Systems Archetypes are a small set of system structures that produce common behavioral patterns across many different fields. Archetypes unify disciplines that have often been taught as separate things – psychology, economics, biology, urban planning, technology, government systems, etc. – because they can be universally found in all systems.
By equipping your mental models with the following eight archetypes, you can easily identify structures driving the systems around you. While an overload of information can be easily overwhelming, these archetypes frame the data as recurring patterns revealing why a system behaves the way it does.
The Eight Systems Archetypes:
- Addiction – where an agent becomes dependent on an external intervenor, or a crutch. Over time, the agent’s will is eroded and cannot function without the intervenor. (examples: government subsidies, worshipping “gurus”, free health insurance).
- Eroding Goals – where an agent’s failure to reach its goals causes it to set lower and lower goals over time. (examples: politicians revising their original “promises”, failed exercise goals).
- Escalation – where competing agents one-up each other causing a snowball effect in behavior. Sometimes the desire to beat competitors distracts each agent from pursuing its own unique vision. (examples: competitive price wars, feuds, terrorism).
- Limits to Growth – where a once successfully growing system hits a resource limit that constrains its future growth. (examples: market saturation, populations reaching carrying capacities)
- Policy Resistance – where the actors of a system find ways to work around rules or regulations imposed on them in order to achieve their goals. (examples: black markets, tax loopholes)
- Seeking the Wrong Goal – where an agent pursues a goal that is not aligned with its vision. This wrong goal might be self-selected or incentivized by an authority. (examples: incentives that reward quantity and ignoring quality, confusing number of degrees held for intelligence, pursuing monetary wealth at the expense of all else).
- Exponential Success – where success today leads to further success in the future. (examples: rich get richer, network effects)
- Tragedy of the Commons – where multiple agents, behaving in their self interest, escalate actions that deplete a shared resource and over time leads to the resource’s extinction. (examples: overfishing, traffic jams).