Critical Thinking: – Proximate vs Absolute Cause

By | August 6, 2019

Every once in a while I take a moment to think about something other than work. Often these thoughts are governed by the hot topics of the day and while there has been no shortage of such topics; a conversation I was having on LinkedIn recently is the one for this post (It is also possible that I am being influenced by a book I am reading at the moment). Specifically the question that’s bothering me is the difference between proximate cause and absolute cause. It should come as no surprise that we live in the universe governed by the rules of cause and effect. At its core the message is simple “everything that happening now is a result of something that happened before”. Naturally I am not talking about quantum mechanics and uncertainty principles etc. but more about the macroscale impact of causality.

Before we continue it would be a good idea to understand the difference between proximate cause and absolute cause. Proximate cause would be what we define as a first level connection – Our first idea about what we think is the cause of some issue. As a result absolute cause would be what could be considered the ultimate root cause. Often in today’s environment people mistake proximate cause to be the absolute cause. Personally I feel this is because of the fast paced nature of decision making in today’s environment and the overabundance of information which allows us to easily get distracted. Also there is some ambiguity about when to stop looking for an Absolute cause. After all the rabbit hole is as deep as you want to dig.

To highlight the difference between the two, I am going to provide a few of examples which I feel most people would be able to relate to:-

Case 1:- For my SQL server connections let’s make the assumption of a Windows administrator getting worried about SQL server using 90% of the available memory on the machine. Since the Windows administrator often doesn’t have the required understanding of SQL server internals it is only logical that he assume that there is a problem with SQL server such as a memory leak etc. This is a very good candidate to be the root cause only because he sees the same kind of behavior from other applications that present the same kind of symptoms. So for the Windows administrator the proximate cause for the issue that he is facing is some kind of defect with the database engine. If you present the same problem to a database administrator he would immediately tell you that this is absolutely normal behavior of SQL server engine. As you can see in this case what was considered a proximate cause for a problem when investigated translates to an absolute cause which shows us there is no problem to begin with. For the Windows administrator it would be useful to undergo training to better understand the context for how things work and thus reduce the number of tickets raised.

Case 2:-The next scenario I wanted to cover was a conversation I was having on LinkedIn recently where a few connections implied that the issue which resulted in the crash of the Boeing 737 Max airline was the result of hiring cheap labor and outsourcing. When viewed at without sufficient context this scenario seems to explain why the crash happened however as the theme of this article is to explain proximate cause the absolute cause is that Boeing was in a hurry to release the 737 Max in order to counter the huge number of orders being received by Airbus A320 neo and it was “Time” (not money) that forced Boeing to cut corners and release the aircraft without sufficient testing or training or even being able to acknowledge the problem when it was identified as it would hold up production. In other words the proximate cause seems to be Money but the absolute cause was definitely Time. For Boeing it would be useful to understand the despite market pressures Time should be budgeted just like money.

Case 3:-The third case I would like to bring to your attention would be a water shortage crisis for a city like Bangalore. An apartment complex facing water shortage assumes the proximate cause for their crisis is that they don’t have sufficient number of bore wells or the bore well depth is not sufficient to access the water table. However the fact is no amount of bore wells or depth is going to compensate for reckless use of water indiscriminately. The absolute cause for the water crisis would be a lack of discipline with regard to water consumption. Probably a more relatable example of this would be the fact that if electricity was provided free of cost every apartment would have fitted an AC. However the high cost of using an air conditioner is the primary deterrent for more people. The proximate cause in this case would be insufficient depth for number of bore wells and the absolute cause would be a lack of discipline. For home owners association it would be useful to understand the short term costs might balance out in long term savings.

The last and final example that I can give would be that of an employee leaving an organization. While the proximate cause might seem like a lack of promotion or yet another argument with a difficult manager the absolute cause is usually the cumulative effect of a hostile work environment. For HR conducting the exit interview it would be useful to identify this root cause to control attrition.

In summary I would encourage you to dig deeper and try to first identify the proximate cause and evaluate if it is being viewed in the right context and if you feel that all the pieces do not fit together do not hesitate to dig further and while the pressure of trying to provide immediate answers will always be there in the long run your ability to identify actual root causes will significantly help improve things in the long run and prepare you for the time you get promoted and have to start looking at the big picture.

As a bonus I’d like to include a story that I have personally been a part of. A major hardware manufacturer had released an MP3 player early on in the game. The MP3 player resulted in a significant number of calls to technical support because it used to hang regularly. The proximate cause identified the root cause as “The MP3 player being dropped on the ground or having suffered some kind of shock which caused the hard disc to get stuck” typically while people are working out. The absolute cause turned out to be a manufacturing defect in the hard disc which made it especially susceptible to failure even during normal usage.