Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Unintended Consequences of Behavior: The Importance of Systems Thinking

Having been introduced to psychotherapy by psychoanalysts and, to a lesser extent, behaviorists (cognitive therapy had not yet caught on), I was very impressed when a friend of mine first introduced me to family systems theory. It taught me about the importance of feedback in interpersonal interactions. The actions of person A in a relationship do not "cause" the actions of Person B in response. Both A and B are continually affecting each other's behavior simultaneously, as each person assesses the motives and intentions of the other. A relationship evolves over the the entire time the relationship between two people exists.

People are not rats; they do not just respond to what the other persons just did, but to what they just did in relationship to everything else they have done during the history of the relationship. Additionally, we are not robotic automatons, even though most of what we do most of the time is just responding to the usual environmental cues. It is estimated by neuroscientists that about 80% of what we do during our day involves no conscious deliberation whatsoever. However, if something unexpected happens as we do that, we will then think about it.

Systems thinking is one of the main themes of Peter M. Senge's best-selling book, The Fifth Discipline, first published in 1990. The book discusses common errors business people make because of a lack of appreciation of feedback effects that take a certain amount of time before those effects become apparent. The most common examples are described using something that he calls Systems Archetypes. Understanding them is not just important in business but in all human interactions, including within family systems.

He lists ten of them. In this post, I would like to summarize just three that I think are the most relevant to the subject matter covered in this blog.

Perhaps the most famous of the archetypes is one Senge calls Shifting the Burden to the Intervener. It is the one described by the common proverb about teaching people to fish rather than giving them a fish. When a person or a group of persons is having some sort of problem that they cannot solve, they often call upon a consultant who does not tell them about general aspects of how to solve certain types of problems, but actually steps in and solves the problem. 

The next time a problem arises, the consultant is brought back to solve it. The long-term result is that the original group never learns to, or is not motivated to, solve similar problem themselves. This is the nasty side effect created by so-called helicopter parenting.

Another systems archetype is far less widely known. Senge calls it Success to the Successful. I mentioned a good example of it in my last post. It is seen in students who do poorly in school who then get diagnosed with some psychiatric disorder. 

The basic pattern is that kids in a classroom are somewhat in competition for the teacher's attention and praise. The kids who start out as attentive and well-behaved gain praise and positive attention from the teacher, while the ones who do not start out that way are seen as undeserving of praise. The teacher's negative attitude toward the latter children is observed by these students, who then start to see themselves in a negative light. 

Due to their loss of self confidence, they start to put even less effort into their schoolwork, which then feeds back into the teacher's negative view of them, which leads them to become even more discouraged, and so on. This archetype is the basis of many a case of what is commonly referred to a "self-fulfilling prophecy."

The third archetype I will mention is called Balancing Process with Delay. This occurs when a group or individual overcompensates for something in one way or another because there is a significant delay between what they have started to do and its effects. An illustrative example many of us are familiar with is a shower in which the temperature of the water responds sluggishly to changes in faucet position. 

Because the water seems to stay cold, a poor guy in the shower turns up the temperature, but nothing much seems to happen. The delay is due to the distance of the faucet from the hot water heater. So he turns it up again. If he keeps doing that, he suddenly finds himself getting burned due to a large, sudden and unexpected rise in the water temperature.

Because of delays in business, shortages of something can suddenly turn into a glut of that product, which then leads to another shortage as producers react too quickly to market conditions. In families, this may be seen in parents who had been abused as children. They try to be unlike their own parents by going to the opposite extreme and letting their child get away with murder. In response, the child starts to feel like the parent does not really care about them, because the parent seems to ignore it if they do something self-destructive like coming home intoxicated or failing in school.

When that child grows up and has a child, he or she may overcompensate back in the other direction, and become too harsh! In looking at genograms, we sometimes see entire generations going back and forth between two extremes. A generation of alcoholics begets a generation of teetotalers who beget a generation of alcoholics; a generation of workaholics begets a generation of slackers who beget a generation of workaholics, and the like.


  1. Regarding "Balancing Process with Delay," can one extrapolate one's grandparents' attitudes towards one's parents by how the parents treat their kids? For instance, parents who are cutting in their criticism of their kids were by their own parents? Perhaps they are avoiding the pitfalls of their own childhood but ultimately resent their effort because such an effort was never made on their behalf?

    1. Hi Anonymous,

      No, I don't think you can know anything for sure without actually finding out the details of family experiences and interactions from the involved parties over the life of their relationships. The patterns I discuss are just common ones that might have occurred (possible places to start and suggestive of questions one can ask), but they are just prototypes, there are a whole lot of other possibilities.