Systemic Problems (1)

The following discussion is based on, and inspired by, the work of Jack Harich and associates, found at their website.

Problems come in all shapes and sizes, and they vary in terms of causes, scope, duration, etc. Here I am concerned with problems that seem to result directly or indirectly from the decisions made by individuals. Some of these problems are rarely encountered, since they occur due to mistakes or accidents, while other problems tend to occur over and over again.The problems that show up repeatedly may simply be the result of individuals making wrong decisions on a regular basis. Such problems are relatively easy to solve, since it usually doesn’t take a lot of effort to trace the symptoms of the problem to the particular decisions of particular individuals and then educating or training those individuals so they start making the right decisions.

Not all problems are so easy to solve. The most important problems are those that are so widespread that we might file them under the category of “social problems.” Typically, these problems persist over multiple generations and tend to resist commonsense or intuitive solutions. Examples include drug addiction, prostitution, obesity, and domestic violence. In any given case, we may be tempted to identify the victim’s own past decisions as the cause of his or her current undesirable state; for example, obesity can be traced to the consumption of large amounts of junk food and domestic violence can be traced to poor judgment in selecting a spouse. Upon deeper investigation, however, we discover that those past decisions were made under constrains over which the individual had little or no control, and that relative to those constraints the decisions seemed pretty rational at the time they were made. This insight becomes even more compelling when we approach these problems not as individual events or isolated occurrences but in terms of large-scale patterns that repeat themselves over and over again. If only a handful of people were to become addicted to alcohol or another drug in the course of a year, we may attribute the problem to the individuals’ personal situation and bad decisions; but when drug addiction starts affecting millions of people at any given time, we have to abandon our individualistic approach and start thinking in terms of social systems. For this to happen, we must zoom out in order to look at the behavior of many more people than just the ones who are directly involved, at which point we would realize that the problems that occur repeatedly and on a large, society-wide scale cannot be traced to particular individuals making wrong decisions. Rather, these problems occur precisely because all who are directly or indirectly involved are trying to do the best they can with the resources they have under the objective conditions they’re facing.

Such problems may be called systemic problems because they originate not so much from the behavior or decisions of individuals, but rather from the structure of the system itself.

Imagine a situation where everyone is making the right decisions—they are doing more or less what they’re supposed to—and it is precisely these decisions that are giving rise to certain undesirable symptoms on a large scale. You might ask: how can right decisions lead to problems? The answer is that these decisions are “right” only within the constrains of the particular system that is shaping the behavior of the individuals in question; and so, when we look at the situation from a viewpoint that is not constrained by the system, it becomes obvious that the decisions being made are actually wrong. This does not mean that individual behavior plays no role in the genesis of these problems. Individuals, after all, do not stand totally aloof or apart from the system; they participate in the system and thereby make it happen through their decisions. The point, rather, is that the decisions of individuals are themselves influenced by the rules and goals of the system in which they participate. We cannot, therefore, pin the blame for a systemic problem on anyone in particular. The individuals making the problematic decisions are part of the system, yet they are not the real culprits; their decisions only represent the intermediate causes of the problem. The root causes of the problem lies elsewhere, i.e., in the way the system itself is structured.

Consider obesity as a case in point. The responsibility for the problem of obesity in the United States cannot be placed simply on the poor eating habits of large sections of population. We must ask: why are so many people eating unhealthy food? It turns out that certain government policies are providing strong incentives for doing so, including subsidies for corn farming that makes high-fructose corn syrup available at low prices, which results in junk food being considerably cheaper than healthy options like fruits and vegetables. And if we ask the next logical question—why do these policies exist in the first place?—we would only uncover additional layers of systemic causation.

The lesson here should be obvious: We cannot solve a systemic problem simply by replacing some individuals or by educating or training them differently; the fresh arrivals will behave in the same way as their predecessors, and education or training will not have a major effect—unless we change the rules and/or the goals of the system. The only way to solve a systemic problem is to find and implement a systemic solution. The individuals through their decisions are merely responding to the expectations and constraints that the system imposes on them; if those expectations and constraints are changed, so would their decisions.

A systemic solution is one that change those elements of the system’s structure that represent the root causes of the problem. In contrast, a superficial solution is one that addresses the intermediate causes while ignoring the root causes. By definition, a superficial solution cannot solve the problem, or solves it only at an insufficiently small scale and/or temporarily. Thus, Michelle Obama’s effort to inspire and encourage healthy eating habits among kids is a superficial solution to the problem of obesity, just as her husband’s effort kill suspected terrorists through drone strikes is a superficial solution to the problem of terrorism. Once it becomes obvious that a particular solution is not working, it’s time to take a step back and consider the possibility that the solution being implement is only addressing intermediate causes. What is needed at that point is a deeper analysis of the systemic structure (i.e., the rules and goals of the system) in order to find the root causes of the problem so that systemic solutions can be devised and implemented. The insistence on using the failed superficial solutions not only prevents the problem from being solved while wasting time, energy, and resources; it also makes the problem bigger and more complicated and therefore harder to solve. In due course, superficial solutions themselves become part of the problem.

A solution consists of several solution elements. The place in the structure of a system where a particular solution element is to be applied is known as a leverage point. Results vary depending on whether the leverage point being pushed will affect the intermediate causes or the root causes. When a relatively large amount of force is applied at a particular leverage point in the system for a relatively long period of time but the systems shows only a small amount of change, then this provides good evidence that we’ve been pushing at a low leverage point, and that our effort only affected the intermediate causes. In other words, we were implementing a superficial solution, not a systemic solution. On the other hand, when the solution elements are applied at high leverage points in the system, they affect the root causes of the problem; in this case, the application of a relatively small amount of force can produce a large amount of change in the system.

Superficial solutions are based on an incomplete understanding of the system’s structure, which is why they provide solution elements that are applied at low leverage points and only address the intermediate causes of the problem. Systemic solutions, in contrast, are based on a sufficiently complete understanding of the system’s structure, which is why they provide solution elements that are applied at high leverage points and affect the root causes of the problem.


  1. An excellent essay on where I suspect the future of social science is going. I like the way you summarized the analysis paradigm by slowly taking the reader through the typical steps of “trying” to solve difficult social problems, and the insights that arise as one seeks deeper and more correct reasons for why present approaches to solution usually fail.
    The paragraphs are a bit long sometimes. I’d try breaking up those long episodes of logical examination into smaller chunks. Then we can perhaps reach more thwinkers! Still, there are some beautiful passages here. Such enjoyable reading, as one deduction/discovery after another keeps popping up.

    You mentioned “the systemic structure (i.e., the rules and goals of the system)” I’d consider broadening this to include feedback loops, where the heart of system structure. Rules and goals are examples of where the deeper root causes often lie. But there are other areas, like bottlenecks. An example of this is the way high transaction costs appear to be the root cause of improper coupling between the human and environmental systems.

    What questions does this essay raise?

    Well, for me the entire piece implies one large pressing question. If this approach to social problem analysis is so productive, because it finds and resolves root causes, then why are social scientists not already taking this approach?

    Thanks for such a strong initial post in the System Thinking of your blog. I thirst for more!

  2. Thanks so much for your response! I really appreciate it.

    I used the word “rules” to mean the entire set of interconnections along with the flow of influence among the various elements of a system. This definition would include feedback loops, though I realize that “rules” is not the ideal term to convey this meaning.

    You raise a pertinent question. It’s likely that the answer lies in the structure of the academic system. Perhaps there are reinforcing loops that reward certain research topics and approaches, as well as balancing loops that limit certain other topics and approaches.

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