In this post, I want to discuss, causes, problems, and symptoms. This post links to my content regarding prevent, solve, or manage approaches. This post explores how problems can be handled at various stages with different approaches. They could be handled directly at the time of occurrence. They could be handled indirectly by tackling the causes of the problem or the connection between the causes and the problem. They could be tackled indirectly by tackling the symptoms, or what links the symptoms to the problems. Recommended approaches will vary, as every problem is different. This post aims to provide logical approaches based on the nature of the problems and their relationships with their causes and symptoms.
I believe the most logical place to start is by looking at definitions. Definitions are useful for clarifying what each term means as well as how the terms are used within the post. I have taken definitions from Cambridge and Oxford Leaners Dictionaries.
A symptom is any single problem that is caused by and shows a more serious and general problem.
Source: Cambridge Dictionary
A symptom is a sign that something exists, especially something bad.
Source: Oxford Learners
For the purpose of this post, I will define symptoms based on a combination of the above two definitions.
A symptom is a negative effect indicative of an underlying problem. It consistently occurs when the problem is present.
A problem is a situation, person, or thing that needs attention and needs to be dealt with or solved.
Source: Cambridge Dictionary
A problem is a thing that is difficult to deal with or to understand.
Source: Oxford Learners Dictionary
For the purpose of this post, I will define problems based on a combination of the above two definitions as well as in reference to the definitions of symptoms.
A problem is something that is difficult to deal with and requires solving. Typically, it can be identified based on symptoms associated with it.
The cause is the reason why something, especially something bad, happens
Source: Cambridge Dictionary
The cause is the person or thing that makes something happen
Source: Oxford Learners Dictionary
For the purpose of this post, I will define causes based on a combination of the above two definitions as well as in reference to the definitions of symptoms and problems.
A cause is something that makes something else happen. Unlike problems, which are identified by their symptoms, a cause is not identified by the problems it creates. Instead, it is an event or action, which leads to the occurrence of a problem.
Connection between cause, problem, and symptom
There is a connection between causes, problems, and symptoms. Symptoms are indications of problem/s. As long as the problem/s persist, symptoms can be expected to remain or reoccur. Problems exist because of their causes. Causes are not necessarily negative in their own right.
The relationship between problems and their causes and symptoms can vary considerably. A problem may have as few as one cause and one symptom or a problem could have many causes and many symptoms. Causes of a problem may also be causes of other problems or even causes of more beneficial outcomes. Likewise, symptoms could be caused by a combination of problems.
Five Points of Attack
I believe there are five stages where a problem can be tackled.
- Tackle the symptoms
- Tackle the connection between problem/s and symptoms
- Tackle the problem/s
- Tackle the connection between cause/s and problem/s
- Tackle the cause/s
Tackle the symptoms
The problem is identified by the symptoms it causes. A problem is magnified by the seriousness of its symptoms. If all the symptoms can be removed, the detriment caused by the problem is removed. However, as the problem is not tackled, the symptoms will require continuous action or they will reoccur. For example, a person may have an incurable illness. It is possible that there are treatments that will remove or mitigate the symptoms of the illness but these treatments will be required to be ongoing or the symptoms will return as the illness remains. It is also possible that only some of the symptoms can be removed; thus, the problem will continue to cause some detriment.
Tackle the connection between problem/s and symptoms
Tackling the connection between problem/s and symptoms is equivalent to preventing the symptoms from occurring. For example, the problem could be serious rainstorms. A likely symptom of serious storms is flood damage to property. To prevent flood damage, a person could flood proof his or her home. If the flood proofing is sufficient, the damage to the property will be minimal or none at all. Breaking the connection between problem/s and symptoms could be permanent or temporary. If an action can permanently break all connections between problem/s and symptoms, the problem may no longer cause any potential harm. For example, raising a house above the maximum flood level permanently breaks the connection between the symptom of flooding and the problem of the rainstorm. However, rainstorms have other symptoms such as damage caused by strong winds. Raising the house may not break the connection between the symptom of strong winds and the problem of the rainstorm. Thus solving a problem by permanently breaking all connections to all the symptoms will be difficult and might require many actions. It is likely many connections might only be broken temporarily. Thus, actions will need to be repeated whenever a storm hits. For example, using sandbags to block water from entering the house.
Tackle the problem/s
Tackling the problem directly involves solving the problem. When the problem is solved, the symptoms caused by the problem will no longer exist. For example, a person in poverty may feel compelled to commit crimes in order to survive. Poverty would be the problem and crime would be one of the symptoms of this problem. If this person could earn a stable honest income, they could be lifted from poverty and no longer feel the need to commit crimes in order to survive. Tackling a problem directly is likely to require less action than dealing with multiple symptoms and the outcome is more likely to be permanent.
Tackle the connection between cause/s and problem/s
Every problem has a cause. However, it might be possible to disconnect the cause from the problem. Hence, the problem need not necessarily occur (i.e. prevention). For example, increased population may cause increased population density, which could lead to traffic congestion. Increased population and population density are causes of many different things; some of these are positive and some are negative. Instead of restricting population growth, it might be more logical to take actions to prevent it from causing problems. For example, staggered working hours would reduce congestion as traffic is distributed over a longer period but improved productivity from a larger workforce would not be hindered, as overall working hours would not be reduced.
Tackle the cause
Tackling the cause could prevent problem/s from ever occurring. However, causes are often broad and affect many different things. Successfully eliminating a cause should eliminate the problem/s it creates but may also eliminate many other things; the elimination of these other things could be unbeneficial or lead to other problems. For example, a factory causes pollution (i.e. problem) to an adjacent river. The pollution harms wildlife (i.e. symptom). The factory could be closed down or relocated. This would reduce pollution and harm to the wildlife. However, closing down or relocating the factory could greatly harm the local community. There could be increased local unemployment as well as a loss of services to the community. Alternative approaches could include:
- reducing pollution from the factory (tackling the connection between cause/s and problem/s)
- clearing up the pollution caused by the factory (tackling the connection between problem/s and symptoms)
- protecting the wildlife (tackling the symptoms)
Risk and Cost
Risks and costs are key in determining which of the five points of attack should be adopted. Risk relates to probability of success. Cost relates to costs of implementing the approach, the costs of the problem, costs of the symptoms of the problem and costs of problems inadvertently caused by responding to the problem. Risk and cost can be combined to calculate the expected cost of any approach at each stage. Below are some possible formulae that can be used to calculate the expected costs of approaches at each stage.
Possible Formula for Calculating Expected Costs
Minimising expected cost can be considered a good criterion for determining an approach and the stage to apply the approach. However, risk averse decision-makers may want to apply additional weight to the worst-case scenario. For example, low cost prevention approaches might produce lower expected costs than higher cost solve approaches applied directly to the problem. However, the solve approaches may have a higher chance of success, which might be considered more desirable despite the higher expected costs.
Another course of action could involve attacking the problem at multiple stages. As described in my post Prevent, Solve or Manage, a combination of approaches can be applied. If the first approach fails, a second or third approach can be applied. Attacking a problem from various points can reduce the risk of the problem and symptoms running rampant as well as the expected cost of the problem and symptoms. Having multiple approaches to apply at different stages will have a higher initial cost in both money and time. Therefore, priority needs to be given to the approaches with the highest chances of success or lowest expected costs.
Ambiguity of Classification
In this post, I have attempted to distinguish clearly between causes, problems, and symptoms. However, some things could easily fall under more than one category. For example, causes will also have causes. Causes that predominantly create problems could also be considered problems themselves. Therefore, the cause of these causes/problems could be considered the main cause. Therefore, it might be wise to work backwards to determine a root cause or a cause that we have no influence over. From this point, we can work forwards to determine the point where negative outcomes begin to appear (i.e. the cause of the first problems within our chain).
In some cases, causes, problems, and symptoms could have a circular relationship. For example, inflation. Higher demand causes prices to increase, people require higher wages to offset the higher prices, higher wages causes costs of production to increase and demand will be pushed higher, prices increase again, and the situation keeps spiralling. Attacking the root/initial cause may not be helpful, if it does not break the existing chain of events. Instead, the chain needs to be broken without causing additional events and other chains of problems. In our example of inflation, there are several ways the chain can be broken. Improved efficiency of factors of production could lower costs and therefore negate the upward pressure on price from higher demand. This will also reduce pressure on wages to increase. Improved efficiency often occurs when there is increased innovation. Competition and cooperation play a role in encouraging innovation. Improved efficiency can occur from economies of scale, which could have been facilitated by the higher demand, which may have caused the initial inflation problems.
Mistaken Identity of Climate Change
Climate change often appears to be treated as a problem instead of a cause. Climate change causes problems as well as prevents problems. If climate change increases rainfall in dry places, it is likely preventing droughts. If climate change increases rainfall in wet places, it is likely causing floods. If climate change raises the temperature in cold places, it is likely encouraging plant growth and increasing sustainability of habitats. If climate change raises the temperature in hot places, it is likely to be damaging the environment and its inhabitants through increased storms in wet areas and water shortages in dry areas. Climate change will favour some species over others. Some species will adapt and thrive; others may become extinct. The five points of attack described in this post can be applied to the problems caused by climate change. For example, relocating to areas where climate change is not causing problems would disconnect the cause from the problem. For example, protecting communities from the damage caused by the problems would disconnect the symptoms from the problems.
Expanding the investigation of problems to their symptoms and causes enables us to apply a broader range of approaches to deal with them. Not all problems can be dealt with directly. Instead, we could prevent the problem from occurring by tackling its causes or the link between the problem and its causes. We could also reduce the damage a problem causes by tackling the symptoms or by breaking the link between the problem and its symptoms. Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between problems and their causes or even their symptoms. Having clear definitions can make distinguishing between the three easier. Understanding the relationships between causes, problems and symptoms could enable us to attack a problem at various stages. This could greatly reduce the risk of a problem and its symptoms causing its full amount of damage.
If you want to read any of my other posts, you can click on the links below. These links will lead you to posts containing my collection of works. These 'Collection of Works' posts have been updated to contain links to the Hive versions of my posts.
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