[ kawz-uhnd-i-fekt, -uhn- ]
/ ˈkɔz ənd ɪˈfɛkt, -ən- /
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noting a relationship between actions or events such that one or more are the result of the other or others.
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Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What does cause-and-effect mean?

Cause-and-effect describes a relationship between actions or events in which at least one action or event is a direct result of the others.

Let’s say that you slam your toe into a desk and then yell in pain. Slamming your toe (the first action) hurts, so you yell (the second action). The first action is the cause of the second action, that is, the effect. A cause is a source or producer of effects. An effect is the result or consequence of a cause. The two actions have a cause-and-effect relationship.

A cause-and-effect relationship can have multiple causes and one effect, as when you stay up all night and skip breakfast (the causes), you will likely find yourself cranky (the effect).

A cause-and-effect relationship can also have one cause but many effects, as when staying up all night (the cause) makes you both cranky and tired (the effects).

And, of course, a cause-and-effect relationship can have multiple causes and multiple effects, as when skipping classes and not studying (the causes) result in you not understanding the material and failing the class (the effects).

Why is cause-and-effect important?

Studying cause-and-effect relationships is the foundation of science and is one of the most common methods we use to explore the world around us.

In science, we conduct experiments to discover information that we don’t know. Often, we only know the cause or the effect, and we investigate to discover the missing piece.

For example, a doctor can easily tell when you have a fever and trouble breathing. Those are the effects of something unknown—the cause. The doctor’s job is to use their training and knowledge to discover that cause (the illness) so it can be treated with medicine.

Often, we don’t know what the effect will be of an action (the cause). You might wonder what a sandwich made out of pickles, peanut butter, and tartar sauce would taste like. You know eating this sandwich (the cause) is going to have an effect, but you don’t know what it will be. After eating the sandwich, you’ll know that the effects half of cause-and-effect—and it just might be nausea.

Did you know ... ?

Sometimes, a cause-and-effect relationship resembles a domino effect or chain reaction, in which one original cause leads to an effect that then becomes a cause of another effect, which becomes the next cause, creating a chain of events.

For example, a man offends his neighbor by insulting him (the cause). His neighbor becomes angry (the effect and the next cause) and he in turn tells his friends (the next effect and cause). His friends also become angry (another effect and cause) and tell their friends (another effect and cause). All the friends gather to confront the original man (the final effect). By insulting his neighbor, the original man caused a series of actions connected together (a chain) that resulted in him being confronted by an angry mob.

What are real-life examples of cause-and-effect?

A common diagram that is used to analyze cause-and-effect is known as a fishbone or Ishikawa diagram. The following fishbone diagram attempts to figure out why a car won’t start by listing all possible causes.

Life is full of cause-and-effect relationships.

What other words are related to cause-and-effect?

Quiz yourself!

True or False?

Cause-and-effect is a relationship between two events in which both events happen at the same time.

How to use cause-and-effect in a sentence