How Systems Create Their Own Behavior

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If a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves. . . . There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.

—Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Sometimes, an outside force might trigger a seemingly surprising turn of events, but in reality, the deep rooted structure of the system was already in place to respond in predictable ways.

The 7.0 magnitude Haitian Earthquake of 2010 led to at least 100,000 deaths. While it’s true that some force of nature sparked the devastating tragedy, it is also true that Haiti’s poor infrastructure development enabled the destruction. Most of Haiti’s building developments were not constructed for earthquake resistance despite Haiti being near a “major seismic hazard”.  Compare this to Chile’s 8.8 magnitude earthquake six weeks later – 500 times more powerful with less than 1% the casualties of the Haiti tragedy. Six years later on Christmas Day 2016, a 7.6 earthquake struck Chile again, this time with no casualties.

Homelessness is not a condition because many lazy individuals decided one day to stop working. Rather, it is the result of environments having poor education institutions, lack of opportunities for skills development, and ineffective support for emotional and health services to those whose circumstances have compounded in negatively reinforcing spirals.

Organizations that reward negative behaviors create toxic workplace cultures. Even if a few poor performing individuals leave,  those vacant positions will be replaced by others exhibiting similar behavior unless if incentives structure or reward systems are fixed.

Seeing that systems create their own behavior means we don’t blame the natural disaster or the individual, but the conditions of the system.

All systems are governed by circular cause-and-effect relationships called feedback loops. Sometimes, these behaviors snowball exponentially in what is called a reinforcing feedback loop. For example, wealthy people have a keen ability to invest their current wealth into future income-generating investments, which creates more and more. Sometimes, the system reacts to growth and balances it.  When rising inequality reaches the public conscience, divisions between “the haves” and “the have nots” lead to protests and collectivist support for policies that raise taxes and redistribute wealth.

The result is that systems have an abundant number of reinforcing and balancing feedback loops that together create the behaviors that we see day-to-day. If you want to change behavior, look to the underlying feedback structure.

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