Election Reflection

Jay Forrester’s 1971 Counter Intuitive Behavior of Social Systems sums up this election pretty well for me.

… social systems are inherently insensitive to most policy changes that people choose in an effort to alter the behavior of systems. In fact, social systems draw attention to the very points at which an attempt to intervene will fail. Human intuition develops from exposure to simple systems. In simple systems, the cause of a trouble is close in both time and space to symptoms of the trouble. If one touches a hot stove, the burn occurs here and now; the cause is obvious. However, in complex dynamic systems, causes are often far removed in both time and space from the symptoms. True causes may lie far back in time and arise from an entirely different part of the system from when and where the symptoms occur. However, the complex system can mislead in devious ways by presenting an apparent cause that meets the expectations derived from simple systems. A person will observe what appear to be causes that lie close to the symptoms in both time and space—shortly before in time and close to the symptoms. However, the apparent causes are usually coincident occurrences that, like the trouble symptom itself, are being produced by the feedback-loop dynamics of a larger system.

Translation: economy collapses under a Republican administration. Democrats fail to fix it, partly for lack of knowledge of correct action but primarily because it’s unfixable on a two-year time scale. Voters who elected the Dems by a large margin forget the origins of the problem, become dissatisfied and throw the bums out, but replace them with more clueless bums.

… social systems seem to have a few sensitive influence points through which behavior can be changed. These high-influence points are not where most people expect. Furthermore, when a high-influence policy is identified, the chances are great that a person guided by intuition and judgment will alter the system in the wrong direction.

Translation: everyone suddenly becomes a deficit hawk at the worst possible time, even though they don’t know whether Obama is a Keynesian.

The root of the problem:

Mental models are fuzzy, incomplete, and imprecisely stated. Furthermore, within a single individual, mental models change with time, even during the flow of a single conversation. The human mind assembles a few relationships to fit the context of a discussion. As debate shifts, so do the mental models. Even when only a single topic is being discussed, each participant in a conversation employs a different mental model to interpret the subject. Fundamental assumptions differ but are never brought into the open. Goals are different but left unstated.

It is little wonder that compromise takes so long. And even when consensus is reached, the underlying assumptions may be fallacies that lead to laws and programs that fail.


… there is hope. It is now possible to gain a better understanding of dynamic behavior in social systems. Progress will be slow. There are many cross-currents in the social sciences which will cause confusion and delay. … If we proceed expeditiously but thoughtfully, there is a basis for optimism.

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