Tool #9: Causal Loop Diagrams Part 3: Bringing Reinforcing and Balancing Loops Together

Page 1 of 2: Causal Loops as Stories of Complex Systems

Habit Cards

Causal loops are a helpful way to visually represent a system. When various loops are connected, the resulting causal map uncovers a story of how the system operates through its various causal connections. You have read about reinforcing and balancing feedback, where single loops were used to help show the basics that include naming the key variable, using arrows to show causality and labels at arrowheads that describe the nature of the causal relationships. The behavior of most systems can seldom be represented by a single isolated loop, so now it is time to apply the basics to mapping systems of interest.

Most people getting started with causal mapping find it fairly easy to identify and draw the reinforcing dynamics in systems. This is especially true when people are striving to impact change and have goals to increase achievement or grow profits or positively impact community engagement. Reinforcing feedback is a part of all systems, yet nothing can grow forever and reinforcing relationships always have balancing thresholds that slow down and balance growth. Let’s look at an example of a simple reinforcing loop and an accompanying balancing loop that contributes balance to the reinforcing growth dynamic.

Example #1: Volunteer Work as a Rewarding Balancing Act

The mental model of the loop below represents the following story about Regina, an active community-minded office manager:

Regina is the type person who has trouble saying “no.” She volunteers at the Community Food Bank, Habitat for Humanity and delivers meals to elderly people who can no longer drive. She feels it is very important to help others and serve those who are in need in her community. The clear connection for Regina is that the time she spends volunteering is appreciated by others as she delivers more benefits to community members with every bit of time she helps out. The benefits Regina delivers cause her to feel altruistic which is an important value for her. These altruistic feelings cause Regina to continue to say “yes” to most requests to volunteer. Reinforcing Loop #1 tells Regina’s story.

Volunteering loop

Loop Labels:

As a reminder, the symbol next to each arrowhead distinguishes the nature of the causal connection. You can choose 2 different ways to label arrowheads in a causal loop. You can use S and O or + and - labels

S or +: The causal relationship moves in the same direction or the effect adds to the cause (e.g. as cause goes up, the effect goes up or as the cause goes down, the effect goes down.)

O or –: The causal relationship moves in the opposite direction or the effect moves inversely to the direction of the cause. (e.g. as the cause goes up, the effect goes down or as the cause goes down, the effect goes up.)

In addition, Reinforcing loops have an R in the center and Balancing loops are labeled with a B.

When there are more than one reinforcing or balancing loop in a map, it is good practice to place a number next to the R or the B

For those of you who spend time volunteering, you know you only have so many hours in a day, and only so much time to invest in delivering benefits to your community. There is a limit to what you can give, especially when you have demands from your job, so a balancing feedback loop can help illustrate that threshold.

Here Regina tells the story of her map:

Volunteering loop 2

I love the time I spend volunteering because it is important for me to deliver benefits to my community. When I give back, it causes me to feel altruistic which motivates me even more to volunteer (R1).

Sometimes my feelings of altruism from the time I spend volunteering cause me to work longer volunteer hours, which takes away from the attention I pay to my job. That lack of attention causes the quality of my work to suffer. When this quality diminishes, my co-workers complain about how much time I spend on my volunteer efforts (B1).

Notice in B1 there are three arrowheads with inverse (-) labels affecting Attention to work. It is good practice to read around loops more than one time as you will discover that variables in balancing loop stories switch directions every time you talk through the loop. For example, variables in the balancing loop like Volunteer work will increase at times and balance out or slow down at times. You can also show this dynamic with a behavior-over-time graph.

Volunteering BOTG