Systems Thinking Experiment: For Classroom…or Decisionmakers

Thinking logically about complex topics is the critical first step missed by everyone from beginners to senior national decisionmakers. Ironically, the first steps really aren’t that hard. So here’s an experiment brief and useful enough to fit into any classroom schedule or crisis national decisionmaking process. Professors who would like some Internet-based pro bono support to run this experiment in their foreign policy or economic policy class are invited to get in touch. (National decisionmakers will be expected to pay.)

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A Simple Experiment

Step 1. Select an analytically substantive question.

I recommend a question of real depth, phrased generically, e.g., “What are the implications of the policy of ‘security through strength’?”


Step 2. Draw a reference mode.

A reference mode is a graph with time on the x-axis showing what you think happens. This experiment is an exploration, and when you want to explore, it is good to know where you are starting. Think of the “reference mode” like knowing the coordinates of your car before you start a hike. The y-axis represents whatever variable you feel is key. Of course, you can do multiple graphs to show different processes.


Step 3. Draw a causal loop diagram.

A causal loop diagram is a diagram showing how the forces at play affect behavior. It is a “loop” because dynamics cycle back (e.g., the more you complement me, the more I like you). In contrast to the very simple picture of the reference mode graph, the causal loop diagram identifies each force and its impact. Start with A affects B and B affects A. Then add details.

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That is the essence of a simple experiment in logical thinking that can be incrementally pushed pretty much as far as you have the intellectual stamina to take it. Here are examples analyzing military control of the political process and how war can erupt even when everyone wants peace. If you happen to have the luxury of real data, you can transform your causal loop diagram into a mathematical model using simple software such as Stella, but even five minutes on a napkin over lunch will clarify your understanding of a tough problem. Figuring out the key force in a complicated problem such as the impact on a neighboring country of a policy of security through strength and then figuring out the impact of that force turn out not to be as straightforward as many overconfident experts think. Making a formal effort to do this, even for five minutes, is push-ups for the mind.

The point of this post is to suggest that such an experiment, valuable as it is, is easy enough for anyone to try, easy enough for me to support via the Internet. Of course, it can get complicated if you want to identify all the variables, and there are numerous posts on this blog illustrating that point. But it’s the first step that counts.

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