Eight Myths About Causality and Structural Equation Models

Part of the Handbooks of Sociology and Social Research book series (HSSR)


Causality was at the center of the early history of structural equation models (SEMs) which continue to serve as the most popular approach to causal analysis in the social sciences. Through decades of development, critics and defenses of the capability of SEMs to support causal inference have accumulated. A variety of misunderstandings and myths about the nature of SEMs and their role in causal analysis have emerged, and their repetition has led some to believe they are true. Our chapter is organized by presenting eight myths about causality and SEMs in the hope that this will lead to a more accurate understanding. More specifically, the eight myths are the following: (1) SEMs aim to establish causal relations from associations alone, (2) SEMs and regression are essentially equivalent, (3) no causation without manipulation, (4) SEMs are not equipped to handle nonlinear causal relationships, (5) a potential outcome framework is more principled than SEMs, (6) SEMs are not applicable to experiments with randomized treatments, (7) mediation analysis in SEMs is inherently noncausal, and (8) SEMs do not test any major part of the theory against the data. We present the facts that dispel these myths, describe what SEMs can and cannot do, and briefly present our critique of current practice using SEMs. We conclude that the current capabilities of SEMs to formalize and implement causal inference tasks are indispensible; its potential to do more is even greater.


Latent Variable Structural Equation Model Causal Relation Causal Effect Path Analysis 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



The authors would like to thank Shawn Bauldry, Stephen Cole, Keith Marcus, Cameron McIntosh, Stan Mulaik, Johannes Textor, and other researchers from SEMNET for their comments on and critiques of our chapter. Bollen’s work was partially supported by NSF SES 0617276. Pearl’s work was partially supported by grants from NIH #1R01 LM009961-01, NSF #IIS-0914211 and #IIS-1018922, and ONR #N000-14-09-1-0665 and #N00014-10-0933.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyUniversity of North CarolinaChapel HillUSA
  2. 2.Department of Computer ScienceUniversity of CaliforniaLos AngelesUSA

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