Why We Get It Wrong - Proximate vs Root Causes

Last modified: Monday, May 11, 2020

Daniel Cuttridge


When it comes to decision making, it is vital to know the difference between proximate causes and root causes.

Without doing this you can never uncover the true course of events that lead to a desired or undesired outcome. Harming future decision making, potentially indefinitely.

Proximate vs Root:

A proximate cause is a causal link with the most immediate responsibility for an outcome.

The root cause, also sometimes called the ultimate cause is the real reason.

Why did the car breakdown?

Proximate cause - Because it ran out of gas.
Root cause - Because the driver failed to gas up the tank.

Mistaken Causes...

Richard Weston was a hard working farmer from Nebraska. He’d been working nearly full-time since he was just 14 years old. He was now 42 years old and the year was 1973.

Richard was good at many things around the farm, that said, in the less than 6 years since his father passed and he had taken over the farm, things had got increasingly worse.

There were old tractors and even an old crop duster sitting around that he couldn’t use anymore, he could no longer afford to get things repaired. He’d even sold acres of land to keep afloat.

He would have to lend from the bank, and he hoped that somehow this would change his fortunes. It didn't and he lost the farm.

A dusty crop filled field

As a 50 year old man, he told his story to a reporter who was investigating the growing number of disappearing farms across the state.

He lamented that the problem was big chains that wouldn’t pay enough for what he provided, and it made it impossible for him to maintain the farm at a workable standard. He said that there was just no way his farm could have survived...

His account of events isn’t unique, and it’s not totally untrue, some farms were being forced out of the game. However, Richard was wrong.

He made the fatal flaw of confusing proximate causes with root causes and that is what cost him his farm...

The same belief he now held after the fact, was the very reason he lost his farm.

How can that even be?

An independent report found that there was a chain of events that started around the time that Richard took over the farm.

It discovered that the soil was in bad shape, and inevitably crop yields dropped. Richard earned less money, he couldn’t afford to maintain his farm, things got worse and then eventually the inevitable happened.

An empty field

The fact that Richard believed he was being screwed over was the reason he couldn’t fix the problem before it was too late.

He had discovered the proximate cause for why his farm was doing badly, he was receiving less money.

What he didn’t see was that his yields had dropped significantly and that the root cause was the soil quality. Shifting baseline principle (creeping normality) prevented him from seeing just how much less he was producing.

In the course of our daily lives as regular people and as professionals, this happens all the time. When we are wrong about something it is usually because we could not identify the root cause.

In the course of human history, we were often wrong because we didn’t have enough data... In today's world we are increasingly wrong because we are unable to interpret the abundance of data we now have.

In the course of human history, we were often wrong because we didn’t have enough data... In today's world we are increasingly wrong because we are unable to interpret the abundance of data we now have.

Politicians are a great example of not finding root causes… When they aren’t pointing the finger of blame, they focus on proximate causes either deliberately or because they themselves are unable to identify the root causes.

The result is that nothing improves and things get worse, policy is shaped by people who aren’t focusing on the root cause of the problems we face today.

If you can’t identify the root cause, things only get worse…

Crime Boom of the 1970s

The 1970s seemed to be teeming with serial killers such as John Wayne Gacy, Dennis Rader (BTK), Son of Sam and Ted Bundy, to name a few.

The 70s had over 119 active serial killers, and 37,990 recorded rapes nationwide. Add to that the 13,000 felonies on NYC subways in 1979 alone. Something was definitely up.

A decade earlier, President Lyndon B. Johnson issued a rallying cry for a "War on Crime". Culminating in the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968.

One of the key focuses of the act was increasing the minimum age for buying handguns to 21.

While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it was like they were saying that the solution to dealing with the increasing amount of crime was to remove the weapon that 'caused' most murders.

That logic might seem sound, however it's focusing on the proximate cause of death and not the root cause.

It ultimately did little to stop the crime boom of the 1970s.

The Tipping Point

The fact is that the 1970s didn't just appear out of nowhere... The government had identified a problem a decade earlier. They just failed at identifying the root cause.

Tipping points often occur before we see them happen, and the fact was that even in the 60s, the board had been set nearly two decades prior.

The first of the baby boomer generation was born in 1946. This earliest group entered their crime years in 1961, and the baby boomers born in 1954 entered their crime years in 1969. The crime boom mirrored the baby boom. It wasn't simply that the baby boomers were worse, but there were also more of them.

Moving forward from the 70s a couple of decades to the early 1990s, Mayor Giuliani, elected 1994, has been credited with the decline of crime in New York City. Attributed to an increase in policing.

1970s New York
National Archives and Records Administration

Giuliani's increased policing was based on Broken Windows Theory. A theory that declares war on visible crime in order to discourage other crimes from taking place.

If this sounds like an over-simplification, it's because it is. There was no proof that graffiti and vandalism had caused the crime boom of the previous decades.

Even in the 90s the ultimate cause hadn’t been identified by the government, luckily though, just as with the crime boom the board had been set nearly two decades prior.

Abortion wasn't legalized in the United States until 1973... Effectively preventing births of those who previously would have been raised in bad situations that we know today to create criminals.

Those born in 1973 would have entered their prime crime age in 1988. Right around the time that crime figures started to drop nationally. This is well-documented and is known as the Donohue–Levitt Hypothesis.

The reality was that crime in New York City had started to drop most rapidly in 1991, 3 years prior to the celebrated Giuliani’s election to office.

Sadly, to this day many people still don’t believe abortion and crime rates are causally linked despite mountains of evidence.

Running With Blinders On

Poor perspective is a trait so very real to us as human beings.

It is easy to focus on proximate causes, such as the economy's poor performance being used as a reason for the crime spike of the 1970s. Or gun sales causing the increasing crime in the 60s.

The reality is that we struggle to see the truth when it comes to a chain of events.

Whether it's saving a business, or helping shape effective policy and reforms. Sometimes we need to look back a long way to gain the perspective we need.

When we don't do this we're essentially running our lives and the lives of others with blinders on.

Tags: Causes, Proximal Cause, Ultimate Cause

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