General Systems Theory

General Systems Theory. Psychology Fanatic article header image
General Systems Theory. Psychology Fanatic
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General Systems Theory is the interdisciplinary study of systems and how they relate and adapt to each other within a more complex system. The key concept of (general) systems theory is that the whole is greater than the sum if its parts.

General system theory can be traced back to the 1940s in the work of the biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy. Von Bertalanffy theorized that interactive systems explained the complexity of the world’s problems. Our analytical minds prefer to dismantle and assign cause. Yet. with all our brilliance, we repeatedly fail to solve the world’s most basic problems of crime and poverty. The people we elect to create laws and govern, debate over the correct path to these admirable ends. But no matter who is in office, and which policies they enact, crime and poverty remain amazingly stable.

Donella H. Meadows wrote, “no one deliberately creates those problems, no one wants them to persist, but they persist nonetheless.” They continue that these social problems are “intrinsically systems problems—undesirable behaviors characteristic of the system structures that produce them” (2008).

General system theory is an alternative to reductionism which attempts to explain the world through a unified limited theory. The theory examines wholes, interdependence, and complexity, examining how smaller systems come together to affect greater complex systems. Singularly, smaller systems are unpredictable when reduced to any single part.

Systems theory seeks to explain and develop hypotheses around characteristics that arise within entire systems that seemingly could not arise in any single system or part of a system within the whole. We refer to this as emergent behavior.

What is a System?

A system is a set of things (people, cells, processes, etc…) that when interconnected they produce their own pattern of behavior. meadows explains, “every person we encounter, every organization, every animal, garden, tree, and forest is a complex system” (2008). In order to see the world through systems, we must widen our view.

Systems are multidirectional. Within systems, we find sub-systems, and sub-elements, with each sub-system and sub-element consisting of their own sub-system and sub elements. If we look the other direction, we find that the system we identified is also a part of a larger system, connected to other complex systems.

While our institutions are designed to produce certain results, within the institution systems forms on their own accord. While “everything within a system can act dutiful and rational, yet all these well meaning actions too often add up to a perfectly terrible result” (2008). Our typical response, since all the parts appear appropriate, is to do more of the same with more fervent effort.

Emergent Behavior

If a complex system expresses emergent behavior, it has characteristics its properties do not display on their own. Michael S. Gazzaniga, director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara, describes the emergent process. He wrote, “emergence is when micro-level complex systems that are far from equilibrium (thus allowing for the amplification of random events) self-organize (creative, self-generated, adaptability-seeking behavior) into new structures, with new properties that previously did not exist, to form a new level of organization on the macro level” (2011).

We may refer to the emergent behavior as the systems function or purpose. Meadows explains, “a system’s function or purpose is not necessarily spoken, written, or expressed explicitly, except through the operation of the system. The best way to deduce the system’s purpose is to watch for a while to see how the system behaves” (2008). Systems naturally and spontaneously form, typically not by design, and from these systems emerge behaviors, not necessarily desirable.

Psychology and General Systems Theory

Systems is all about multiple parts, connections, and emergent behavior Understanding systems becomes an integral part of neuroscience, social science, and intimate human relationships. Through the vast network of neurons, and internal and external elements emerges consciousness, emotions, motivations, and survival.

Daniel J. Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, explains human connection through the systems lens. As an example he describes person A as an individual with their own thoughts, emotions, and history. He them introduces person B, also with their own individual parts. If A and B form a relationship with each other, they send signals back and forth that alter the internal functioning of the other. He explains, “A and B come to function as a supersystem, AB. One can no longer reduce the interactions of A and B to the subcomponents A and B; AB is an irreducible system” (2020).

Ed Tronick adds to Siegel’s concept of two people creating a supersystem by explaining the dyadic emotional relationship between two people. She wrote, “dyadic processes change emotions and generate new ones, such as relational emotions.” She continues, “these dyadic processes may also be messier than self-organized emotional meanings because each individual brings his or her own meanings into a meaning-making exchange, enabling a possible cocreation of new emotional meaning between the two” (2009, Kindle Location 2,142).

Some Primary Concepts of General Systems Theory in Psychology:

  • System: An entity that’s made up of interrelated and interdependent parts.
  • Complex system: The greater whole system made up of individual, smaller systems.
  • Ecological systems: The various systems in a person’s environment that influences behavior.
  • Homeostasis: A steady state of balance within a system. A system is always moving toward homeostasis by adapting to other influencing systems.
  • Adaptation: A system’s tendency to make changes that protect homeostasis when impacted by new environmental factors.
  • Feedback loop: A systems internal intelligence measuring impacts of self adjusting changes, causing a  circularly system of micro adjustments until homeostatic balance is reached.

A Few Words By Psychology Fanatic

Understanding systems is key to understanding our world of relationships. General systems theory scratches the surface of the functioning of this complex and magnificent world in which we live.

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Gazzaniga, Michael S. (2011). Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain. ‎ Ecco; Reprint edition.

Meadows, Donnella H. (2008). Thinking in Systems. Chelsea Green Publishing; Illustrated edition.

Siegel, Daniel J. (2020). The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. The Guilford Press; 3rd edition.

Tronick, Ed (2009). Multilevel Meaning Making and Dyadic Expansion of Consciousness Theory The Emotional and the Polymorphic Polysemic Flow of Meaning. In The Healing Power of Emotion: Affective Neuroscience, Development & Clinical Practice. Editors Daniel J. Siegel, Marion Solomon, and Diana Fosha. ‎W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition.

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