Determine the cause

une-logo-500pxJohn Malouff, Ph.D., J.D., earned a law degree from the University of Colorado in 1979 and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Arizona State University in 1984. He currently works as an associate professor of psychology at the University of New England, in Armidale, Australia. He has co-authored five books and several dozen articles in scientific journals. He writes a blog on Using Psychology in day-to-day life.


Link to original documentProblem Solving Strategies


Collect information about what happens before, during, and after the problem.
Problems are often triggered by something observable and reinforced by something that happens afterward. So if Carrie often has temper tantrums, observe her and the situation carefully to collect information about what happens before, during, and after the tantrum. You may find that pressing her to do difficult schoolwork usually happens before and allowing her to avoid the schoolwork happens after. If Jake often has digestive problems, you might find that nothing special happens before, during, or after. No specific foods seem to trigger the problem, so diet restriction is unlikely to help. If you want to help heart surgery patients avoid depression after their surgery, observe them before, during, and after surgery.

Organize information into a table, chart, or list and look for patterns.
Information collected about a problem often becomes easier to search for patterns when put into a table, chart, or list. The patterns may reveal causes of the problem. So, if you want to predict the next time a man will beat his wife, organize information about his prior instances of wife beating and look for a pattern, such as beating being delivered after he suffered an affront and drank heavily. If you want to determine how to prevent auto accidents, put information about causes of past accidents into a table and look for patterns in the aggregated data, such as a high proportion of the accidents being caused by young males who have been drinking and were driving faster than the speed limit. If you want to predict when a stock will rise, chart its price fluctuations over time and events in the past.

Try to make the problem worse.
One way to determine whether you know what causes a problem is to try to make the problem worse. This may be worth doing when the supposed solution is so difficult, inconvenient, expensive, or dangerous as to justify caution in trying it. So, if you suspect that eating strawberries is causing your nose to turn red, wait until your nose is its usual colour and eat a few strawberries. If you think that a mentally retarded child has tantrums because of changes in his routine, change the routine substantially on a few occasions and observe his behaviour.

Compare situations with and without the problem.
Comparing situations with and without the problem can sometimes shine light on a difference that causes the problem. So, if you want to eliminate bacterial infections that kill women giving birth, compare the care given women who become infected with those don’t. You might see, as a 19thCentury researcher did, that the women who are “helped” by physicians who don’t wash their hands between patients women become ill and the women who are helped by midwives who do wash their hands do not become ill. If you want to know what causes AIDS, compare people who do and don’t have HIV and observe the people for several years. If you want to know what causes violent crime, compare the intelligence of individuals who have and have not been convicted of violent crimes.

Consider multiple causes and interactions.
Sometimes two or more variables or influences cause a problem to occur. For instance, level of drunkenness depends on many factors, including the amount of alcohol consumed and the body weight of the person. A harmful level of carbon monoxide gas may flow into a house only if the wind is blowing hard in a certain direction, the heat exhaust pipe is less than a metre above the roof, and the heat is on high. If we do not look for all the causes of a problem, we may never find them. So if you want to determine what causes autism, wood rot in a house, or the cause of someone’s death, consider multiple causes and interactions.

Consider non-linear effects.
Variables sometimes cause problems in a linear way, e.g., the more lead a child eats, the greater the harm. However, some variables have curvilinear effects. For instance, some arousal aids human performance, while a great deal of arousal impairs performance. So, if you want to determine what causes a problem, consider non-linear effects.