Causal loop diagrams


Use for

Identifying perverse links or system errors.


A system analysis that highlights cause and effect relationships provides you with a solid basis for identifying perverse links or system errors.

What do you do?

You use causal loop diagrams to show the connection between the ‘sources' of effects and those effects, preferably together with people who are very familiar with the system or the problem. An example is the problem of salinity in agriculture in the western part of the Netherlands. Relevant factors include the lowering of the water level through drainage for agricultural purposes leading to the pumping up of the salt water from the substratum, and to negative effects for agriculture and nature. It is counteracted by supplying freshwater, but this is not a sustainable situation.

You should identify the nature of the relationship between the variables. A link is given a positive score if an increase in one variable leads to an increase in the other variable. A negative score is given to a link if an increase in one variable leads to a decline in the other variable.

For the purposes of vision creation/reorientation you and the participants then look for links between desired effects and the sources of those effects and for perverse links. Perverse links are links between desired effects and undesired effects that are the by-product of desired effects. You then zoom in on the perverse links and analyse the processes underlying them in more detail. In principle, the group should then reflect on those processes and discuss which perverse links should be given priority. The group can then go on to discuss interventions and actions.


Using causal loop diagrams takes 1-2 half-day sessions. People with experience of the causal loop diagram approach can teach it.

More information

  • Kirkwood, C. W. (1998). ‘System Behavior and Causal Loop Diagrams'. Chapter 1 in: System Dynamics: a quick introduction.
  • Kim, D.H. (1992). Toolbox: Guidelines for Drawing Causal Loop Diagrams. The Systems Thinker 3 (1), pp. 5-6.
  • Used by

    the Dutch InnovatieNetwerk