Systems Thinking

Your Lying Mind… or the power of mental models

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Ben Yahoda in September, 2018 Science

I am staring at a photograph of myself that shows me 20 years older than I am now. I have not stepped into the twilight zone. Rather, I am trying to rid myself of some measure of my present bias, which is the tendency people have, when considering a trade-off between two future moments, to more heavily weight the one closer to the present. A great many academic studies have shown this bias—also known as hyperbolic discounting—to be robust and persistent.

Most of them have focused on money. When asked whether they would prefer to have, say, $150 today or $180 in one month, people tend to choose the $150. Giving up a 20 percent return on investment is a bad move—which is easy to recognize when the question is thrust away from the present. Asked whether they would take $150 a year Read the rest of this entry »

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The Shambhala Worker

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An open letter to Sustainable Food and Farming majors….. (adapted with permission from Joanna Macy).  A printable version of this post maybe found here.

Many students who choose to study Sustainable Food and Farming have discovered their major through a circuitous route in which they tried other paths and found they just didn’t belong.  For you, I have a gift.  This is a story about people who don’t “fit” into the mainstream institutions, the citadels of learning, you know…. higher education.


There is a prophecy that emerged from Tibetan Buddhism about 12 hundred years ago. The signs it predicted are recognizable today… in our time. There are several

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Your life is a “story within a larger story”

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When I introduce my Agricultural Systems Thinking class  to the concept of hierarchy, I often use our own lives as a metaphor for “subsystems within larger systems.”  In this blog, I will try to examine the relationship of subsystems within a natural systems hierarchy (or holarchy) to the “system above”, which provides the “system below” with meaning.  But first, lets  examine the title of the blog “your life is a story within stories.”  I borrowed this metaphor from a wonderful systems thinker, Michael Dowd, who wrote ”

“Each of us is a story within stories. My daughter’s life story is part of both my story and her mother’s story. The story of our family is likewise part of other stories larger than our own: the story of our town, our state, our nation, Western civilization, humanity, planet

Earth, and the story of the Universe itself. Each of us is a story within stories within stories. Read the rest of this entry »

How to use the “iceberg” to understand complex systems

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icebergmodOne of the most useful tools available to a systems thinker is called “the iceberg“.  The iceberg metaphor represents the problems we face in the world (much like an iceberg is a problem for ships).  The visible world or the symptoms of a problem are easy to see.  But the bulk of the iceberg representing the underlying cause(s) of the problem is below the water line.  We need to learn to see below the water line.

Get it?

Okay…. so that was easy.  Now we dig deeper into the iceberg model and use it to try to

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Look for and Leverage Elegant Solutions

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Original Post – August 30, 2016  by

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 “A good solution solves more than one problem, and it does not make new problems.”

– Wendell Berry

An essay that I return to now and then, including over these past summer months, is Wendell Berry‘s “Solving for Pattern.” Published in 1981, the piece essentially considers systemic approaches to more “sustainable “agriculture, though the concept alluded to in the title has wider application. The phrase “solving for pattern” is an invitation to take a larger and longer view of “problem-solving,” to think about interventions that serve a bigger picture in more sustained and multiply beneficial ways.

Solving for pattern, according to Berry, runs counter to reductionist and mechanical solutions, which lend themselves to more predictable and relatively contained situations. When reductionist solutions are applied to more complex and systemic situations, they are more prone to failure and to exacerbating negative aspects. Real-life examples include:

  • Applying pesticides to plants that pollute soil and water and poison people and other living beings,
  • Irrigation schemes that channel water in such a way that the larger water cycle is disrupted and nutrients lost to key places in the ecosystem;
  • Trying to save money in a community by restricting public library hours and thereby significantly reducing an important job search resource for un- and under-employed people;
  • Providing more shelters for people who are homeless without also trying to address the underlying causes of homelessness (result = those who are homeless are no longer as visible, reducing the public’s concern about the issue, limiting more comprehensive solutions – see David Peter Stroh).

The Systems Thinker, V23N6

“A bad solution is bad . . . because it acts destructively upon the larger pattern in which it is contained.”

A better approach in these situations is to get a sense of the larger systemic picture and pattern at play (which takes more time) and to look for interventions that support overall healthier dynamics in the system.

On a related personal level, my wife and I took some time recently to think ahead to the fall when kids are back in school and we are both working full schedules and trying to maintain some semblance of sanity on the home and family front. One situation that we were struggling with was how best to support our eldest daughter’s desire for musical enrichment after school without creating more stress on the family through racing around breathlessly from work to get kids from one location to another. We took it upon ourselves to find an “elegant solution” that solves multiple challenges without creating additional ones. In this particular instance, we arrived at the idea of finding a music student at one of the local colleges who could be hired to both teach our daughter and provide childcare until one of us returned home. Our daughter particularly liked the idea of connecting with a college student who is somewhat close in age and to whom she might ask questions about the college experience. That could create some very positive patterns of learning and mentorship on multiple fronts!

A beautiful example of pattern creation beyond isolated problem-solving is found in a story told by Sir Ken Robinson, in his book The Element, about the Jenks school district in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The state of Oklahoma has made a strong commitment to supporting early childhood reading for 3 to 5 year olds. The story goes that the head of a retirement home, the Grace Living Center, approached the superintendent in Jenks about establishing a preschool and kindergarten classroom in the home. The classroom was indeed built right in the heart of the Grace Living Center, with glass walls and a gap at the top of the walls to allow some of the sounds from the children to filter out into the hallways.

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Rather quickly, a number of the residents of the home volunteered to read to and be read to by the children. The results were impressive. The majority of the children in that particular reading program left for first grade reading at a third-grade level or higher. In addition, there were remarkable relationships established between the children and their senior Book Buddies, which yielded rich inter-generational learning about much more than reading. What’s more, the staff at the Grace Living Center noticed that medication levels of residents plummeted (which aligns with Ellen Langer’s research about the life-giving impacts of mindful engagement among older adults). As Sir Ken Robinson notes, “the Grace Living Center has restored an ancient, traditional relationship [or pattern] between the generations.” Fitting of Wendell Berry’s definition of a good solution, the partnership between the Grace Living Center and the school district is creating multiple benefits.

“Life-enhancing things can happen when we take the time to step out of our routines [and] rethink our paths.”

– Sir Ken Robinson

Yet another example is one I learned about during a meeting of the Food Solutions New England Network Team. We had the opportunity to hear from Ken Toong, Director of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Auxiliary Enterprises, which includes the award-winning dining program. The reason we invited Toong to speak with us is because of the program’s unique systemic commitment to not simply providing tasty food to students (17,000 of them), but to doing this in a way that promotes health through a variety of cuisines, educates and engages students, supports the local and regional economy, and is “regenerative” of human dignity and ecological integrity.

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UMass Dining sources much of its food locally year-round, serves sustainable seafood, employs hundreds of students and uses what it calls a “small plate [to promote health and reduce food waste], big flavor” philosophy, “all in the aim of supporting the New England Food System.” Having met students involved in the program, including the innovative Permaculture Initiative, and having eaten in the Hampshire Dining Commons, I can say that there is a palpable sense of enthusiasm and aliveness that seems to grow out of this larger systemic commitment to re-connect and create health-promoting patterns in students’ lives as well as in the surrounding community and region.

All of this leaves me with hope as well as some big questions about how to create larger and more inclusive patterns for justice and sustainability. What are the patterns that connect the injustices and imbalances that we are working on that are in need of repair and re-creation? What agreements might be made to create patterns of equitable resilience and abundance?

Beyond isolated problems to be solved, what larger patterns of life do you want to reinforce and/or create?

Please share your thoughts and stories . . .


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People all over the world are trying to work together in more collaborative ways in order to change things for the better – within their organizations, within their communities, and beyond. Through our consulting practice, IISC works with organizations, communities, networks, and others to build their capacity for more effective, equitable, and inclusive social change. We also offer workshops that provide participants with the opportunity to learn and practice the skills and tools of collaboration for social change.

For more information about IISC; http://interactioninstitute.org/about/

Social Structures Influence Behavior

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The following article is titled “A Dysfunctional System Creates Dysfunctional People“.  Using systems thinking language, this is restated as Mental Models result in Social Structures, which influence Patterns of Behavior…. and hence, individual actions.  The “iceberg” model helps us understand that we only find the root causes of human behavior “below the surface.”

John Gerber

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Original Post by Sean Hurley  in Social Rebirth.

It has become an almost mainstream view that it is us, the ninety-nine percent, vs. them, the one percent. While on the surface that would very much appear to be the case, if we should be bothered to take a closer look at the situation, it becomes evident that the reality is not so black and white.

Clearly we have an international banking cartel bent on controlling our political system, large global corporations buying their way into the political arena, pulling the strings of our so called elected representatives, treating us like little more than cattle with rapidly diminishing, low paying, unsatisfying jobs, selling us made-to-break garbage with little to no concern for us or our environment. To the so called one percent or more accurately the “point zero zero one percent”, it is all about profit, power and control.

Those labelled the one percent are actually part of the one hundred percent and are only exhibiting behaviors our social model has very effectively reinforced and rewarded them for their entire lives.

If you beat a dog, then that environment of abuse teaches the dog to be abusive, and humans are no different. We are raised and educated to compete with each other, to get the best marks at school, rewarded with scholarships and better paying jobs. Not that there are all that many jobs, never mind high paying jobs, floating around these days.

Our education system has become less about educating and more about churning out unquestioning, unthinking robots which can slot into the workforce, filling in the forty hour week following procedures and being a company (wo)man. This system encourages mediocrity, it is not designed to generate highly informed critical thinkers, it wants you to know just enough to push the button at work, but not enough to ask why.

How many times during our educational process are we encouraged to question society, when do our educators question us about the relevance of our very social design? While we can identify criminal behavior the ability to understand what causes people to act in a particular way can for the most part be lost to us. Why are so many people self medicating with drugs like alcohol, cannabis, or heroin, is it recreational escapism and if so, what is it people are trying to escape from? Why is it that those which are the most violent have a past history of abuse in their childhoods, yet in general this is seen as nothing more than a handy excuse? Why do we not want to try and understand the science and begin to figure out how to go about breaking the cycle and what doing so may require? When are we encouraged to ask difficult questions and employ some critical thought in regard to society and its fundamental mechanics?

We would appear to be so preoccupied with placing blame that we do not have the time or desire to look beneath the surface to figure out where all this aberrant behavior stems from. It is just lock them up, it’s such an easy solution, no need to investigate the impacts of our social environment on our intellectual, emotional and physical development, we can just put these bad people in jail and get on with our shopping.

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.
Mark Twain

As a species we tend towards  finger pointing when things go wrong, we want someone to blame to hold to account, to punish, but what are we actually accomplishing?

As a result will our infinite growth economic system be altered at the most fundamental level, to reflect required sustainability practices on a finite planet?

Will we begin to produce high quality products that are designed and built to last?

Will we place more importance with our global environment than with profits and profitability?

Are we going to work towards access abundance and the removal of price tags on the necessities of life?

Do we identify corporations that produce substandard products, wasting finite resources and can we hold them to account for profiting at the expense of sustainability on our planet?

How far will we go?

Far enough to get back to work, no banker is going to jail, bailouts for banks and austerity for the rest then get on with business as usual. Oh sure there may be a few superficial reforms here and there, perhaps some tax increases for the rich, but not much else. The last thing we want to do is actually address the systems failure which generates a stratified society, perpetuates endless debt and reinforces the continual consumption of materialistic garbage in the first place.

Blaming and shaming a few bankers without criticizing the system that generated them in the first place, is akin to having ten people stand in a circle and explaining to them that they each must take turns blowing up a balloon. Continuously passing this balloon around taking turns inflating it without stopping for any reason, then when the balloon inevitably bursts, holding the poor individual with it in their hands responsible. Taking them away, replacing them with someone else and starting all over with a new balloon.

It is plain madness.

The balloon is our environment, while the air being pumped into the balloon represents the demands we put on the environment. Constantly inflating it to buy new cars, homes, gadgets, to fill desires that corporations are busy convincing us we have. Now of course there is a limit to how much strain we can put on the environment, before it bursts under the pressure of ever increasing consumptive demand. It is always bound to happen while we continue to operate an economy based on repetitive consumption, of what is little more than garbage, for the sake of keeping people employed so that they can continue to consume.

At what stage will we consider the limits of our planet, or the immense strain we are putting on our environmental life support system? There must come a time when we agree we must see our planet as a holistic system. A system which we are very much dependent on in order to sustain our very lives. To operate an economy based on anything but sustainability and equality is destined to nothing but severe failure.

Sure we can blame bankers, blame politicians, we can even blame each other if we want to, but it isn’t going to get us anywhere in the end. We will still be in a system that has us going to jobs the majority get no pleasure from, so we can pay the bills, purchase things we really do not need, which are designed to fail so that we end up having to buy them again, taking loans and racking up credit card debt. Starting the entire process of blowing up the balloon all over again, sure this time those nasty bankers will have been punished, but they will only have been replaced by more bankers. Human beings which have been raised in this system, like the rest of us, taught that success is measured by acquisition, working to secure profits for both themselves and large multinational corporations.

Nothing of substance will have changed, apart from some names at boardroom meetings; we will be back to the shopping, but this time there will be more of us doing it, China is set to join us in a way that has never been witnessed. The strain we will be putting on our planet and biosphere is going to be unlike any other time in our short human history. In 2011 the U.S.A. had a G.D.P. of over 15 trillion dollars, while China was less than half that at just over 7 trillion, how long is it going to take for our planetary limits to became painfully apparent once China is matching the G.D.P. of the U.S.A.?

If we fail to recognize the natural limits of our finite planet, if we simply put a few people in jail and revert back to business as usual, we may find the next collapse is not a financial one, but an environmental one. If that happens printing more money, or jailing some more bankers won’t solve a thing.

No matter how enticing it may be to point our fingers and blame someone, if we fail to address the social root cause, which is the social structure which reinforces and rewards this type of behavior with giant houses, fast cars, private jets and extravagant salaries, then we will be doomed to relive the entire situation.

It is not the people that are the problem, it is the system and we are all victims of this system, even the one percent. Growing up many have dreams of becoming movie or rock stars, driving expensive cars, or just generally having loads of money. As time goes by we find we are not stars, are driving used cars and are scraping by trying to repay massive debts, then we start to question the fairness of the system. Even still we do not question the validity of the system itself, rather we pontiff about how fair it is and think that it could be fixed with this reform or that. While the few which do experience a degree of “success”, if that is what we want to call it, are then subject to media scrutiny, are consumed by a desire to have more property, more power, more money, as this is what this system generates. The false needs and desires for more.

Then of course we get the statement that this evil one percent is not going to just lay down and let us change society without a fight, like we have somehow not realized that of the seven plus billion people on this planet, the one percent represents something like seventy million people. When was it concluded that over 6,930,000,000 people had to ask permission of 70,000,000 people to do a damn thing. Our biggest problem is not this nefarious one percent; it is ourselves, our failure to be able to identify what the root cause problem manifesting all these symptoms is. Not understanding how it is our social environment reinforces and rewards the aberrant behavior of the few and leaves us feeling powerless to change anything.

We have all the power, if we can stop bickering over pointless superficial crap and unite under the common understanding that our real problem is an outdated system and not each other. Do the so called one percent have to be on board, no of course not, but nor do they need to be banished or ostracized. They are only doing what has been taught to them and reinforced by society at large after all.

We are not the ninety-nine percent, we are the one hundred percent, united we stand, divided, well, look around – this is what divided has gotten us so far.

We are all products of our environment and until we understand that and make the fundamental changes required to our very social design in order to promote outcomes beneficial to our entire species, then nothing of substance is going to change. We will continue to find ourselves in this self perpetuating feedback loop, which manifests all the symptoms we tend to misdiagnose as problems.

It’s not that they are “bad” people, or anything like that. This is what this system has created. Simultaneously, let’s remember that the market system requires constant problems. In order for the public interest and consumption to be maintained, problems in cultural influence is required. The more problems there are, the better the economy, generally speaking. In this system it is inherently “good” for cars to break down. It is “good” for people to get cancer. It is “good” for computers to become quickly obsolete. Why? More money. To put it into a sentence: Change, abundance, sustainability and efficiency are the enemies of the profit structure. Progressive advancements in science and technology, which can resolve problems of inefficiency and scarcity once and for all, are in effect making the prior establishment’s servicing of those problems obsolete. Therefore, in a monetary system, corporations are not just in competition with other corporations; they are actually in competition with progress itself.
Peter Joseph

Why we have a hard time changing our minds

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“Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind,” I wrote in reflecting on the 7 most important things I learned in 7 years of Brain Pickings. It’s a conundrum most of us grapple with — on the one hand, the awareness that personal growth means transcending our smaller selves as we reach for a more dimensional, intelligent, and enlightened understanding of the world, and on the other hand, the excruciating growing pains of evolving or completely abandoning our former, more inferior beliefs as we integrate new knowledge and insight into our comprehension of how life works. That discomfort, in fact, can be so intolerable that we often go to great lengths to disguise or deny our changing beliefs by paying less attention to information that contradicts our present convictions and more to that which confirms them. In other words, we fail the fifth tenet of Carl Sagan’s timelessly brilliant and necessary Baloney Detection Kit for critical thinking: “Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.”

That humbling human tendency is known as the backfire effect and is among the seventeen psychological phenomena David McRaney explores in You Are Now Less Dumb: How to Conquer Mob Mentality, How to Buy Happiness, and All the Other Ways to Outsmart Yourself (public library) — a fascinating and pleasantly uncomfortable-making look at why “self-delusion is as much a part of the human condition as fingers and toes,” and the follow-up to McRaney’s You Are Not So Smart, one of the best psychology books of 2011. McRaney writes of this cognitive bug:

Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do this instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. Just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you. Coming or going, you stick to your beliefs instead of questioning them. When someone tries to correct you, tries to dilute your misconceptions, it backfires and strengthens those misconceptions instead. Over time, the backfire effect makes you less skeptical of those things that allow you to continue seeing your beliefs and attitudes as true and proper.

But what makes this especially worrisome is that in the process of exerting effort on dealing with the cognitive dissonance produced by conflicting evidence, we actually end up building new memories and new neural connections that further strengthen our original convictions. This helps explain such gobsmacking statistics as the fact that, despite towering evidence proving otherwise, 40% of Americans don’t believe the world is more than 6,000 years old. The backfire effect, McRaney points out, is also the lifeblood of conspiracy theories. He cites the famous neurologist and conspiracy-debunker Steven Novella, who argues believers see contradictory evidence as part of the conspiracy and dismiss lack of confirming evidence as part of the cover-up, thus only digging their heels deeper into their position the more counter-evidence they’re presented with.

Nicolaus Copernicus’s simple yet revolutionary 1543 heliocentric model, which placed the sun rather than Earth at the center of the universe, contradicted the views of the Catholic Church. In 1633, Galileo was detained under house arrest for the remainder of his life for supporting Copernicus’s model.

On the internet, a giant filter bubble of our existing beliefs, this can run even more rampant — we see such horrible strains of misinformation as climate change denial and antivaccination activism gather momentum by selectively seeking out “evidence” while dismissing the fact that every reputable scientist in the world disagrees with such beliefs. (In fact, the epidemic of misinformation has reached such height that we’re now facing a resurgence of once-eradicated diseases.)

McRaney points out that, despite Daniel Dennett’s rules for criticizing intelligently and arguing with kindness, this makes it nearly impossible to win an argument online:

When you start to pull out facts and figures, hyperlinks and quotes, you are actually making the opponent feel even surer of his position than before you started the debate. As he matches your fervor, the same thing happens in your skull. The backfire effect pushes both of you deeper into your original beliefs.

This also explains why Benjamin Franklin’s strategy for handling haters, which McRaney also explores in the book, is particularly effective, and reminds us that this fantastic 1866 guide to the art of conversation still holds true in its counsel: “In disputes upon moral or scientific points, ever let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.”

McRaney points out that the backfire effect is due in large part to our cognitive laziness — our minds simply prefer explanations that take less effort to process, and consolidating conflicting facts with our existing beliefs is enormously straining:

The more difficult it becomes to process a series of statements, the less credit you give them overall. During metacognition, the process of thinking about your own thinking, if you take a step back and notice that one way of looking at an argument is much easier than another, you will tend to prefer the easier way to process information and then leap to the conclusion that it is also more likely to be correct. In experiments where two facts were placed side by side, subjects tended to rate statements as more likely to be true when those statements were presented in simple, legible type than when printed in a weird font with a difficult-to-read color pattern. Similarly, a barrage of counterarguments taking up a full page seems to be less persuasive to a naysayer than a single, simple, powerful statement.

In 1968, shortly after the introduction of the groundbreaking oral contraceptive pill that would revolutionize reproductive rights for generations of women, the Roman Catholic Church declared that the pill distorted the nature and purpose of intercourse. (Public domain photograph via Nationaal Archief)

One particularly pernicious manifestation of this is how we react to critics versus supporters — the phenomenon wherein, as the popular saying goes, our minds become “teflon for positive and velcro for negative.” McRaney traces the crushing psychological effect of trolling — something that takes an active effort to fight — back to its evolutionary roots:

Have you ever noticed the peculiar tendency you have to let praise pass through you, but to feel crushed by criticism? A thousand positive remarks can slip by unnoticed, but one “you suck” can linger in your head for days. One hypothesis as to why this and the backfire effect happen is that you spend much more time considering information you disagree with than you do information you accept. Information that lines up with what you already believe passes through the mind like a vapor, but when you come across something that threatens your beliefs, something that conflicts with your preconceived notions of how the world works, you seize up and take notice. Some psychologists speculate there is an evolutionary explanation. Your ancestors paid more attention and spent more time thinking about negative stimuli than positive because bad things required a response. Those who failed to address negative stimuli failed to keep breathing.

This process is known as biased assimilation and is something neuroscientists have also demonstrated. McRaney cites the work of Kevin Dunbar, who put subjects in an fMRI and showed them information confirming their beliefs about a specific subject, which led brain areas associated with learning to light up. But when faced with contradictory information, those areas didn’t fire — instead, parts associated with thought suppression and effortful thinking lit up. In other words, simply presenting people with information does nothing in the way of helping them internalize it and change their beliefs accordingly.

So where does this leave us? Perhaps a little humbled by our own fallible humanity, and a little more motivated to use tools like Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit as vital weapons of self-defense against the aggressive self-righteousness of our own minds. After all, Daniel Dennett was right in more ways than one when he wrote, “The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them — especially not from yourself.”

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