Causal Reductionism

Edited and curated by @philhagspiel

We often assume a single, simple cause of an outcome when in reality it is caused by an interplay of several factors.


In a complex world, whatever we observe is almost always the result of several factors coming together in a unique way. If we ask What makes an apple fall from the tree?, the correct answer requires some mentioning of gravity, the mass of the apple, a withering stem, wind impact and more. Yet, a quick and easy answer is: “Because gravity.”

People tend to be more responsive to simple answers to complicated questions as simple answers are easier to package well in strong messages and they require less thinking to process.

While this isn’t a problem in most mundane situations, causal reductionism frequently occurs in politics and media where every problem seems to have exactly one reason (which almost never is true). In a business context, causal reductionism leads to oversimplified explanations for why a strategy fails or succeeds as well as to misjudgements of employee and team performance (ignoring internal and external factors).

A robust test to check if causal reductionism is at play is to ask whether there’s a scenario under which the alleged single reason would not have led to the observed outcome. More often than not, the answer is yes. While this does not always change the relevance and actionability of current reasoning, it can help us understand if we are being mislead or are running risk of making premature decisions.


A few further resources you might like if you find above idea interesting: