Systemic Causality

What is systemic causality?

Systemic causality (systemic causation), as opposed to direct cause-effect, is not a naturally occurring learning concept, says Prof. George Lakoff, a leading cognitive linguist from the University of California (Berkeley). Systemic causality refers to the interconnected and complex web of causes and effects in systems, where multiple factors influence outcomes, often in non-linear ways. Unlike direct causality, where one cause leads to one effect, systemic causality involves a multitude of interactions, feedback loops, and delays. The human brain naturally gravitates towards simpler, direct causality explanations, making systemic causality challenging to intuitively understand. This predisposition is due to our evolutionary drive to quickly assess situations and make rapid decisions, often favouring simplicity over complexity.

In other words, the brain learns by putting together sequences of cause-effects which come from observable situations. The systemic causality which can not be observed – these are the things outside the direct sensory perception through eyesight/hearing/taste/olfaction/touch – can not be registered and perceived.

When the child grows up, the adults start explaining some “invisible” links – where the food comes from, who planted the trees, why the old lady carries a walking stick. This means that the brain can perceive complex, systemic causality – if it is consciously directed to it and if it is trained to do so.

Examples of topics that exhibit properties of systemic causality include:

  • Climate Change: Multiple factors such as greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and feedback loops like melting ice caps reflecting less sunlight contribute to the overall warming of the Earth.
  • Economic Recessions: These aren't caused by just one event or factor. A combination of policies, global trade dynamics, consumer behaviours, and unexpected incidents (e.g., natural disasters) can converge to create a downturn.
  • Obesity Epidemic: The rise in obesity rates isn't simply due to individuals eating more. It's an interplay of genetics, food marketing, urban design, social norms, and policies, among other factors, that contribute to this complex issue.
  • Poverty: Poverty isn't just a result of an individual's choices or lack of effort. It is a complex outcome emerging from an interplay of various systemic factors. Educational disparities, lack of access to quality healthcare, systemic discrimination, economic policies that favour the wealthy, and the erosion of social safety nets all converge to trap individuals and communities in cycles of poverty. Additionally, feedback loops exist where poverty can lead to reduced opportunities and increased vulnerabilities, which in turn perpetuates poverty.

How to deal with systemic causality?

Building awareness and understanding of systemic causality and its inherent interaction mechanisms can be powerful tools to combat disinformation. While the brain can not “discover” this itself (for the reason of not being able to observe and learn from the observation), it can be taught to do so. This means that it is possible to design training interventions so that learners can learn to distinguish between direct and systemic causality, and when they identify the case as systemic, to be able to investigate the systemic cause elements and their interaction.

Training activities such as mind-mapping of a specific topic or event, or group-bases construction of a Fishbone diagram (Ishikawa diagram, cause-and-effect diagram) may be effective in building habits that prompt investigation of relevant factors and their interrelatedness as opposed to quick jumps to conclusions based on incomplete information. A more complex tool for advanced groups would be the use of causal loop diagrams (see video).

How systemic causality relates to disinformation?

Climate Change: Disinformation campaigns, often driven by vested interests, downplay the complex web of human-induced factors causing climate change, misleadingly suggesting that natural cycles are the sole cause or that the science is still debatable.

Economic Recessions: Misleading narratives may oversimplify economic downturns, attributing them solely to specific policies or groups, ignoring the intricate interplay of global economic dynamics, thus skewing public understanding and policy responses.

Obesity Epidemic: The multifaceted causes of obesity can be obfuscated by disinformation, such as overly emphasizing personal responsibility while downplaying systemic influences like aggressive food marketing or lack of access to healthy food options.

Poverty: Disinformation might reduce poverty to individual laziness or choices, neglecting the deep-rooted systemic barriers like education disparities, economic policies, and discrimination that play substantial roles in its perpetuation.

Suggested use in training

Provide videos or photos from actual protests or demonstrations, or from political rallies. Have your learners work in groups in identifying and analysing the underlying issue using a systemic causality approach - by listing all factors impacting a proposed solution and all potential stakeholders, taking into account their specific interests. Open a discussion on how the complexity of any given issue may become part of the public conversation and how such informed debate can be healthy for everyone involved. You can start the discussion by putting to the group the statement corresponding to each image.

Alternatively, include competitive elements, such as which group listed most factors or was particularly creative in identifying stakeholder groups/interests. You can also engage learners in the initial step - in locating the images or videos to work on.

Image by Freepik

Stopping the use of plastic is an incredibly complex matter with deep social, lifestyle, financial and economic implications.

Image by Freepik

Ending war and demanding peace is a noble stance, but in most cases, the reasons to go to war are extremely complex and might include historical, social, economical, and geopolitical aspects.

Image by Freepik

Pollution and waste are the main protagonists of an incredibly complicated net of lifestyle, poverty, education, consumption and expensive waste management infrastructure. 

Oversimplification is often a product of a failure to understand the complexity of an issue. Flawed logic is therefore applied when arguments are formulated, leading to inaccurate conclusions. As a result, it seems that simple solutions can remedy the underlying problem.

Key takeaways from a training session:

  • One-step solutions are usually imaginary, regardless of whether they are motivated by disinformation or facts.
  • Simplistic statements are powerful because they trigger emotional responses and support.
  • The actual solutions demand a much more complex approach, changes in policy and lifestyle, job security and trade-offs linked to making sacrifices now to secure a better future.
  • Complex solutions often come down to generational clashes and balancing the interests of various stakeholders.
  • The ability to identify cracks and failures in argumentative logic based on oversimplification is a critical skill.