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Reasoning Skills and Determining Causes Help (page 3)

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Updated on Sep 29, 2011

The Chicken or the Egg?

    "I'll tell you why people today have short attention spans," your friend says to you one day. "It's because we are living in such a fast-paced society."

Maybe—but this is not necessarily true. Before you accept your friend's theory, consider that he could have just as easily argued the reverse:

    "We are living in a fast-paced society because people have such short attention spans today."

Which argument is the right one? Does living in a fastpaced society cause short attention spans, or do we live in a fast-paced society because people have short attention spans?

Again, both arguments try to simplify a topic that's very complicated. It's very hard to know what came first, a fast-paced society or short attention spans—the chicken or egg dilemma. You need to think carefully about the relationship between the two events before you come to any conclusions.

    Here's another example:
    Lucy feels more confident because she aced her last two exams.

True, getting good grades can boost your self-esteem. But it is also true that someone who feels confident is likely to perform better on an exam than someone who does not. So this is another case where cause and effect could go either way: Lucy's increased confidence could be caused by her good grades, but it's equally likely that her good grades were caused by her increased confidence. In such a case, it's best to suspend judgment about the cause until more information is known.

Reasoning Skills and Determining Causes In Short

There are two main approaches to determining causes in inductive reasoning: looking for what's different and looking for the common denominator. It is important to remember to look for other possible differences or common causes. Causal arguments should avoid the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy, which assumes that because A came before B, A caused B. Finally, some causal arguments fall into the chicken or egg trap, where the argument that A caused B is just as strong as the argument that B caused A. Think carefully before accepting such an argument.

Skill Building until Next Time

  • Be on the lookout this week for errors in causal reasoning. People are often quick to assign cause and neglect to think about other possible differences or common denominators. See if you can catch others—or even yourself—making these mistakes and correct them.
  • Read some history. Historical texts explore cause and effect in detail, and they'll help you see just how complicated causes can sometimes be. This will help you realize how careful you need to be when evaluating cause and effect.

Exercises for this concept can be found at Reasoning Skills and Determining Causes Practice.

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