Timelag Sensitivity: Recognizing the time between cause and effect

Emre Soyer
2 min readMay 5, 2022

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Nile/Pixabay

When we plant a seed, we don’t expect to harvest the fruit immediately.

When we go to school, we don’t receive the returns right away.

If we wish to have a healthy body, we don’t get to achieve it instantly.

Almost everything worthwhile in life takes will and effort. And it also takes time. Decision making would be much easier if most things happened instantaneously. We would promptly observe the results, make better judgments about causalities, and improve our strategies accordingly. But things typically don’t work that way.

The Inevitable Time Delay

Timelags between decisions and outcomes are everywhere.

Consider COVID-19, where decisions can mean life or death for large groups of people. Infections don’t happen right after contact. Hospitalizations and fatalities occur even later. As a result, it becomes hard to intuitively judge the efficacy of various policies that we employ to mitigate outbreaks. What we see today may be the result of various decisions made weeks ago, and it becomes hard to disentangle what caused which outcome.

To complicate things further, the delay we experience in most economic and social processes tend to be more uncertain. In COVID-19, we know that it’s a few weeks. In most business decisions, the delay would not be that consistent.

To make things even harder to intuit, after many investments or actions, things can first get worse before they get better. Consider a change in the education policy. We need to spend money and effort for months or years to then see the effects of that change on the upcoming generations of students.

Hidden Costs of Impatience

Failing to acknowledge the time between cause and effect has important consequences:

  • Results that are both quick and great are rare when it comes to decisions about health, wealth and relationships. Yet in a fast paced and technologically advanced environment, it becomes easy to underestimate the timelag, get distracted, and digress from a desired path.
  • Underestimating the timelag between causes and effects raises a barrier against a better tomorrow. People in positions of authority can take advantage of our eagerness for good results and opt for quick-yet-temporary fixes, rather than necessary long-term investments. So, we may find ourselves up against inadequate, sub-optimal strategies time and time again.

Timelag sensitivity is about correctly estimating and recognizing the time it would take for certain causes to show their effects. Making it part of our discussions around critical decisions and evaluations is crucial to give credit where it’s really due and reach the desired results.

A version also published on Psychology Today

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Emre Soyer

behavioral scientist, co-author of The Myth of Experience