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January 22, 2014

Lant Pritchett on why we struggle to think in systems (and look for heroes and villains instead)

January 22, 2014
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This passage in Lant Pritchett’s new book, The Rebirth of Education, (reviewed here yesterday), had me gurgling with pleasure. It rebirth-education-lant-pritchettexplains, in vintage Pritchett prose, why we all find it so hard to think in terms of systems, rather than agents (i.e. heroes and villains). He totally nails the origins of that glazed look I see in the eyes of my Oxfam colleagues when I start going on about systems, complexity, emergence etc:

“I am going on at length about this because this book is about explaining and fixing poor learning outcomes by fixing broken systems, not fixing people. But I have to go on about this because system explanations just have no appeal to people, myself included. Agent-centered explanations are powerfully appealing to us, on a very deep level. Believe me, if your child says, “Daddy, tell me a story,” you can be sure he or she wants a story with agents, heroes and villains who have goals and make plans and overcome obstacles.

Even economists when they try to explain Pareto optimality resort to making the ontological unfamiliar seem plausible by invoking “an invisible hand”—and hence making it seem familiar. “Oh,” say sophomores on hearing the invisible hand metaphor, “like an agent with a hand willed it. Now I get it”—and hence deeply don’t get it.

But even as an economist who loves system explanations in the domain of my expertise, I am bored silly by historians who tell the stories of structures and institutions and geographic constraints (I have never been able to make my way through any small part of the French historian Braudel, for instance, though I often think that I should). I love a good yarn about American independence that does not involve the carrying trade but does involve George Washington and his bravery. The appeal of agent-centered, human narrative explanations over systemic explanations is why no one—except perhaps you—is reading this book.

systems thinkingThis is because nearly all of our success as organisms is driven by understanding stuff and agents. Just as none of us really needs to understand quantum mechanics or general relativity to live our whole lives as successful, fulfilled, productive individuals, the number of times any of us needs to understand systems is vanishingly small. You can have a successful professional career without understanding systems. You can have a happy marriage without understanding systems (perhaps more likely, in fact: try asking your spouse sometime about the system of marriage—such as “Why did monogamy as an organizational form of the family triumph over polygamy?”—and see how that works for you). You can raise lovely children without understanding systems.

You just never need to really understand systems, until you do. Because even though life is always really about agents, it is also really always about systems.”


  1. Probably we all do “understand” systems up to a certain extend, rationally and intuitively, as we are all part of multiple systems. Then we created structures for these systems, some functional, others not so much (for many). Maybe, if we focused more on this realisation (we are all part of multiple systems and eventually of one huge living system), we would also understand that we are all co-creators and thus co-responsible. Complexity comes in as these systems are more than the sum of its parts, however, as interconnected agents we all have a role to play in strengthening or changing these systems.

  2. Love the blog Duncan and wanted to add a perspective to this. Complexity theory (I think) is about how agents and events and chance and particular characteristics of the situation play a role in changing current patterns (or systems) and how systems (or patterns of relationships or institutions) constrain and impact agents and events and so on. So I think, as Prigogine said, complexity theory combines science (explanations which include systems) and history (events, people…). and how the two affect each other…

    Also, re the glazed look (glad you get it too) does it work to talk rather of relationships and interconnections and how these can get established into norms and structures…?

    When I taught all this stuff to MBAs at Cranfield I used to feel that 80% felt that they had not paid all that money to be told that things were interconnected, uncertain and, even if they understood the present, this was no guarantee it told them much about the emerging future; 10% wrung our hands fervently and said it had changed their lives and 10% just thought we were mad.

  3. Great passage from the book. Systems get a glazed look from adults, yes, but what if thinking in systems were as familiar to us as adding in base ten or writing in the latin alphabet? MIT’s Jay Forrester has worked with teachers pioneering systems thinking in primary schools, to impressive effect. As one teacher in New Jersey said,

    “We are introducing kindergartners to the concepts of stocks and flows and the idea that behaviors can be graphed over time. Beginning in first grade students (age 6) are mapping larger sets of information and working with causal loops to explain cycles in nature and everyday events. Students continue working across the curriculum, strengthening their understandings of behaviors over time, causal loops, and simulations mediated through a systems approach. By fifth grade (age 10), students are manipulating simple computer models that integrate into their curriculum.”

    I’d love to sign my kids up for learning that kind of 21st century mindset.
    Here’s the article it is cited from:

  4. Thanks for the post. I agree re: glazed eyes. I’ll add a point: the need to think and express ourselves in abstract terms, probably doesn’t help either. I often draw on Political Economy Systems Maps (PEASMs)to describe and encourage thinking about complex contexts and interventions in a more attractive way. These maps help to solve some challenges by transforming the abstract into a set of simple, strategic
    insights about the underlying political landscape (actors, flows and processes) upon which a system is based – they help transform abstraction into a more attractive and graspable story.
    For those interested here are some examples,

  5. Another set of excellent blogs. Thanks Duncan. They really do help me, a semi-retired development practitioner, to keep up to date. The systems ideas are exspecially useful as they give some justification for my use of the now somewhat dated but still useful DfID Framework model (system?) to help my undergraduates structure one of their assignments. I get them to treat an aspect of current African development such as land grabs as an aspect of vulnerability, a shock to the system, and to deal with each of the six capitals (I add political capital to the mix). They have to determine how individuals working at different scales attempt to overcome the worst aspects of the shock. They are also encouraged to treat the shock as both an opportunity as well as a threat. Many of them find this approach very challenging but they are encouraged to persevere and the results are usually very rewarding.

  6. Yes! Exactly.

    Although, as the passage says you can get along relatively well in everyday life without thinking about systems. I do think that more people should and could think ‘get it’ (just like reading has gone from being a skill for the few to the many) Not seeing systems is like being an ant on a wire – stuck in two dimensions, and ignoring the third.

    I agree with Kate Raworth, that systems thinking should be part of education. It seems like such a gap, that most people’s education (even a good education) doesn’t give them a real ‘lightbulb moment’ of understanding from engagement with the two disciplines (or maybe they are part of the same one…) that get people thinking in systems – economics and evolutionary biology.

  7. I believe that the glazed look comes because of the failure of the look provoker to convey the idea that something complex is infinitely more interesting than something simple. One of the basic understandings of systems thinking is that there are situations to be managed, rather than problems to be solved. A second is that structure determines strategy, so unless you understand the building blocks you can’t understand why agents do what they do, particularly if what they do seems inefficient. A third is that if you have tried everything you believe is rational without success, then you are going to have to become irrational.

    With these understandings, every family and all relationships can benefit from taking a systems perspective. Maybe a better systems question to ask the spouse is ‘how can I best be of assistence?’ And then just do it without arguing.

  8. Duncan,
    Thank you for the post. System equals complexity (read messy), big, difficult to change, and outside our comfort zone particularly as development practitioners. As you know, we often want to work in areas where we can clearly exercise control. There, however, is no dichotomy between systems and agents. We see the system through the actions of agents. To change a system, one needs to work with each part leveraging the influence and convening authority of agents (often the leaders). Systems are relational as well as political.

    The 2010 Mckinsey Report (How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better) gives a good account of a system imperative in education. These days, I am strongly of the opinion that to change a system (I work in education), one needs to catalyze change one person at a time.

  9. Hi Duncan,

    Please could you recommend a good book for an introduction to systems/complexity theory? A ‘complexity theory for dummies’ type thing would be perfect – although I suppose the very title negates the doctrine?!

    Many thanks,


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