Systems Thinking and Counter-intuitive Nature of Social Systems

March 15, 2010

In the forward to the book "Order out of Chaos" by Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine, Futurist Alvin Toffler wrote:

One of the highly developed skills in contemporary Western Civilization is dissection: The split-up of problems into smallest possible components. We are good at it. So good, we often forget to put the pieces back together again.

What Alvin Toffler said was profound. He actually pointed at obsessive reductionism and lack of wisdom in Western civilizations in understanding and designing systems to solve complex social problems. I do not have to give examples from recent history of Middle East, Iraq or Afghanistan to prove this fact.

In the 90s, I spent couple of years doing research on complexity, computer simulation of complex process and learning systems apart from avidly reading some of Alvin Toffler’s books. I was passionate about the whole “Systems Science”. I wondered if mathematics of dynamical systems(link) can be applied to complex disciplines like management, sociology and psychological Sciences.

Then, I came across some work on “Systems Thinking” by Peter Senge, professor at MIT Sloan School of Management. That led me to work that Jay Forrester did on “Systems Dynamics” at MIT. That made a connection between Control Theory(link) and Social Dynamics. (Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge, System Dynamics)
Systems Thinking is, more than anything else, a mindset for understanding how things work. It is a perspective for going beyond events, to looking for patterns of behavior, to seeking underlying systemic interrelationships which are responsible for the patterns of behavior and the events. Systems Thinking embodies a world-view; A world-view which implies that the foundation for understanding lies in interpreting interrelationships within systems; Interrelationships which are responsible for the manner in which systems operate. Interrelationships which result in the patterns of behavior and events we perceive.

When we go beyond the linear cause and effect paradigm to study patterns of behavior and then to study the systemic interrelationships among the parts of systems we develop a much deeper understanding of the nature of the way things operate; an operational understanding, which can allow us to work with the system rather than against it. An understanding which allows for the development of interventions to create lasting change within the system, if that is the desired intent.

Jay Forrester writes
Society becomes frustrated as repeated attacks on deficiencies in social systems lead only to worse symptoms. Legislation is debated and passed with great hope, but many programs prove to be ineffective. Results are often far short of expectations. Because dynamic behavior of social systems is not understood, government programs often cause exactly the reverse of desired results.
The field of system dynamics now can explain how such contrary results happen. Fundamental reasons cause people to misjudge behaviour of social systems. Orderly processes in creating human judgment and intuition lead people to wrong decisions when faced with complex and highly interacting systems. Until we reach a much better public understanding of social systems, attempts to develop corrective programs for social troubles will continue to be disappointing.

Then, he throws the bombshell:

The human mind is not adapted to interpreting how social systems behave. Social systems belong to the class called multi-loop nonlinear feedback systems.

The basic principles of Systems Thinking are listed below and they are based on mathematics of dynamical systems. Their application is very simple. Whenever, a policy maker violates any of these principles (which can be used as a checklist), then one can look for a disaster waiting to happen.

1) Today's problems come from yesterday's "solutions."

2) The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.

3) Behavior will grow worse before it grows better.

4) The easy way out usually leads back in.

5) The cure can be worse than the disease.

6) Faster is slower.

7) Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space.

8) Small changes can produce big results...but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious. (Most obvious solutions for complex social problems can be at best useless and at worst dangerous)

9) You can have your cake and eat it too ---but not all at once.

10) Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants.

11) There is no blame.

It is very easy to see that a lot of these principles get violated by political parties and governments worldwide. The feedback systems create havoc across the world economies as the bubbles get burst and the coupled systems swing wildly impacting lives of billions of people.

These principles of systems thinking can result in different patterns or structures of behaviour called “archetypes”. Some examples of Archetypes are: Fixes that fail, Accidental adversaries, shifting the burden.

Why are Social Systems counter-intuitive?

Humans are inherently limited in thinking that cause and effect are closely linked in time and space. For example, you touch a hot stove and you immediately feel a burning sensation on your hand. However, in social systems, the cause and effect are often far removed in time and space, which completely deceives the policy makers.

The simple example is: Imagine there is 8 second delay in the steering wheel of your Car. That is, when you turn it left, it does not respond immediately and it starts turning only after 8 seconds. Now, consider there is a 20 second time delay in your accelerator pedal. Imagine when someone calls you on cellphone, the speed of your car doubles. Now, imagine driving such a Car at 50 miles per hour in a test track. That Car will take you for a ride.

Social systems seem to be slow, but they are much more complex than this example and they take the policies and interventions for a ride. That is what dangerous time delays and couplings in space and time can do. Human mind is not adapted to interpret such multi-loop nonlinear feedback systems. One policy intervention creates multiple effects and side effects over different periods of time at different locations in space (say in the country). These side effects in turn are misinterpreted and polices are implemented to counter these side effects. This entire process takes one very far from real solution or original intentions. The problems do not get solved, but the interventions produce some more severe problems. Then, societies deal with both.

We just have to look at problems in Middle East, Iraq or Afganistan to appreciate this idea.

Jay Forrester adds further.

Social systems exhibit a conflict between short-term and long-term consequences of a policy change. A policy that produces improvement in the short run is usually one that degrades a system in the long run. Likewise, policies that produce long-run improvement may initially depress behavior of a system. This is especially treacherous. The short run is more visible and more compelling. Short-run pressures speak loudly for immediate attention.

Attractive Policies can Create Disaster.

For example, usage of certain pesticides in a farm can lead to reduction in pests for some months and then the pests increase rapidly in spite of usage of the same pesticide. So, what happened? The pesticide initially started killing off one category of pests. However, this category of pests used to feed on other pests more immune to the pesticide. As the pesticide killed the predatory pests, the other pests immune to pesticide started breeding and took over the farm.(link)

Then, I read in newspapers that dowry problem has spread all over India as more and more laws are enacted, crime against women is increasing at a rapid rate and women in US are unhappier compared their grandmothers after 40 years of campaigns and struggles. Now, I know, why India has much less crime rate than US in spite of India's corrupt police and dysfunctional judicial system.

What happened? When you push a complex system harder, the harder it pushes you back. There are only a very few points of influence in such chaotic systems(link), which are highly sensitive to initial conditions. These points of influence are not at all obvious. It’s like those kid’s fairy tales, where a demon has hidden his heart in some box somewhere and to kill him, you need to locate that box. It is very certain that the System pushed the policies back harder as the counter-intuitive non-obvious solutions were discarded due to rhetoric, populism or lack of understanding of how systems work.

I have every reason to believe that wild rhetoric on victimhood of women with false statistics, contributed to a rise of “female foeticide” in urban India and it worsened the already existing situation by disempowering educated parents, who may have actually fought against the bias.

Similarly, a law against acid attacks may actually lead to rapid increase in incidents. The massive newspaper coverage of enactment of the law followed by victim stories may spread the idea (of use of acid) to many pathologically sick criminals. At present a few hundred people get attacked by acid every year. After the news, thousands may in fact think of storing acid at home as a weapon for their own self defense and that will create a far worse problem than what it is today.

If 33% seats are reserved for women in Parliament, it may lead to more laws in favour of women. However, soon there can be a small strongly held “male vote bank” and women candidates may compete with each other for “appeasement of males” in the constituency. Being women, these elected representatives will face less chance of being labeled as anti-women, so they will be more confident in cutting off privileges bestowed up on women now.

Systems Thinking can be applied to all dynamical systems starting from teams in corporates, to management, economic systems, stock markets, social movements for change and Government policies. All it requires for one is to train oneself in this alternate way of thinking by taking non-linearity, circular influences/feedbacks and multiple side-effects in time and space into account. One can also use various computer simulation and modeling tools to simulate and play with the complexity. It’s like a “social or management flight simulator”. One can see some such simulations in Wikipedia link on Systems Dynamics.

It is possible to create self-organizing and self-replicating learning organizations(link) to bring change, when one uses the principles of systems thinking at its core.
1) A Guide to Learning System Dynamics.

2) Generic Structures: Overshoot and Collapse.

3) Generic Structures:Oscillating Systems

4) Archetypes: Interaction Structures

Sumanth is an Indian Men's Rights Activist.
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