Human Systems Are Different

By Gerrit Van Wyk.

Geoffrey Vickers’ appreciative system.

Geoffrey Vickers was a student at Oxford when WW1 broke out. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery on his 21st birthday. After his retirement, he started writing about systems thinking, making the point that humans systems are different. Sadly, his work receded into obscurity and today is virtually unobtainable and unknown.

He wrote lobster pots are designed to trap creatures unable to recognize they have a problem. Human problems trap us when we fail to see them, and we fail to see them when we limit our thinking. Our current clockwork perspective of reality is a trap, limiting our ability to solve the complex interrelated problems we are faced with.

As humans we make judgment calls, both individually and collectively, and we pass judgment not based on information, but on what things mean to us.

We make collective decisions based on what Vickers called appreciation, which involves reality judgments about how things are, value judgments about how we want things to be, and instrumental judgments about how to move things from where they are to where we want them to be.

In very simplistic terms, what happens is this: you and I agree to do something together (a common goal). You observe what I do next and I what you do, and whether that matches what we agreed to (a reality judgment). How you respond to me depends on your assessment of whether I’m doing what we agreed on (a value judgment). If you don’t react to what I do, I interpret that as you agree to what I’m doing and assume you will signal me if you don’t. If you do, we must overcome the gap (instrumental judgment) by me agreeing to change my behavior, or we may agree to a new standard of behavior.

One can appreciate the complexity of appreciation if you feed in the multitude of conscious and unconscious components of human interaction. When you move from “I” and “you” to “us” and “them”, that complexity increases manifold.

Like all complex systems, one can say appreciation is self-correcting; it consists of many interrelationships and interactions feeding back on each other, all components influence it in some way, conversation and dialogue is vital, and it reaches some sort of stability around the consensual adjustment of competing perspectives based on common goals, not created goals. Critical to it is shared meaning and values.

We evolved to cooperate, which requires a shared view of how the world works to make it meaningful. Meaning creates expectations about our physical and social worlds, which in turn become shared values and norms. We behave according to what things mean to us and learn the meaning from others. Shared images shaping our beliefs and how we experience the world are mostly hidden in the collective subconscious, hence we use them effortlessly without thinking about it. Because meaning creates stability, we resist anything challenging what we believe and how we see the world, even when it is wrong.

Meaning is structured by personal and communal experience, appreciation changes that experience, shared meaning creates stability, and what keeps it together is responsibility. Our mechanistic take on responsibility means answerable to someone else, usually an authority, but to Vickers it means making a commitment, and autonomy the right to choose that commitment, the ability to live by it, and accepting the constraints of the commitment. Both economic and emancipated man elevates individualism without commitment or constraints over community, which creates disorder and destroys trust.

Values, or the things we care about, contain the shared norms and standards on which appreciation is based. They emerge and are constantly adjusted in a dialectic way by interrelationships and our interactions; hence their history matters and one cannot predict what they’ll become. Values are unique to cultures and subcultures; you can’t understand them apart from a culture and its history.

One can say appreciation changes values, and the values give the meaning we need to locate ourselves in a complex world. It places humans in the center of social systems and act as guiding principle for generating stability both individually and collectively. The glue keeping it together is trust that others will act according to the agreed-on standards and norms, and our ability to communicate the difference if they don’t. Without trust and effective communication, society rapidly decays into chaos.

Appreciation creates expectations for how we and others will behave, which makes behavior predictable in given situations. The standard of behavior is values and norms as agreed to by the value judgment. Expectations set boundaries and serve to control behavior. In short, like a stimulus-response system, a significant part of our lives is spent seeking signals of approval from others, and repairing relationships if there is a mismatch. Exclusion can have significant consequences and cause ill health.

The social worlds we are born in shape expectations of ourselves as well. We become who we are through the expectations of and interactions with others. We take on the scripts written for us which shape life choices we make about employment, relationships, partners, etc. Like a relay race, the way we run depends on the historical time frame we received the baton, the geographical space where you received it, your genetic disposition, and the social rules of the race at the time.

Achieving common goals in complex societies requires different roles, which emerge in response for the need for specialized functions. Together with that develops expectations for how those roles will be played, which at the same time constrain them, and we trust people to fulfill those expectations. Being a candidate for President is very different from being President, and accepting a role also means accepting its constraints. Flexible societies allow a measure of variety, restrictive societies don’t and stagnate, and disordered societies allow free reign and slide into anarchy.

To complicate matters, each of us play multiple roles; husband, father, business manager, running partner, member of the school board, etc., that we switch between multiple times a day, and those role expectations shape and become part of who we are.

Appreciation as a symbolic system, like all complex systems, is self-organizing without control or planning. It consists of multiple co-producers interacting with and responding to each other from which meaning and a value system emerges which is not stable but constantly evolving.

Vickers’ explanation of how human systems are different may seem complex and difficult to understand, but it is vital to know this when working with humans and human problems. It tells me conversation and dialogue is based on trust, that without conversation and dialogue nothing can and will change, it won’t without agreement to cooperate to the benefit of everyone, or without relatively stable sustainable relationships. The opposite of that is coercion, which is unilaterally making decisions affecting everyone and happens too often in practice.

Appreciation tells me my concept of self has multiple dimensions depending on interactions with others and is in constant flux, others shape me as much as I shape them, and much of the troubles I experience come from their expectations of me, human life is an endless series of conversation, dialogue, and negotiation, and understanding our social world requires looking at it from a collective and individual perspective at the same time, since you can’t separate them.

Vickers despaired about the lack of understanding of complex problems and understood better than others thinking wholistically is the only viable way to keep modern man from continuing on a road to self-destruction. Sadly, his contribution is mostly forgotten today and to the extent people think about systems and wholes, it reverted to machine thinking, ignoring the fact human systems are different.