Complex Systems and Human Relationships

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Complex Systems. Psychology Fanatic.
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The expanse of the universe, with all its wonders, stretches beyond our limited understanding. We feel experience, being drawn towards an event or repelled away from one, depending on our interpretation of the benefits and dangers. The feeling instructs us which path to take. Feeling responses motivate action; but this guidance system isn’t without reproach—feelings are subjective; biased by experience, want and society. For cognitive ease, many treat feelings as the truth, allowing the story-telling mind to create a logical explanation, justifying the feeling. When we want something, or feel discomforted, instead of a skeptical review, we just take first and then justify, blame and retaliate—because we felt it.​ However, the complexities complicate our lives. Complex systems surround us making life impossible to predict.

When selfish views curtail experience, narrowing our vision by excluding the complexities, we drift from reality. Our new positions, arrived at through deceptions, require escalating lies to maintain our fragile little world.

“Everything exists within a context—everything is in relationship to the other parts of a system and to the system as a whole. Knowing more about relationships within a system and the dynamics of those relationships allows us to make better decisions.”

~Dylan Skybrook and John Miller

​Reality doesn’t march to self-created meanings. Protecting our storybook world built around a limited perspective demands exhaustive mental work, we must constantly filter the facts, filling in the holes with rationalizations, distortions, and denials. The more experiences we encounter, engaging under false pretenses, the further we drift. We become so tainted and disjointed from life that we lose all freedom, becoming automatons to our stories and lies.

What is a Complex System?

Complex systems are systems made up of many different parts, whose behaviors are intrinsically difficult to model. Within complex systems, we find dependencies, competitions, relationships, or other types of interactions between diverse parts and between a particular complex system and its environment. Because the parts are numerous, and the interaction almost innumerable, our finite minds, or even our complex computers have difficulty isolating predictable probabilities.

Scott E. Page, the Leonid Hurwicz Collegiate Professor of Complex Systems, Political Science, and Economics at the University of Michigan, wrote that “complex systems are collections of diverse, connected, interdependent entities whose behavior is determined by rules, which may adapt, but need not. The interactions of these entities often produce phenomena that are more than the parts” (2010).

In complex systems, small mundane actions for a single part may echo loudly across the networks of relationships. these small events can trigger large reactions.

Simple, Complicated, and Complex Systems

Our environments fill our lives with a variety of systems. From simple systems that are easy to predict, to the complex systems that are impossible to evaluate. Simple systems behave the same, following simple definable laws. They have simple and relatively few inputs that mostly react the same way. You push a button and the television turns on. 

We have many simple systems in place. Rent is due on the first of the month. An employer pays us a certain amount of dollars for each hour we work. We can structure budgets of time and resources to meet the demands of the many simple demands in our lives.

Complicated systems are similar to simple systems but have multiple and varied inputs. Our food and electric bills have more variance but we calculate them by exact unit measures. We can also describe school grades, for the most part, as a simple system.

Complicated systems are only predictable if we know the multiple contributing parts and units of measurements. Experience and knowledge greatly assist in accurately predicting complicated systems. However, as the parts increase and the possible actions and reaction of the parts multiply, the possible outcomes expand exponentially.

Complex systems are also patterned but constantly changing. Interactions dynamically change the response. Interpersonal relations are complex. Multiple inputs from a variety of internal and external sources impact interactions, and the tone of the interaction changes the response.

Adaptation and Complex Systems

All the moving parts make complex systems impossible to perfectly predict. They change. They adapt. Hence, they surprise. Yet, complex systems may stabilize. The stabilizing is an elegant example of complexity. John M. Gottman PH.D. describes such systems this way, “in the math this somewhat vague notion is given a very precise meaning. It means that if you perturb the system slightly from a steady state, it will return to that steady state. It is as if the steady state is an attractor that pulls the system back to the steady state” (2011).

A romantic relationship is complicated with both parties operating from the many parts of biological construction and environmental learning. However, when you add children, in-laws, and friends to the mixture the complexity increase exponentially. Yet, many of these relationships stabilize, as roles evolve, and entities operate within expected parameters.

Robert Axelrod and Michael D Cohen wrote that “when a system contains agents or populations that seek to adapt, we will use the term Complex Adaptive System. In many Complex Adaptive Systems, all the agents’ strategies are part of the context in which each agent is acting” (2001). While the system is dynamic because of the multiple moving parts, the mutual work to adapt, leads to the possibility of stabilization.

“The main difference between complicated and complex systems is that with the former, one can usually predict outcomes by knowing the starting conditions. In a complex system, the same starting conditions can produce different outcomes, depending on the interactions of the elements in the system.”

~Gökçe Sargut and Rita Gunther McGrath

Widened View Considers All Three Systems

When we widen our view, we see a world that includes the complexity of others. We can’t perfectly predict reality but gain a clearer vision of the possibilities. We gain a deepening appreciation for differences, including considerations for the well-being of others in our decisions.

Other people’s views, feelings and experiences have meaning. They are part of the complex human system. Through the eyes of others, we see our personal follies conveniently hidden in the darker corners of our mind. When we have a complex “we” perspective, our world expands. Events no longer appear as violations of simple systems but as incomprehensible outputs of a complex unpredictable system. This perspective accepts events beyond our explanations without disrupting emotions—because life is no longer completely about us and our simplified rules.

Others can still hurt us; but now the pain brings wisdom. The lessons improve navigation, winding possibilities through complexity without the condemning blame or stunning resentments—we move forward. We Flourish.

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Axelrod, Robert; Cohen, Michael D. (2001). Harnessing Complexity. Basic Books; Reprint edition.

Gottman, John (2011). The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples.

Page, Scott E. (2010). Diversity and Complexity (Primers in Complex Systems). Princeton University Press; Illustrated edition.

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