2.1 The Complex Systems Approach

The Complex Systems Approach to behavioural science departs from the assumption (which is probably not very constroversial) that human behaviour originates from a complex adaptive system.

A system is an entity that can be described as a composition of components, according to one or more organizing principles. The organizing principles can take many different forms, but essentially they decide three important features of systems that have to do with the relationship between parts and wholes and therefore whether we would call a system complex or not.

In order to find out what kind of system we are dealing with, we can ask three basic questions:

  1. What are the relevant scales of observation of the system?
  2. What are the relevant phenomena that may be observed at the different scales of observation, and are there any interactions across the relevant scales of observation that are needed to explain the relevant phenomena?
  3. Can interactions with the internal and external environment of a system occur, and if so, do these interactions have any after-effects on the structure and/or behaviour of the system?

If the answer to the first question is “many” and to the second and third “yes” it is very likely we are dealing with a complex dynamical system.

So let’s look at some properties of this system that generates human behaviour, it’s a system:

  • … which has many different constituent parts, and those parts are often also systems with many different constituent parts (the tRNA system, the prefrontal cortex, the respiratory system, the speech system, the endocrine system, the microbiome, etc.).
  • … that is open and can exchange energy, matter and information with its internal and external environment, as a consequence, dissipating heat (disorder, entropy) back into the environment.
  • … which has many different internal states that can have their own specific dynamics, sometimes appearing to be independent of, but oftentimes coupled to, the dynamics of other internal states (emotional states, motivational states, attentional states, physical fitness, general health, biological development, etc.).
  • … in which there are many potential levels of organisation and, therefore, potentially many different levels of analysis (cognitive development, cognitive neuroscience, lifespan IQ, socio-cultural differences in IQ, etc.).
  • … in which many processes operate on, and, interact across, many different spatial and temporal scales (Studying proficiency at playing chess: social/cultural/pedagogical/genetic contexts, development of social/emotional/motor/cognitive skills, availability/quality of education, motivation, personality, etc.).

So… that’s probably a yes on complex dynamical system. To be more specific, we can state that most living organisms, including human beings, are complex adaptive systems with internal state dynamics.