process that are of potential importance to the future of the country. The results presented in this report provide a chilling picture and should waken the profession and the general public to a serious health and sociological problem before it is too late.

Development

Critical readers such as your instructors are quick to recognize shallow reasoning. College instructors expect you to cite multiple causes or effects when you are addressing a complex phenomenon. For example, if you were exploring the effects of TV on children, your readers would most likely expect you to do more than attack the violence as being unethical or immoral. Likewise, if you were analyzing the causes of our nation's high divorce rates, your instructors would expect you to do more than cite troubles with finances as the cause of divorces.

To help you develop a stronger sense of the level of detail your readers need to understand a particular cause-and-effect relationship, consider conducting research. What have others reported about the particular cause-and-effect relationship you are exploring? Read about what others have speculated or reported about your topic.

Below are some additional suggestions for developing your cause-and-effect report.

Check for Post Hoc Fallacies

Critical readers will expect you to develop the reasoning that demonstrates the cause and effect relationship isn't due to chance. Academic readers are reluctant to assume causality between two actions because they are trained to identify post hoc ("after this") fallacies. Essentially a post hoc fallacy occurs when an author assumes Event B was caused by Event A simply because it followed Event A; the connection is false because it is equally possible that Event B was caused by some other factor. For example, let us suppose that Bill has been jilted by his girlfriend Laura. Because Laura argued with Bill last Friday night that he never spent any money on her and that she always has to pay for their dates, Bill might assume that she left him because he was cheap. However, this might not be the true reason for Laura's dumping Bill. In fact, it could be that Laura was tired of Bill's negative view of life. Perhaps she truly left Bill because she found him to be insensitive, boring, and uncommunicative.