The Concept of a Cause Has Gotten More Important Over Time

Historical records can be used to track changes in the importance of concepts.

Posted May 19, 2016

CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Source: CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I write a lot about the importance of causal knowledge.  Causal knowledge is what you use to answer the question “Why?”  It is important because it allows you to solve problems in new ways.  In the absence of an understanding of the way things work, you can only influence the world through procedures that have been established in the past.

Over the past 100 years, the world seems to have gotten more complicated.  Advances in technology have changed the face of people’s daily lives at a rapid pace.  In addition, Western Society has become more educated.  In the 19th Century, it was rare for people to complete a high-school level education let alone go to college.  Now, at least some college education has become common and there is a steady increase in people pursuing advanced degrees.

Do these increases in education mean that there is more focus on causal knowledge in society?

This question was explored in an interesting way by Rumen Iliev and Robert Axelrod in a paper in the May 2016 issue of Psychological Science

These researchers analyzed changes in the use of words related to causality over the past 200 years from a variety of sources.  They obtained text from books, New York Times newspaper articles, and issues of Scientific American

The researchers searched through these bodies of text using the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) software.  This program has a variety of dictionaries in it for different kinds of words.  One of the dictionaries focuses on words relating to causal knowledge, like because, influence, and depends

As a first analysis, the researchers simply looked at how frequently words from this causal dictionary occurred.  They found that between 1800 and 1900, there was not much of an increase in the use of words relating to causes, but that from 1900 onward, there was a fairly steep increase that appeared in books, newspaper articles, and science articles.  Only fiction books did not show an increase in the amount of causal words used.

The authors also did analyses to rule out the prospect that the words in the LIWC causality dictionary were just more contemporary words.  They demonstrated this in part by showing that other dictionaries in LIWC for other kinds of concepts do not show the same kind of increase in usage over time like the causality words do.  In addition, they demonstrated that authors who are likely to write about causal concepts (like philosophers and scientists) from the 19th century were more likely to use words from the LIWC causal dictionary than those who were not focused on causal concepts (like novelists). 

These results suggest that Western English-speaking society has become increasingly focused on the reasons why things happen over the past 100 years.  Presumably, the more widespread interest in causal knowledge helps people to solve problems in more creative and innovative ways.

What is less clear from these results is why there has been an increased focus on causal knowledge.  As I mentioned at the start, it might reflect increases in the technology required to navigate daily life.  It might be a result of more universal education.  It might also reflect increases in access to media.  When newspapers and magazines were scarce, people may have been most focused on what was happening in society.  Now that people have many different media channels, they may quickly become interested in why they happen.

This study is a good example of using historical data to measure a trend that has psychological consequences.  Further research is needed to understand the source of this trend.

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