Correlation and Causality

The Toronto Star had an article today about The Link Between Appliances and Feminism. It asserts that the arrival of the modern appliance was a key factor in liberating women. In other words, that the modern appliance was a cause of women’s emancipation. That by changing the nature of work in the home, appliances enabled women to work outside the home.

There might be one little problem here. Researchers are assuming that a correlation between the entry of appliances into the home and women entering the workplace is a cause of women entering the workplace. What if the reason manufacturers developed appliances was to meet the demands of women entering the workforce? Typically the markets follow demand, not the other way around. So what if we have this backwards? Appliances went into homes as a result of women going into the workplace?

I don’t know the answer to this question. I’m merely pointing out that we need to question our assumptions carefully before we assume causality. Phil Rosenweig recently wrote the Halo Effect: and Eight other Business Delusions that Deceive Managers. One of Rosenweig’s delusions is about “getting the wrong end of the stick”. Or, assuming causality incorrectly. For example, he cites research that shows that high performing companies actually contribute to high employee morale, rather than high employee morale contributing to company performance, as most of us assume.

Just because two things occur at the same time doesn’t mean that one causes the other. And, if there is a causal relationship, we need to be careful to assess which one causes which. Otherwise, we can make mistakes. Either way, I’m glad that they invented household appliances – I hate doing the laundry now, I’m sure I’d hate it even more using my grandmother’s wringer washer.


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