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What is causal research design?

Last updated

14 May 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Hugh Good

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Causal research is sometimes called an explanatory or analytical study. It delves into the fundamental cause-and-effect connections between two or more variables. Researchers typically observe how changes in one variable affect another related variable.

Examining these relationships gives researchers valuable insights into the mechanisms that drive the phenomena they are investigating.

Organizations primarily use causal research design to identify, determine, and explore the impact of changes within an organization and the market. You can use a causal research design to evaluate the effects of certain changes on existing procedures, norms, and more.

This article explores causal research design, including its elements, advantages, and disadvantages.

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Components of causal research

You can demonstrate the existence of cause-and-effect relationships between two factors or variables using specific causal information, allowing you to produce more meaningful results and research implications.

These are the key inputs for causal research:

The timeline of events

Ideally, the cause must occur before the effect. You should review the timeline of two or more separate events to determine the independent variables (cause) from the dependent variables (effect) before developing a hypothesis. 

If the cause occurs before the effect, you can link cause and effect and develop a hypothesis.

For instance, an organization may notice a sales increase. Determining the cause would help them reproduce these results. 

Upon review, the business realizes that the sales boost occurred right after an advertising campaign. The business can leverage this time-based data to determine whether the advertising campaign is the independent variable that caused a change in sales. 

Evaluation of confounding variables

In most cases, you need to pinpoint the variables that comprise a cause-and-effect relationship when using a causal research design. This uncovers a more accurate conclusion. 

Co-variations between a cause and effect must be accurate, and a third factor shouldn’t relate to cause and effect. 

Observing changes

Variation links between two variables must be clear. A quantitative change in effect must happen solely due to a quantitative change in the cause. 

You can test whether the independent variable changes the dependent variable to evaluate the validity of a cause-and-effect relationship. A steady change between the two variables must occur to back up your hypothesis of a genuine causal effect. 

Why is causal research useful?

Causal research allows market researchers to predict hypothetical occurrences and outcomes while enhancing existing strategies. Organizations can use this concept to develop beneficial plans. 

Causal research is also useful as market researchers can immediately deduce the effect of the variables on each other under real-world conditions. 

Once researchers complete their first experiment, they can use their findings. Applying them to alternative scenarios or repeating the experiment to confirm its validity can produce further insights. 

Businesses widely use causal research to identify and comprehend the effect of strategic changes on their profits. 

How does causal research compare and differ from other research types?

Other research types that identify relationships between variables include exploratory and descriptive research

Here’s how they compare and differ from causal research designs:

Exploratory research

An exploratory research design evaluates situations where a problem or opportunity's boundaries are unclear. You can use this research type to test various hypotheses and assumptions to establish facts and understand a situation more clearly.

You can also use exploratory research design to navigate a topic and discover the relevant variables. This research type allows flexibility and adaptability as the experiment progresses, particularly since no area is off-limits.

It’s worth noting that exploratory research is unstructured and typically involves collecting qualitative data. This provides the freedom to tweak and amend the research approach according to your ongoing thoughts and assessments. 

Unfortunately, this exposes the findings to the risk of bias and may limit the extent to which a researcher can explore a topic. 

This table compares the key characteristics of causal and exploratory research:


Causal research

Exploratory research

Main research statement

Research hypotheses

Research question

Amount of uncertainty characterizing decision situation

Clearly defined

Highly ambiguous

Research approach

Highly structured


When you conduct it

Later stages of decision-making

Early stages of decision-making

Descriptive research

This research design involves capturing and describing the traits of a population, situation, or phenomenon. Descriptive research focuses more on the "what" of the research subject and less on the "why."

Since descriptive research typically happens in a real-world setting, variables can cross-contaminate others. This increases the challenge of isolating cause-and-effect relationships. 

You may require further research if you need more causal links. 

This table compares the key characteristics of causal and descriptive research.  


Causal research

Descriptive research

Main research statement

Research hypotheses

Research question

Amount of uncertainty characterizing decision situation

Clearly defined

Partially defined

Research approach

Highly structured


When you conduct it

Later stages of decision-making

Later stages of decision-making

Causal research examines a research question’s variables and how they interact. It’s easier to pinpoint cause and effect since the experiment often happens in a controlled setting. 

Researchers can conduct causal research at any stage, but they typically use it once they know more about the topic.

In contrast, causal research tends to be more structured and can be combined with exploratory and descriptive research to help you attain your research goals. 

How can you use causal research effectively?

Here are common ways that market researchers leverage causal research effectively:

Market and advertising research

Do you want to know if your new marketing campaign is affecting your organization positively? You can use causal research to determine the variables causing negative or positive impacts on your campaign. 

Improving customer experiences and loyalty levels

Consumers generally enjoy purchasing from brands aligned with their values. They’re more likely to purchase from such brands and positively represent them to others. 

You can use causal research to identify the variables contributing to increased or reduced customer acquisition and retention rates. 

Could the cause of increased customer retention rates be streamlined checkout? 

Perhaps you introduced a new solution geared towards directly solving their immediate problem. 

Whatever the reason, causal research can help you identify the cause-and-effect relationship. You can use this to enhance your customer experiences and loyalty levels.

Improving problematic employee turnover rates

Is your organization experiencing skyrocketing attrition rates? 

You can leverage the features and benefits of causal research to narrow down the possible explanations or variables with significant effects on employees quitting. 

This way, you can prioritize interventions, focusing on the highest priority causal influences, and begin to tackle high employee turnover rates. 

Advantages of causal research

The main benefits of causal research include the following:

Effectively test new ideas

If causal research can pinpoint the precise outcome through combinations of different variables, researchers can test ideas in the same manner to form viable proof of concepts.

Achieve more objective results

Market researchers typically use random sampling techniques to choose experiment participants or subjects in causal research. This reduces the possibility of exterior, sample, or demography-based influences, generating more objective results. 

Improved business processes

Causal research helps businesses understand which variables positively impact target variables, such as customer loyalty or sales revenues. This helps them improve their processes, ROI, and customer and employee experiences.

Guarantee reliable and accurate results

Upon identifying the correct variables, researchers can replicate cause and effect effortlessly. This creates reliable data and results to draw insights from. 

Internal organization improvements

Businesses that conduct causal research can make informed decisions about improving their internal operations and enhancing employee experiences. 

Disadvantages of causal research

Like any other research method, casual research has its set of drawbacks that include:

Extra research to ensure validity

Researchers can't simply rely on the outcomes of causal research since it isn't always accurate. There may be a need to conduct other research types alongside it to ensure accurate output.


Coincidence tends to be the most significant error in causal research. Researchers often misinterpret a coincidental link between a cause and effect as a direct causal link. 

Administration challenges

Causal research can be challenging to administer since it's impossible to control the impact of extraneous variables

Giving away your competitive advantage

If you intend to publish your research, it exposes your information to the competition. 

Competitors may use your research outcomes to identify your plans and strategies to enter the market before you. 

Causal research examples

Multiple fields can use causal research, so it serves different purposes, such as. 

Customer loyalty research

Organizations and employees can use causal research to determine the best customer attraction and retention approaches. 

They monitor interactions between customers and employees to identify cause-and-effect patterns. That could be a product demonstration technique resulting in higher or lower sales from the same customers. 

Example: Business X introduces a new individual marketing strategy for a small customer group and notices a measurable increase in monthly subscriptions. 

Upon getting identical results from different groups, the business concludes that the individual marketing strategy resulted in the intended causal relationship.

Advertising research

Businesses can also use causal research to implement and assess advertising campaigns. 

Example: Business X notices a 7% increase in sales revenue a few months after a business introduces a new advertisement in a certain region. The business can run the same ad in random regions to compare sales data over the same period. 

This will help the company determine whether the ad caused the sales increase. If sales increase in these randomly selected regions, the business could conclude that advertising campaigns and sales share a cause-and-effect relationship. 

Educational research

Academics, teachers, and learners can use causal research to explore the impact of politics on learners and pinpoint learner behavior trends. 

Example: College X notices that more IT students drop out of their program in their second year, which is 8% higher than any other year. 

The college administration can interview a random group of IT students to identify factors leading to this situation, including personal factors and influences. 

With the help of in-depth statistical analysis, the institution's researchers can uncover the main factors causing dropout. They can create immediate solutions to address the problem.


Is a causal variable dependent or independent?

When two variables have a cause-and-effect relationship, the cause is often called the independent variable. As such, the effect variable is dependent, i.e., it depends on the independent causal variable. An independent variable is only causal under experimental conditions. 

What are the three criteria for causality?

The three conditions for causality are:

  1. Temporality/temporal precedence: The cause must precede the effect.

  2. Rationality: One event predicts the other with an explanation, and the effect must vary in proportion to changes in the cause.

  3. Control for extraneous variables: The covariables must not result from other variables.  

Is causal research experimental?

Causal research is mostly explanatory. Causal studies focus on analyzing a situation to explore and explain the patterns of relationships between variables. 

Further, experiments are the primary data collection methods in studies with causal research design. However, as a research design, causal research isn't entirely experimental.

What is the difference between experimental and causal research design?

One of the main differences between causal and experimental research is that in causal research, the research subjects are already in groups since the event has already happened. 

On the other hand, researchers randomly choose subjects in experimental research before manipulating the variables.

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