Habit #9: A Systems Thinker Recognizes the Impact of Time Delays When Exploring Cause and Effect Relationships

Page 1 of 4: Everyday Time Delays

Habit Cards
Time Delays

The relationship between cause and effect is often separated by time and even space. Effects are seldom immediate; recognizing the potential impact of time delays and anticipating the effects of certain actions is important to systems thinkers. For example, the onset of tooth decay can be a long process. Routinely drinking sugary soda without proper brushing could contribute to tooth decay over time. The toothache is not immediate, so it may be difficult to see the connection between soda drinking and tooth decay. There is a time delay between drinking a soda and sitting in the dentist’s chair with a toothache, making the connection between the two experiences not immediately obvious. The cause and effect are circular (as described in the previous course, Identifies the Circular Nature of Complex Cause and Effect Relationships). The consumption of more sugary soda leads to more time in the dentist’s chair, but the time delay between drinking the soda and going to the dentist may limit the impact of going to the dentist relative to the decision to indulge in more sugary drinks.

Well-being Example

The use of tobacco products presents a similar scenario. Even though the detrimental effects of smoking are well known, nearly nine out of every ten smokers try their first cigarette before age 18. If these same young people developed symptoms of lung disease the moment they smoked their first cigarette, they would be far less likely to continue the use of tobacco. A time delay increases the difficulty of seeing a causal connection between a behavior and its consequence. When there is a causal connection that is not immediate, it can be difficult to connect the cause and its effect, even when you intentionally are looking for the connection.

Family Example

The impact that early parental influence has on young people as they age also demonstrates time delays. Mature adults might notice certain patterns of behavior or phrases they use that can suddenly remind them of behaviors that once came from their own parents. Recalling those moments leads to realizations like, “Oh my goodness, I’m becoming my mother! (or I’m becoming my father!).” Parents should be mindful of the impressions they make on their children as the effects can likely manifest themselves far into adulthood.

School Example

Like parents, teacher influence can also surface far into adulthood with gaping time delays that make it difficult to connect impressionable experiences to effects felt years later. For example, a parent is noticing extreme anxiety during the first back to school night for their new middle schooler. The school staff are welcoming and impressive in the program and curricula they describe, but there is an underlying level of discomfort that is hard to place. Then the parent recalled their own experiences and deep-seated memories of negative experiences from years ago. Memories of being bullied, getting into trouble, and feelings of being unfairly treated were causing an uneasy effect. Overcoming the impact of the delayed effects from unhappy childhood experiences can be challenging. Both positive and negative experiences from school days can stick with an individual and surface again many years later when one’s own children are experiencing similar circumstances. Early impressions can be long-lasting and time delays can contribute to our lack of awareness regarding the ways those influential moments manifest.