Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


To Fix Your Problems, Find the Root Cause

Knowing the root cause of a problem is critical for dealing with it.

Key points

  • We deflect blame onto things that aren't the root cause.
  • Understanding the root causes can keep us from feeling like the victim.
Nir And Far
Source: Nir And Far

It’s much too easy to deflect responsibility

Do you play pool? I sure don’t. But I know enough about the game to use it as a metaphor for the hidden reasons we don’t do what we say we will.

The object is to get balls into pockets using a big stick. However, you can’t just hit the balls into the pockets with the stick directly; you first have to get a white cue ball to smack the right ball in just the right way.

So here’s the question: What causes the balls to go into the pocket?

On the one hand, the white cue ball does it. After all, if the white ball doesn’t hit the numbered ball, it wouldn’t go in, so it seems that must be the cause. But that’s clearly not the whole story. Something else had to set the cue ball in motion—namely, the player. Clearly, it’s the force exerted by the player through the stick that starts the chain reaction.

Understanding the “root cause” of why something happens is critical for dealing with many of our problems, particularly the problem of distraction. The book Root Cause Analysis defines the term as “that most basic reason for an undesirable condition or problem which, if eliminated or corrected, would have prevented it from existing or occurring.” What would happen if there were no cue ball? The game could not be played. However, if the player wanted to badly enough, he or she could go find another cue ball to replace it.

Clearly, then, the cue ball can’t be the root cause. What would happen if the player didn’t feel like playing? In that case, none of the resulting actions would occur.

In the game of pool, it’s obvious the cue ball isn’t the root cause, but rather the “proximate cause,” the last step before the resulting action. But in the game of life, it’s far harder to see the root causes of things:

  • We’re passed over for a promotion and blame that sneaky coworker for taking our job instead of reflecting on our lack of qualifications.
  • We get into a fight with our spouse over something trivial, such as who didn’t wash the dishes, and blame the conflict on the tiny incident instead of acknowledging years of unresolved issues.
  • We scapegoat our political and ideological opponents for the world’s troubles without seeking to understand the deeper systemic issues behind those problems or our own role in them.

These proximate causes have something in common: They help us deflect responsibility away from ourselves and onto something or someone else. It’s not that the cue ball doesn’t play a role, just like the dishes or coworker, but it’s certainly not the whole story.

Without understanding and tackling the root causes, we’re stuck being the helpless victim in the illusionary world we created. We’re the ball getting smacked around without really seeing the way things work.

When it comes to distractions in our life, we tend to blame the thing—the TV, the computer, social media, email—but these too are all just proximate causes.

Like the pool player will find another cue ball if that’s what they really want, I know that we will find a way to distract ourselves if that’s what we’re looking for.

There’s a root cause for distraction that lies deep within us. It’s the reason we rationalize away our actions even when we know they’re not what we intended. Unless we understand the root cause of why we don’t stay on track, we’ll always be playing someone else’s game.

More from Nir Eyal
More from Psychology Today