George Mason University

Lifestyle Management
through System Analysis


Introduction to Causal Analysis

This lecture introduces you to causal analysis of your behavior.  If you are trying to exercise, you can use an online database to track the causes of exercise.  If not, you should keep track of the behavior you are trying to change and for each instance of succeeding or failing to accomplish your goal you should list its causes and constraints.


  1. Distinguish causes from reasons, goals, motivation and other concepts
  2. Critically evaluate a list of possible causes
  3. Collect data on causes and start a causal diary

Assigned Reading

  1.  Chapter 3 "What is a cause?" in Steven Sloman's "How people think about the world and its alternatives."  Published by Oxford University Press, 2005.


  1.  Lecture on "What is a cause?"  Slides►  Slides 2003►  Listen►  SWF►

What you know?

Advanced learners like you, often need different ways of understanding a topic. Reading is just one way of understanding. Another way is through writing about what you have read.  The enclosed assessment is designed to get you to think more about the concepts taught in this session. 

  1. What is a counterfactual and how would we know that a causal statement follows this criteria.
  2. Why is it wrong to list my spouse as the cause of my exercise?
  3. List criteria that all causes must meet to be recognized as a cause.
  4. If two events co-occur, can we assume that one causes the other?  If not, what else is needed before we can make this assumption?
  5. Could my medication be considered cause of my weight gain?  Could my commute be considered the cause of my weight gain?  In each instance support your answer by which of the criteria needed for a cause is violated or supported if we make these inferences. 
  6. A person wakes up early and does not exercise because of a phone call.  If this person says that they would have exercised if it were not for the call, is it correct to assume that waking up early might be a cause of exercise? 
  7. Can a cause be always present while the effect occurs sometimes -- give an example.

Assignment Due this Week

  1. Every week ask a question or comment on the lecture.  Comment►  Ask►

  2. List the causes and constraints affecting your personal improvement effort in the last week.  Make sure that you go back enough so that you can list at least three causes and three constraints.  Here is a sample table you can use to list the possible causes of your behavior:

Constraints Date
Causes Date
1.   1.  
2.   2.  
3.   3.  
4.   4.  
5.   5.  

Figure 2:  Sample List of Causes and Constraints

  1. For each item you have listed show how the cause or the constraint meets the following criteria:

Figure 1:  Criteria Used to Evaluate a Cause

  1. Start collecting causes of your behavior.  Every time you measure your success, indicate which of the causes listed as response to question 2 are present.  Every time you fail to keep with your plans, indicate which in your list of causes and constraints affected your behavior.  If you run into a cause not previously listed add it to your list of Causes and Constraints.   Use the following diary page to maintain your data.  Retrospectively recall the causes of your behavior for the past 7 days and send your diary pages for these days to the instructor.  Here is an example of a diary page that you can recreate for yourself, though we do not show it in Figure 3, please do not forget to provide a place for the date of the entry.

Figure 3:  Sample Diary Page


Send responses to question 2 through 4 to the instructor.  Email►


  •  Emotion may not be the cause of our behavior  PubMed►
  • Causal attributions PubMed►  
  • The structure of the causal attribution belief network of patients with obesity  PubMed►  
  • The structure of beliefs about the causes of heart attacks    PubMed►  

This page is part of the course on Lifestyle Management   This page was last edited on 10/22/11 by Farrokh Alemi, Ph.D ©Copyright protected.