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Causes of the problem

Suggested tasks/questions for this sub section

Your task is to find all the contributing factors that contribute to the problem.

Start with the behavior of the system.

Once you have found the obvious or direct contibuting factors, find the factors that contribute to these:

  • Use the 5 whys to find causes.
  • Ask questions such as why do the people involved do what they do?
  • Continue to add child nodes until you can no longer think of more contributing causes.

Your task is to find these contributing factors and prove the causal relations. Is there actually a causal relation or is it just correlation? Is the direction of the causality correct? Uncover direct and indirect causes. In the case of indirect causes find the intermediate causes.

Acknowledge that a single effect can be the result of multiple causes and that a single cause can have multiple effects.

Example areas to look for causes: motivations, beliefs, power, communication, resources, processes, nature, monitoring, methods, tech, policies, economy, products, skills, suppliers, surroundings, systems, management etc.

Find causal relations by analysing the events and looking at the forces that act upon them:

  • Situation: all the non-human forces acting upon an event (i.e. weather, money, resources, location)
  • Flow: the trend and continuity of all forces as they interact with one another.
  • People: all the active and passive participants involved in the event (i.e. users, customers, employees, managers, vendors)
  • Decision makers: persons trying to influence the event’s outcome in a particular direction (i.e. manager, individual, small team)

Watch out for

Advanced topics

Further reading for intermediate problem solvers:

A contributing factor is something that is partly responsible for a development or phenomenon.

Together the contributing factors answer the question of why the problem is happening.

In this section you will be able to add a list of contributing factors.

Keep in mind that this sub section will only display the contributing factors in a list or as a hierarchal tree if you organize the contributing factors in a hierarchy. Real world contributing factors are circular and networked so this representation is not complete. It does however provide a good way to systematically work through the contributing factors and describe them. In the next few sub sections you will be able to describe how these factors interact in a causal loop diagram.

Suggested reading

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What are the different factors that contribute to the problem?


Less time available

When we have little time we tend to grab a snack or some fast food while on the move. These foods are less healthy with more calories or with substances that trigger more hunger.

As society has evolved there are more distractions such as entertainment in the form of TV, games, social media that steal from our spare time. There are also more options for activites along with an increase in peer pressure. People try to achive more and down prioritize time for cooking healthy food. In a hectic day while on the move it is much easier to choose good tasting fastfood over other more healty dishes that you will usually have to wait longer on.

Low-Income People are Vulnerable to Overweight and Obesity

Due to the additional risk factors associated with poverty, food insecure and low-income people are especially vulnerable to obesity.

Obesity among low-income people – occurs in part because they are subject to the same influences as other Americans (e.g., more sedentary lifestyles, increased portion sizes), but also because they face unique challenges in adopting healthful behaviors, as described below.

Greater exposure to marketing of obesity-promoting products

Low-income youth and adults are exposed to disproportionately more marketing and advertising for obesity-promoting products that encourage the consumption of unhealthful foods and discourage physical activity (e.g., fast food, sugary beverages, television shows, video games) (Institute of Medicine, 2013; Kumanyika & Grier, 2006; Lewis et al., 2005; Yancey et al., 2009). Such advertising has a particularly strong influence on the preferences, diets, and purchases of children, who are the targets of many marketing efforts (Institute of Medicine, 2006; Institute of Medicine, 2013).

High levels of stress

Low-income families, including children, may face high levels of stress due to the financial and emotional pressures of food insecurity, low-wage work, lack of access to health care, inadequate and long-distance transportation, poor housing, neighborhood violence, and other factors. Research has linked stress to obesity in youth and adults, including (for adults) stress from job-related demands and difficulty paying bills (Block et al., 2009; Gundersen et al., 2011; Lohman et al., 2009; Moore & Cunningham, 2012). Stress may lead to weight gain through stress-induced hormonal and metabolic changes as well as unhealthful eating behaviors (Adam & Epel, 2007; Torres & Nowson, 2007).

Cycles of food deprivation and overeating

Those who are eating less or skipping meals to stretch food budgets may overeat when food does become available, resulting in chronic ups and downs in food intake that can contribute to weight gain.

Fewer opportunities for physical activity

Lower income neighborhoods have fewer physical activity resources than higher income neighborhoods, including fewer parks, green spaces, bike paths, and recreational facilities, making it difficult to lead a physically active lifestyle.

When available, physical activity resources may not be attractive places to play or be physically active because poor neighborhoods often have fewer natural features (e.g., trees), more visible signs of trash and disrepair, and more noise

Crime, traffic, and unsafe playground equipment are common barriers to physical activity in low-income communities.

Low-income children are less likely to participate in organized sports.

Students in low-income schools spend less time being active during physical education classes and are less likely to have recess, both of which are of great concern given the already limited opportunities for physical activity in their communities.

Limited resources and lack of access to healthy, affordable foods
Low-income neighborhoods frequently lack full-service grocery stores and farmers’ markets where residents can buy a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products

When available, healthy food is often more expensive, whereas refined grains, added sugars, and fats are generally inexpensive and readily available in low-income communities.

When available, healthy food – especially fresh produce – is often of poorer quality in lower income neighborhoods, which diminishes the appeal of these items to buyers.

Low-income communities have greater availability of fast food restaurants, especially near schools.

In many communities overweight is seen as normal

In certain communities or neighborhoods the rate of obesity is so high that being big is seen as the normal.

When all the people around you are big you will naturally view this as normal. As you participate in the same social events and life style you are likely to consume similar amounts of calories and burn about the same level of calories as those around you.

This is particularly prevalent in minority groups that share similar genes.


The negative feedback loop of emotional eating

People suffering from anything from a mild cold to depression often resort to emotional eating as away to ease the pain.

For people with chronic illness this often results in a negative spiral where the person eats more because he or she is stuck feeling bad. Over time the person will gain weight and it will become even more difficult to become physically active which is important for well-being. Being physically active improves health. It strengthens your immune system and increases your feeling of pleasure with the release of chemicals and hormones such as Endorphins, Dopamine and Serotonin in your body.

Discrimination also become more institutionalized as children grow older
Discrimination against overweight children begins early in childhood and becomes progressively institutionalized. Because obese children tend to be taller than their non-overweight classmates, they are often viewed as more mature, and inappropriate expectations will affect the way they socialize with other kids their age.

Prejudice against the overweight

Prejudice against the overweight has and is still an acceptable form of prejudice. The obese is often treated with antipathy. This can further contribute to additional emotional eating and make the situation even worse over time.


Hard to resist the temptation of tasty food

High-fat foods, many containing sugar or salt, have an undeniable sensory appeal and are difficult to resist.

The food industry is well aware of this and therefore process foods typically contain high amounts of fat, sugar and salt.


You are on your own and you are free to eat whatever you want

Libertarianism is one of the hallmarks of the US way of life. You are free to eat what you want, when and how much you want.

As there are relatively few regulations, compared to other countries, there is nothing and no one stopping you from buying and consuming low priced high calorie foods throughout your life.

Compared to other countries where solidarity is more part of politics and culture, the US culture is typically more competitive, and it is up to you as an individual to watch out for your own weight.

As a libertarian country, the government is not to interfere with your choices on for example foods.


Increased consumption of High-fructose corn sirup

Figure 1. Estimated intakes of total fructose (•), free fructose (▴), and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS, ♦) in relation to trends in the prevalence of overweight (▪) and obesity (x) in the United States. [155]

During the great depression the government sought to increase the agricultural output to make sure there was enough food in times of crisis. These programs were continued after World War II and were highly successfull. Agricultural output soared. However most of this evolution were concentrated on corn production. The amount of corn were in surplus and new ways to make use of the corn were invented. In 1978 high-fructose corn sirup (HFCS) was widely available and were cheaper to produce than sugar from cane or betes. This high-fructose corn sirup were then introduced in food production all over the country and made food especially fast-food cheaper. Coca Cola has been made with HFCS since 1980 and has helped to drive down the cost of high calory soft drinks.

High-fructose corn sirup also cause more weight gain than other sugars such as table-sugar (sucrose).

People are eating more fastfood

Because we are more busy than ever we eat more out and fast food restaurants both taste good, save you time and are cheap.

Relation between calory intake and fast food restaurant visits during week days
Boys who never ate at fast food restaurants during the school week had an average calorie count of 1952. More than 50% of the boys in the study ate one or two times a week at a fast food restaurant. These consumed 12% more or an average of 2192 calories a day. Those who ate fast food three times or more a week consumed 40% more with an average of 2752 calories a day.




Add new contributing factors

  1. Root items should be observable behaviors.
  2. Beneath the root item add an item for EACH contributing factor that may explain the cause above it.
  3. Add deeper child items until you feel the causal factors are sufficiently covered.

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Suggested tasks/questions for this sub section

  • Get to the bottom of the contributing factors.
  • What are causing the imbalance or lack of harmony?
  • Consider using the 5 whys.

How to tell if you found the root cause

This may be used as a checklist
  • It is clearly a major cause of the problem symptoms.
  • It has no productive deeper cause. The word “productive” allows you to stop asking why at some appropriate point in root cause analysis.
  • It can be resolved. Sometimes it’s useful to include unchangeable root causes in your model for greater understanding. These have only the first two characteristics.
  • Its resolution will not create bigger problems. Side effects must be considered.
  • There is no better root cause. All alternatives have been considered.

Watch out for

  • Don't jump to conclusions. Finding the real root causes is difficult and will require some research.

Advanced topics

Further reading for intermediate problem solvers:

A root cause is the deepest cause in a causal chain that can be resolved. If the deepest cause in a causal chain cannot be resolved, it's not a real problem. It's the way things are.

A root cause is that portion of a system that, at the fundamental level, explains why the system’s natural behavior produces the problem symptoms rather than some other behavior.

All real problems arise from their root causes. This leads to the fundamental principle:

The only way to solve a difficult problem is to resolve its root causes.

So how do you find the root causes? That's the hard part. It's the step that makes or breaks your entire problem solving effort. Get it right and the rest is relatively easy. Get it wrong, and no amount of hard work and cleverness will work.

To understand the fundamental system and its root causes we need to acknowledge the universal principle that all problems are the result of imbalance. Forces interact to form a dynamic system. Whenever there is an imbalance in this force you have a problem.

Proper coupling occurs when the behavior (force) of one system affects the behavior of other systems properly, using the appropriate balancing feedback loops, so the systems work together in harmony.

Systems have goals, that is to say, a system has a purpose. A system has inputs and outputs. Improper coupling is when the goals of two or more systems are at odds with each other.

Example of system imbalance and improper coupling

In the global sustainability problem, the goals of the large globalized for-profit corporations are not aligned with that of the human race. The goal of corporations is short term profits. The goal of the human race might said to be wellbeing for current and future generations. At the moment corporations are the dominant systems. Corporations are dominating political decision making to their own advantage, as shown by their strenuous opposition to solving the environmental sustainability problem. Learn more at

Suggested reading

What are the root causes of the problem?


The root causes seem to be:

  1. Capitalism.
  2. The nation's desire for economic growth, development, improved standard of living etc.
  3. The current prevailing individualistic ideology.

These are the underlying root causes that have created the environment for the current obesity epidemic in the nation.

All of these are interrelated.

Discussion of root causes


Although capitalism seem to be the most effective engine for growth it is inherently an ego-centric system where, as Adam Smith pointed out more than 200 years ago in The wealth of nations; capitalism liberates from moral opprobrium one of the most powerful human drives: self-interest. Working for one’s own economic benefit creates a powerful incentive to work hard over the long term.

The nation's desire for economic growth, development, improved standard of living

Humans will always seek progress. The human race is a curious specie that will always seek to go beyond new frontiers. This means that stopping progress is not an option.

The current prevailing individualistic ideology

The current individualistic ideology should be seen in context of the cold war and the fear of communism. As the US prospered with capitalism it needed to maintain individualism to flurish. A positive feedback loop has gradually increased individualism in the US. 



Add new root cause

What seem to be the core or underlying factor that seem to be the strongest influencing factor responsible for the problem?

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Suggested tasks/questions for this sub section

If you are not familiar with Causal Loop Diagram's (CLD) consider other more in-depth resources such as by, Systems and us, Nathaniel Osgood, Daniel H. Kim

  1. Get pen and paper or use software such as Vensim, Visio, PowerPoint. (Insightmaker and MapSys are more advanced as they also have support for SD simulations).
  2. Start with the key indicator(s) of the problem. Draw this as a circle in the middle of a diagram.
  3. Add relevant variables (always nouns) as circles. (variables that the problem influences, or that are influenced by it)
  4. Add the contributing factors (Start with the contributing factors that have the highest probability of being real). These are also added as circles (nouns rather than verbs e.g. "Human population" rather than "Increasing human population"). Use positive variable names. E.g. "Growth" rather than "Decline".
  5. Connect the circles with arrows.
    • For each variable(circle) ask yourself: What other variables are affecting/contributing to this (inbound arrow) and what other variables are affected by this variable (outbound arrow)?
    • What are obvious arrows/loops?
    • What are the side-effect loops?
    • Add polarity (+ or -) to indicate if the affected variable increases (+) or decreases (-) through the causal relation.
    • Use two short lines crossing over arrows to indicate there is a time delay. (You may also indicate the expected delay with a number such as in months or years)
    • Don't miss the circular relations. There is often arrows pointing back to the variable you started with.
  6. Look for triggers (causes) that might have sparked self-reinforcing processes. (Tipping point phenomena)
  7. Verify each arrow. Do you have data to support this link? If not you should set off to prove/disprove the causal relation.
  8. Check if you should add intermediate causal relations. (Should you cut a line in two by adding a circle in between?)
  9. Go over the CLD many times to check for consistency.
  10. Get feedback on the CLD.
  11. Add your CLD by scanning your paper version or by uploading en image export from a diagramming tool.

Additional tips

  • Develop the model with communication in mind (it should be easy to read by others).
  • Keep the diagram as simple as possible. Model the problem, not the entire system of overlapping systems.

Example Causal Loop Diagram

Watch out for

  • Do not use a variable more than once in the same CLD.
  • For better clarity, avoid having arrows cross over other arrows.

Advanced topics

Further reading for intermediate problem solvers:

A causal loop diagram (CLD) is a diagram that aids in visualizing how interrelated variables affect one another. The diagram consists of a set of nodes representing the variables connected together. The relationships between these variables, represented by arrows, can be labelled as positive or negative.

The CLD is important for understanding why the problem is happening.

Suggested reading

What are some good models that describe the dynamics and causal relationships of the situation?


For readability we have simplified the diagram somewhat.



Add new causal loop diagrams

Add diagrams that represents the problem.

If the diagrams gets to big you should break it up into smaller diagrams. E.g. you can divide the diagram by topic, phenomenon, geographic or historical scope. In this case it may be useful to provide one main diagram that summarizes the different sub diagrams.

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