Counterintuitive Behavior of Social Systems

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Counterintuitive Behavior of Social Systems is a 1971 paper by Jay Wright Forrester. In it, Forrester argues that the use of computerized system models to inform social policy is far superior to simple debate, both in generating insight into the root causes of problems and in understanding the likely effects of proposed solutions.


Forrester characterizes normal debate and discussion as being dominated by inexact mental models:

The mental model is fuzzy. It is incomplete. It is imprecisely stated. Furthermore, within one individual, a mental model changes with time and even during the flow of a single conversation. The human mind assembles a few relationships to fit the context of a discussion. As the subject shifts so does the model. 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 and are left unstated. It is little wonder that compromise takes so long. And it is not surprising that consensus leads to laws and programs that fail in their objectives or produce new difficulties greater than those that have been relieved.

The paper summarizes the results of a previous study on the system dynamics governing economic dynamics in urban centers, which showed "how industry, housing, and people interact with each other as a city grows and decays." The study's findings, presented more fully in Forrester's 1969 book Urban Dynamics, suggest that the root cause of depressed economic conditions is a significant shortage of job opportunities relative to the population level, and that the most popular solutions proposed at the time (e.g. an increase in the amount of low-income housing available, or a reduction in real estate taxes) counter-intuitively serve to make the situation worse by increasing the population but not the availability of jobs, so that the relative shortage increases. The paper further suggests that measures to reduce the shortage -- such as the conversion of land use from housing to industry, or an increase in real estate taxes to spur redevelopment of property -- would counter-intuitively create the result desired when enacting the failed policies.

The paper also gives an overview of Forrester's model of world dynamics that correlates population, food production, industrial development, pollution, availability of natural resources, and quality of life, as well as projections of those values into the future under various assumptions. This model is presented more fully in Forrester's 1971 World Dynamics, and is notable primarily because it served as the initial basis for the World3 model used by Donella Meadows and Dennis Meadows in their popular 1972 book The Limits to Growth.

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