Are humans like butterflies?

It’s spring here in southern California the butterflies are starting their annual emergence. What effect will the butterflies have on the weather remains to be seen. The so called “butterfly effect” is an often used phrase used to refer to a property of nonlinear systems where a small change in initial conditions can have large effects later on. The name derives from the notion that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil might set off a tornado in Texas. Sometimes these conditions even create chaotic movements such as can be seen in this video of a double pendulum. Notice that if you don’t swing the double pendulum too far, it seems to act like a regular single pendulum.

This may seem like patterns we have in social systems – sometimes they are predictable and sometimes they seem chaotic This observation has led many authors to make connections between nonlinear physical systems and social systems. However, there is a fundamental difference. In a physical system, say the double pendulum, the pendulum parts and system doesn’t change when the air affects it. It may move this way or that but it is sill the same pair of two pieces connected at one end.

In social systems, three conditions create a different type of system than our double pendulum example. The first condition is that the parts or agents do change as they interact. I am a different person after a conversation with someone than when I started the conversation – albeit usually not much different but different nonetheless. That difference can then create a difference in they way I react and interact in the future. I have different possibilities of reaction than when I started. It is as if each time the pendulum is moved, it forms new joint or changes the mass in reaction to the last role.

The second condition is that in social complexity, each agent is also reacting to other agents that it is connected to. In our analogy to the double pendulum, this would mean that the pendulum stand might change shape each time the pendulum swings. For human interaction, this creates an ever-evolving and semi-stable networks of behavior. What we call an “organization” is one example of such networks.

The third condition is that there is vital diversity in social systems. In social systems, people have many diverse ways of interacting. This diversity is created from our individual histories and unique environment and people we interact with. This diversity, in turn, creates more diversity as people interact and continue to change, create, and interact in multiple communities.

These conditions in social systems leads us to certain fallacies of thought that have wide-ranging implications to how we conceive of others, how we blame, and how we interact in social systems such as organizations. One such fallacy leads us to believe we can predict the future given an understanding of the past. I will explore this fallacy in a future entry.


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