I was in Ellicott City, Maryland a while back, visiting my daughter and her family on the night when 21 cars of an 80-car train hauling coal from near my home in West Virginia to Baltimore derailed. Two young women - college students – were tragically killed in the accident. The girls were sitting on the overpass above the main street in Ellicott City around midnight when cars on the overpass overturned and buried them under tons of coal. Tragedies like this and the recent unbelievable shootings in both Colorado and Wisconsin immediately evoke the question of “why did it happen?” That is, we all want to know “what caused the event?” In the case of the shootings in particular, it is a question of trying to determine the causes of human behavior. Consider the tragic deaths of the two young women. What caused their demise? They had been drinking at a bar earlier in the evening. They were sitting at the wrong place at the wrong time. The train derailed. Maybe there was a mechanical glitch or failure. The coal spilled from the car over them. They asphyxiated.

In fact, any or all of these events could legitimately be said to have, in some sense, caused the tragedy that followed them. As in this example, isolating a single cause of something is not possible, for there can be many causes. Nothing new here. That ancient sage Aristotle spoke of four kinds of causes. Most immediately, the deaths could be said to be due to asphyxiation (his efficient cause). The deaths would not have happened without either the train or the coal existing (Aristotle’s material cause). Nor could the deaths have happened without there being an accident (his formal cause). Indeed, death is the ultimate outcome to which all living matter is destined (his final cause).

Establishing the causes of human behavior in general is tricky business, and sometimes not really possible. A worker receives an injury in the workplace. The tendency often is to blame the worker for her carelessness, it is because the worker didn’t follow the rules that the tragedy happened. Certainly a possibility, but many other potential causes must be considered in deciding what to do next. Was the worker adequately trained in the safety issues inherent in the work? Was the equipment being properly maintained? Was the environment arranged to optimize safe behavior? Any or all of these circumstances potentially could be what caused the accident.

In assigning cause, it is often the case that it is easiest to assign it to the person who has been injured, instead of considering the relation between these other sorts of events and the resulting behavior or outcome. Such assignment of cause -- indeed, blame – doesn’t solve the problem. A worker can be fired, but unless the other potential causes of the problem are considered and addressed, the chances of the next person in the fired worker’s former role is likely to end up in a similar situation to that of the first worker.

Discovering cause is not a question of whodunit. It is, in the language of behavior analysis, determining the functional relations between different environmental circumstances and subsequent worker behavior. Looking for the cause and finding it in the employee, or anywhere else, often is unlikely and counterproductive to a good ultimate outcome. Manager time and energy seems better spent in considering how many different things and circumstances in the work environment contribute to an employee’s behavior –appropriate and inappropriate – and modifying those things in a systematic way to determine how each might contribute to behavior good and bad for the organization’s goals.

Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.