Book review: Thinking in Systems

Thinking in Systems: A Primer, by Donella H. Meadows, seemed to me to be something of a missing manual for human thinking. Even though we live in a world of complex interconnected systems, our common assumptions and habits of thought don’t necessarily serve us well when it comes to understanding their nonlinear, self-organizing behavior.

The book begins by describing how systems work, using several examples that are quite relevant (e.g., economies based on non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels or on a renewable resource such as a fishery).

The middle section builds on these examples to describe how humans get along with systems: what makes them work well, why they surprise us, and how to deal with common traps that systems can get stuck in. This section revealed so many useful but easy-to-disregard truths that it rose, in my opinion, toward the level of providing a secular moral philosophy. For example, the three features that make systems function well are resilience, self-organization, and hierarchy, but resilience and self-organization are often sacrificed to gain (temporary) productivity and stability. I wish more of us (including me) had a firmer grasp on this fact.

The traps considered include escalation, addiction, competitive exclusion (“success to the successful,” a serious problem in the U.S.), and seeking the wrong goal. That last one may seem easy to avoid, but Meadows points out some ways that our goals don’t reflect what we would really like to have, for example, our focus on the gross national product, a metric that is disconnected from (or perversely anticorrelated with) much that we actually value.

The final section lists, in order of increasing effectiveness, ways in which we can change systems and describes some insights gained from thinking in systems. The last chapter in particular is an excellent outline of some features of a secular morality or maybe a mental hygiene—good habits of thought to cultivate, such as using language with care, honoring, respecting, and distributing information, staying humble and continuing to learn, revealing and comparing mental models, and expanding time horizons. I was particularly impressed by these two passages:

Living successfully in a world of systems requires more of us than our ability to calculate. It requires our full humanity—our rationality, our ability to sort out truth from falsehood, our intuition, our compassion, our vision, and our morality.

Getting models out into the light of day, making them as rigorous as possible, testing them against the evidence, and being willing to scuttle them if they are no longer supported is no more than practicing the scientific method—something that is done too seldom even in science and is done hardly at all in social science or management or government or everyday life.

These passages, in a nutshell, describe much of what I think it takes to be a good human. However, you don’t need to settle for the nutshell. I’d highly recommend reading the whole book.

Four kinds of introversion?

One of the most interesting things about personality to me is the range of expression of different traits. My introverted behavior and preferences are similar to but not identical to those of introverted friends, for example, and the reasons have to do with other personality characteristics as well as different personal histories. So I was interested in this article from Science of Us about an attempt to identify various kinds of introversion.

The research described in that article was motivated by the fact that the term introversion has a somewhat elusive meaning, and the scientific definition doesn’t exactly line up with some of the ways that non-scientists tend to think of introverts. Jonathan Cheek at Wellesley College has been working on a finer-grained understanding of different kinds of introversion. He and two grad students recently reported a method of identifying four variants: social, thinking, anxious, and restrained. Social introverts simply prefer to hang out in smaller groups or spend time alone. The other three types are more motivated by something in themselves: strong enjoyment of an inner mental world, extreme self-consciousness around others, or a need for time to process things before reacting.

The article above includes a test you can take to see where you fall in this scheme of things. I scored exactly the same on each type: no surprise, because I recognized myself in the description of each one. And these facets of introversion seem deeply intertwined to me. It’s easy to feel self-conscious around others if you see that your inner mental world, or the strength of your immersion in it, seem weird to those around you. If your thoughts and solitary work absorb a lot of your energy, you might need time to shift your attention from the familiar confines of your own mind to the demands of the outside world.

A friend whose introversion sometimes seems to manifest itself most differently from mine had pretty much the same scores as I did, so this particular measure didn’t do much to illuminate the differences in our behavior or preferences. We agreed that some of the questions were also difficult to answer, which is not surprising for this type of test.

You’re asked, for example, how typical of you it is to want to vacation in places with a lot of people, or how much you want to get away when you’ve been surrounded by people. Sometimes I like having lots of people around who are going about their own business; I enjoy reading or writing in a coffee shop where strangers come and go, for example, which gives me a sort of bubble of solitude all the more pleasurable for lying among the hubbub of other lives. I’d probably be more eager to escape to a private space if I were vacationing in a small town where everyone knew everyone else than if I were someplace like Paris or Manhattan, where you have the energy and interest of other lives around you but you don’t need to interact directly with anyone most of the time except in the most predictable of social rituals.

In fact, I’d say that my preference for the number of people around is U-shaped: a high preference for solitude or very small groups, moderate enjoyment of anonymous benign crowds, and deep discomfort with, say, a room full of 10 or 20 strangers that I’m expected to socialize with. But you’re not likely to learn that about me unless you know me or I tell you in so many words; it’s hard to imagine a test that would reveal all the nuances.

Years ago I read a book that reviewed various theories of personality, and in the end the author concluded that personality may be a mystery, in the sense that you understand it not so much by analysis as by experience. The older I get, the more this rings true. I’m still interested in analysis like the work Cheek does, but mostly as another filter for examining experience.

Troublesome terms in psychology

A group of authors has put together an article that gives an excellent primer on problematic terminology used in psychology and psychiatry. Although it’s aimed at students and teachers in the psychological sciences, I think it’s also very useful for anyone who reads (or writes) about the brain and mind, because it addresses common misconceptions that are perpetuated by frequently used words or phrases and points out areas where terminology hasn’t kept up with what we’ve learned. The discussion of terms having to do with statistics can be somewhat technical, but many of the terms are the kind of thing you see all the time in the news (e.g., “a gene for X,” “hard-wired,” “antidepressant medication”), and for each term there’s an explanation of what the problem is (whether it’s inaccurate, often misused, ambiguous, or an outright oxymoron). The article can be read online or downloaded for free. Highly recommended.

Book spine poem: Man and Time

What finer way to spend a Saturday morning in summer than browsing the bookshelves for good lines for a poem? Here’s the result:

Man and Time

The immense journey (the fool’s progress).
A sense of the future: the eternal frontier,
Untrodden peaks and unfrequented valleys
Beyond the blue horizon.
Always coming home.

book spine poem 3

With gratitude to the authors: J.B. Priestley, Loren Eiseley, Edward Abbey, J. Bronowski, Tim Flannery, Amelia Edwards, E.C. Krupp, Ursula Le Guin

Fiction and real life

I ran across this in Umberto Eco’s Confessions of a Young Novelist (The Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature):

The compelling nature of the great tragedies stems from the fact that their heroes, instead of escaping an atrocious fate, plunge into the abyss—which they have dug with their own hands—because they have no idea what awaits them; and we, who clearly see where they are headed so blindly, cannot stop them. We have cognitive access to the world of Oedipus, and we know everything about him and Jocasta—but they, even though they live in a world that depends parasitically on our own, do not know anything about us.  Fictional characters cannot communicate with people in the real world.

Such a problem is not as whimsical as it seems. Please try to take it seriously. Oedipus cannot conceive of the world of Sophocles—otherwise, he would not wind up marrying his mother. Fictional characters live in an incomplete—or, to be ruder and politically incorrect—handicapped world.

But when we truly understand their fate, we begin to suspect that we too, as citizens of the here-and-now, frequently encounter our destiny simply because we think of our world in the same way that fictional characters think of theirs. Fiction suggests that perhaps our view of the actual world is as imperfect as the view that fictional characters have of their world. This is why successful fictional characters become supreme examples of the “real” human condition.

This struck me for several reasons. The thing I’m still chewing over is the realization that I often act as if I assume that the world, like a book, has a reader, someone who is outside the story and sees the thing whole, someone who sees the pits that I am digging for myself and knows when I’m about to fall into one of them. Sometimes I want to see my own story whole; sometimes I want to ask an omniscient viewer, “What will happen if I do this?” I realize consciously that these things are impossible, but sometimes, especially when I’m making a difficult decision, I have a subtle but persistent sense that if I could just climb above my day-to-day circumstances for a moment, there’s a definite answer, a complete world, that I, like this mythical reader of the world, could see.

Maybe I believe in this reader because I’m a lifelong avid fiction reader, and I extrapolate too freely from fiction to life. Or maybe it’s because I was taught as a child that there is an omniscient god who knows and sees all (even though I left that deity behind long ago). Maybe it’s a common human bias because, when we’re children, we depend on these beings who know so much more than we do that they may as well be omniscient. As we grow up, we continue to consult experts, and indeed parents and experts do have a lot of useful things to tell us about what will hurt and what will help.

Of course, the tragedy of Oedipus, and many other fictional characters and real people, is that although someone in their own world might have been able to answer the question that could have saved their lives, kingdoms, marriages, jobs, reputations, and so on, it never even occurred to them to ask it. Eco’s point is that we, like fictional characters, often think that what we know of the world is what there is to know of the world. Even so, most meaningful questions are too complicated for simple answers, and if we think to ask for information, the best question we can come up with is often a broad, less answerable one, like “Should I go to Thebes?”

I think I’m fairly comfortable with the answer “It depends,” but lurking in my heart is a foolish belief that on the big, consequential questions, there are much more definite answers available, and there is some entity that can see them and perhaps share them. Maybe I should put these thoughts in the mind of a fictional character and see how his or her author (that would be me) responds. Or have I just disappeared down a rabbit hole?

“Origins of Art” in National Geographic

A few years ago I reviewed Werner Herzog’s documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams about the Chauvet cave art, so I was interested in this article about what it was like to photograph the cave paintings for a story in the January issue of the National Geographic. It turns out that the story itself, called The Origins of Art, is available online to non-subscribers. It’s an interesting read and covers Chauvet and other sites worldwide, considering both paintings and artifacts and putting art in the context of human evolution. The map and slideshows in the sidebar are worth a look too.

Rilke on being patient with the unknown

“…be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, translated by M. D. Herter Norton

Happy new year, everyone. I hope 2015 brings you not only answers, but also some good new questions to live with.