Let’s Talk About “Changing Systems” Systematically (part II of II)

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As promised at the end of part I, we’ll begin part II by asking, “What good are systems levels, especially organic systems levels?” Well, lets take an example from philanthropy. Consider this oft cited example (which apparently comes from Lao Tzu—thank you Robert Hall):

  • Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day
  • Teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime

I tend to add one more level:

  • Place him within a fishing community and his fishing skills will feed the generations

Some “squeeze the systems accordion” (as talked about in part I) and view solving hunger or food insecurity as “nothing but” giving people fish. It’s a reduced or materialistic view. This view is often called “technical.” And many enjoy technical solutions because they’re easy to set up and easy to evaluate. Same thing with brain scans. If the brian center lights up, it’s functioning. Unfortunately with brain scans, you cannot go up systems levels, that is to say, you cannot scan a brain as it is actively engaging with, say, family, friends, the environment, community, political systems, etc. (Once scientists develop wearable brain scanners, this may well change. Can you say “Google Glass?”) John Searle reminds us that brains can and do contain what he calls “we intentionality” (see note 1 below brought over from part I). Without we intentionality, there could be no collaboration, no social structures, no politics. For now, brain scans are not able to assess for we intentionality. (2) Searle also reminds us that intentionality is intimately related to action. Brain scans (for now) are not able to assess for intention–action relationships (speech acts are the exception here). Here’s another systems example from philanthropy: an often cited river metaphor that uses the image of bodies floating down a stream (origin unknown):

  • Downstream = pulling bodies
  • Going up stream = researching a problem and its possible causes
  • Headwaters = confronting those responsible for throwing bodies in the water in the first place

Again, staying downstream and pulling bodies is a technical or reduced position. But many enjoy this reduced systems position because it is relatively easy to develop a “body pulling” program and measure its success: number of bodies pulled or number of people fed. Don’t get me wrong; body pulling is an important part of triage and first response, however, body pulling in and of itself may not address more systems oriented or adaptive problems like poverty, food insecurity, family health, or mental health (going up systems levels). In their article entitled Leading Boldly, Ronald Heiftz and his co-authors argue that if all you do is engage in technical or what might be framed as “flattened systems solutions,” you could unintentionally make associated adaptive problems worse, not better (i.e., unintended consequences). Here’s a controversial example that’s been in the news lately.

Many (often on the liberal side of the isle) are calling for a dramatic reduction in the number of guns here in the US as a way of combating gun violence. (A fatal shooting was reported at LAX as I was writing this post.) This is a technical solution to gun violence, one that tends to gloss over higher systems levels such as culture, politics, and even mental health. An unintended consequence of this technical solution has been record high gun sales. Heck, Colorado sheriffs have openly said that they will not enforce new gun control measures within their state. And it’s conservative groups that, surprisingly, promote a systems response to gun control in the form of: “If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.” Gun control is a hugely complex social problem that must be framed and addressed using multiple systems levels. Any attempt to “squeeze the systems accordion” with respect to gun control is shear folly. (See note 2 for a bit more on this topic.)

So, here are a few suggestions concerning presentations, and even grant proposals, that have a systems focus:

  1. Start by orienting us within the two prevailing divisions: mechanical–cybernetic systems vs. organic–biological systems. Cyberneticists tend to be very open and up front about their position and worldview. Not so much proponents of organic systems. If you have a totally different division, then that division needs to be made clear. In addition, this new division should be oriented with respect to the two prevailing divisions above.
  2. Give us your systems levels (for instance, body pulling, going up stream, headwaters). Technical solutions tend to take place within one level, and, in turn, that level often results when the “systems accordion” (to use a Searle image) is compressed (reduced). To help get you started, see the systems levels examples talked about above (especially the Bertalanffy example from part I).
  3. If you have identified a compressed system, talk about how that compressed system could be potentially decompressed.
  4. If you are promoting technical solutions, talk about why you have chosen to focus only on that particular level, and what the possible systems ramifications might be (i.e., unintended consequences). Also talk about how partnering with “going up stream” and “headwater” groups might make sense from a systems perspective. A systems perspective is a view that tends to naturally promote collaboration and cooperation so that all levels of a social problem are addressed during a process of changing systems.
  5. If you are talking about changing systems, then, by definition, you have to list all of the systems levels you are dealing with because systems change takes place not only within levels but also across levels. I think this is the one place where organic systems advocates fall short. They talk about changing systems without ever listing the various systems levels they are investigating, and whether these levels are typically looked at from a compressed or expanded view. I think one reason organic systems advocates are reluctant to explicitly list organic systems levels stems from the fact that they do not wish to draw attention to the core levels that provide the foundation upon which organic systems are built, namely, biological and natural systems. Again, mechanistic systems advocates are very open about their desire to abandon the core systems levels of biology and natural systems. For more on the current attacks against biology and nature, see my blog post of October 23, 2013.

Let me end with an example from my active days as a psychotherapist. I was working at a behavioral health hospital with a group of acting out teenagers. In group therapy, I would talk about all manner of behavioral strategies, most of which took the form of “just say no,” as in just say no to that behavior, just say no to that group of friends, just say no to those thoughts. After all of these “just say no” pronouncements, a teen came up to me and simply asked this systems question: “After I say no to all of these things, how should I imagine my life to be?” (3) You can win the “no to behavior” battle and find that you have lost the “yes to life” war. OK, one more story that illustrates this point. This one is from sociologist and attachment researcher Peter Marris’ article entitled What Can Be Wrong With Growth? (contact the Foundation for a copy of Marris’ article, which is used by permission):

The director of a United Nations relief agency visits a refugee camp, and happens to notice a child bleeding from the head. He urges the father to take the child to a doctor, but the father replies, “Let him die, our lives here are so miserable, his life is not worth living.” What accounts for his despair? It is not lack of the basic necessities of life, or at least the hope of them, which the United Nations agency is there to provide; nor lack of hope that his son can be treated. I think it is, more profoundly, loss of faith in the possibility of a future for his family that can give their lives any meaning. This sense that our lives are meaningful is, surely, more fundamentally important to us than survival itself. We will risk death or submit to martyrdom to protect it. The tragedy of refugee camps is to be bereft of everything that gave life purpose. They represent, in the most extreme form, the grief provoked by loss of meaning.

Postscript: when we deal with people on a reduced mechanical level, it tends to send the unconscious message that we don’t have any hope for or vision of higher systems levels such as meaning and purpose (especially Searle’s we intentionality). I would suggest that the above acting out teen that I was working with received this reduced message most of his life. From a systems perspective, maybe that’s why he was acting out in the first place. (And I do feel bad that within that particular behavioral health environment I delivered that reduced message once again.) Operating at a low, technical level without keeping systems implications in mind may actually make problems worse as Marris’ above United Nations relief agency example points out. (4)

As military scientists know well, what keeps a military unit fighting is morale. And morale tends to focus on higher systems levels such as honor, duty, commitment, purpose, and loyalty. Once morale drops below a certain point, a coherent group or system breaks apart into isolated individuals, alone, confused, directionless, hopeless. (For more on this theme, see Jonathan Haidt’s book entitled The Righteous Mind.) This often happens after a huge natural disaster (the current Philippine typhoon disaster a tragic example). Technical care can and should be provided to these individuals, however, it is leadership that will provide such necessities as hope and vision and morale. Robert Hall may not be too far off the mark when he describes the US as a Land of Strangers. Maybe we have entered an age of too many technical solutions and too few adaptive ones. Maybe we are winning the technical, “give a man a fish” battles while at the same time losing the “yes to life” war. For a detailed look at how the collapse of higher systems levels such as honor, duty, commitment, purpose, and loyalty has led to low levels of morale in the US, see Susan Faludi’s book entitled Stiffed: The Betrayal Of The American Man. Interestingly, the musician Sting has taken up this topic as well. See the article Sting Honours Shipbuilding Roots With Musical The Last Ship.

(1) (Included again from part I for ease) – Even though John Searle does not specifically mention organic systems theory, I find these concepts reflected in his work at many turns. Putting aside the exact meaning for now, consider the following passage from Searle’s book Making the Social World. I would suggest that this passage reflects an organic systems perspective. Note that Serale talks about systems levels as “floors in a building.” In this passage Searle is trying to place “we intentionality” or collective intentionality within an organic systems perspective.

You do not need a promise in order to have collective intentionality: indeed, the very conversation in which the promise is made, and is accepted or rejected [i.e., establishing a grant agreement], is already a form of collective intentionality. The conversation presupposes a Background capacity to engage in conversation, and the Background capacity depends on having a more fundamental prelinguistic form of collective intentionality [perhaps the attachment behavioral system]. The initiation of the conversation is itself a high level of collective intentionality [my emphasis]. So from my point of view, creating a commitment by making a promise is already two floors up in the building of collective intentionality. You have to have a prelinguistic form of collective intentionality [again, possibly the universal experience of attachment] on which the linguistic forms are built, and you have to have the collective intentionality of the conversation in order to make the commitment.

Here are the organic systems levels or floors that I see in the above passage surrounding collective intentionality:

  • prelinguistic linguistic form of collective intentionality (possibly the universal experience of the innate attachment behavioral system)
  • linguistic forms (language)
  • conversation
  • collective intentionality (which requires minds knowing minds, or a Theory of Mind)
  • commitment

Hmmm … what’s that passage from Matthew: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Sounds pretty collective intentionality, “systemy” to me.

(2) – I recently watched a PBS special narrated and hosted by Alan Alda entitled Brains on Trial. Right off the bat notice the reductionism: we are talking about “brains” on trial, not “minds.” Brains on Trial is centrally about the current status of brain scan studies that look at what motivates criminal behavior. The program asks the reduced systems question, “If our various brain centers cause our behavior, then can we be held responsible for our behavior, especially criminal behavior?” These studies could be framed as, “Do people kill people, or do brain centers kill people?” And if we step down one more floor, we get the question being bandied around in public spaces: “Do guns kill people or do people kill people?” Honestly, I think the following article title gets at the heart of the matter: Guns Don’t Kill People, Deranged Men Do. The author of this article makes the following point, which tends to take us up systems levels: “As the nation remains engulfed in this [gun control] debate, we do so at the expense of the real issue: mental health.” As the gun debate issue points out, social problems typically involve many layers. As a result, it’s always a good idea to start by mapping out the systems landscape. Once you have this map in hand, you can begin asking systems questions like Why is this program looking at a particular level? What might be the unintended consequences of looking at only one level? Have levels become compressed? Why? And how might we decompress levels so that change can take place not only within a level but also across levels?

On a personal level, I am surprised that the gun control debate has focused so very little attention on hyper realistic, hyper militaristic, hyper violent, and hyper destructive video games such as Call of Duty and Battlefield. (For a take on gun violence in movies, see the article entitled Gun Violence Rampant in Movies for Teens, Study Shows.) These types of video games create collective expectations, collective acceptance, and collective intentionality. These games go a long way toward framing the intentionality side of the intention–action relationship. For a look at the close relationship between video game developers and the military, read the closing chapters to Lt. Col. Grossman’s book On Killing. From a systems perspective, the subtitle to Grossman’s book reminds us that we need to spend some time focused on The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War. Should the gun control debate only look at analog guns or should digital, virtual guns be included? And now that 3D printed guns are a reality, that analog–digital line becomes even more blurry. Again, any attempt to “squeeze the systems accordion” with respect to gun control is shear folly.

(3) There’s a postscript to this story. The teens I was working with back in the late 1990s would often come up to me and say something like, “You only pay attention to us because you are being paid to do so.” Back then I knew these statements captured some core therapeutic essence but I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly that essence was. Fast forward to my recent read of John Searle’s book Making the Social World and I think I have found a possible answer. Searle compares and contrasts natural motivations—those arising from innate behavioral systems such as attachment, caregiving, and sex—versus what he calls “desire-independent motivations.” Consider this passage:

[I]n the case of human society, unlike other animal societies known to me, reasons can motivate desires instead of being motivated by desires. The most obvious example of this is promising. I promise something to you and thus create a desire-independent reason for doing it.

If I can take certain liberties with the statement often made to me (and other therapists) by the teens I was working with—“You only pay attention to us because you are being paid to do so”—here’s a Searlian reframe: “You only pay attention to us because of the desire-independent reason of making money.” Ergo, the other part of the reframe would be, “You don’t pay attention to us because of natural reasons such as attachment or love or care.” A promise of true love is so powerful because it is both desire-dependent and desire-independent, in effect bridging both worlds. Searle suggests that the gap between the two—desire-dependent versus desire-independent—is where you will find consciousness. So, using Searle as a background, behaviorism, with its focus on “shoulds and should nots,” embraces desire-independent motivations while eschewing desire-dependent motivations. I would suggest that the above teen observation that therapists are only motivated by money gets at the philosophical position of behaviorism. And as Steven Pinker suggests in his book The Blank Slate, the behaviorist worldview takes an anti-nature or anti-innate behavioral system view. In contrast, I would suggest that John Bowlby recognized that desire-dependent motivations, such as attachment and caregiving and even sex, must gain access to the world of desire-independent motivations. Bowlby suggested that one’s Inner Working Model “bridged the gap” so-to-speak. Simply, the more flexible and adaptable one’s IWM, the easier one is able to bridge the worlds of desire-dependent and desire-independent motivations. Parenting then could be framed as helping the child bridge these two worlds. As a result, parents must be comfortable operating within both worlds and modeling that comfort. Strictness and rigidity (as can be found reflected in behaviorism) tends to reflect a level of discomfort with the world of natural motivation, and a desire to stay firmly within the world of desire-independent motivations with its many rules and regulations. (The opposite could be said of permissive parenting practices.) The ultimate desire of behaviorism (or any anti-nature worldview) is to merge with machine thinking and machine being. I would suggest that the above teen observation—behavioral therapists only work for money—is rather insightful philosophically speaking. Too bad that I had not read Searle’s work back in the late 1990s or maybe I could have understood this core therapeutic essence more quickly. Sadly, psychotherapists receive very little training in graduate school on the philosophy behind certain therapeutic modalities, such as the anti-nature worldview that drives much of behaviorism or the anti-culture worldview that drives much of self psychology. Keep in mind that when one end member or the other is privileged, consciousness (e.g., Searle’s gap) suffers.

(4) Here’s another example of where doing good can make things worse. Here’s how an On the Radar article starts that profiles humanitarian aid worker Jessica Alexander. The article is entitled Chasing Chaos: The Real-Life Story of a Humanitarian Aid Worker. Notice the focus on systems problems and unintended consequences:

Idealistic and looking to make a difference, 24-year-old Jessica Alexander set out on a career in humanitarian relief work. But after managing a camp of tens of thousands of refugees in Darfur and rebuilding in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake, Alexander said her idealism faded to cynicism for a time.

“My disillusionment came from realizing that these are systemic problems, and the aid community is working to save lives in the aftermath of huge disasters,” she said. “But a lot of the roots of these conflicts and some of the natural disasters that happen are due to lack of good governance, lack of preparedness.”

Alexander, whose new memoir, “Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid,” traces the ups and downs of her career in aid work, told “On the Radar” that well-intentioned people can inadvertently make conditions worse, when it comes to responding to the world’s greatest tragedies and disasters.

I would suggest that Chasing Chaos is an appropriate way to frame trying to do good without keeping a systems view in mind.