Parts, Wholes & Feedback


When you were a child, did you ever play the game of “Pooh Sticks,” where players drop a stick into a stream from the upstream side of a bridge, then race to the other side to see which stick has come out ahead? If so, you might remember that you can never tell for sure who’s going to win. What you wouldn’t have known are the reasons: that the sticks are interacting with the complex system of the river and that complex systems are inherently unpredictable.

Now let’s alter the game a little bit, so it illustrates what a complex system is. Imagine a bridge over a waterfall. Now imagine that you have 100 identical sticks, which you drop from the exact same position on the bridge, from the exact same height, with no wind blowing, and no other factors that would influence the outcome. Given that the currents in the stream go over the same rocks and drop down at the same angles, you might think that the sticks will all come out at exactly the same place below the waterfall, and that they’ll take the same amount of time to get there. In fact, they’ll come out in any number of places, taking more or less time to emerge. Furthermore, even under such strictly controlled conditions, it’s impossible to predict just where or when any particular stick will come out. What you can find, however, is probability: a 32% chance that a given stick will come out here, a 17% chance that it will come out over there; a 26% chance that it will take under 12 seconds to emerge on the other side of the bridge, a 29% chance that it will emerge between 12 and 18 seconds; and so on.

The game of Pooh Sticks takes place within a complex physical system. Though not all physical systems are complex, many are, such as the way a flag ripples in the breeze, or the rate at which drops of water drip from a leaky faucet. Each of these systems seems simple, yet involves numerous interacting objects and forces. And, though these are entirely physical, the behavior of the whole is more than the sum of its constituent parts. Furthermore, all living systems―all organisms and ecosystems―are complex. And the vast majority of human social systems are complex. Thus, complex systems are extremely important in our lives.

Every complex system, from a whirlpool to a bacterium to “you as an individual” or “the planet we all call home” follows certain laws. But, as with Pooh Sticks, the exact behavior of these systems (as we all experience in our daily lives; think about weather forecasts) can’t be known in advance. Such systems are constantly adapting and evolving in response to changing conditions both without and within. Complexity theory is the new science that describes the way complex systems work and the laws they follow.

As we begin to understand the complex systems in our lives more fully, the kinds of choices we make within those systems become more creative, effective, and beneficial.


A complex system is a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.

A machine may be complicated, but it is not complex. The way it functions is simply the manner in which the assembled parts work together in a prescribed and relatively invariant way (at least until something breaks, in which case you simply repair or replace the defective part). Complex systems don’t work that way.

Think of an ecosystem. Each organism, as well as the matter (rocks, water, air, etc.) and energy (sunlight, heat, chemical reactions, etc.) in the system, may be described as a part. But these parts are continually interacting with one another, their populations or amounts are fluctuating, and they are adapting and evolving. Each part of the system, as well as the system as a whole, is engaged in creative and transformative change. This change proceeds in two directions: The activities of the parts contribute to the nature of the whole, and the whole contributes to the development of the parts.

Take yourself as an example. As an individual, together with others, you contribute to your family, the social groups you’re a part of, and society as a whole. In turn, you are influenced and shaped by the groups (complex systems) around you.

Let’s look closely at an ecosystem as an example. Barrier reefs are built by coral polyps—tiny colonial animals that live symbiotically with one-celled marine algae. The algae, which grow through photosynthesis, live inside the corals, which draw nutrients from the algae. Coral polyps also capture tiny shrimp, plankton, and other small organisms in their tentacles. When the polyps die, they leave behind hard limestone structures. These structures separate open ocean from a sheltered lagoon, within which a wide variety of creatures—fish, sponges, jellyfish, anemones, crustaceans, turtles, sea snakes, snails, mollusks, and many others—make their homes. Some organisms, such as crabs and moray eels, live in crevices of the reef itself. For barrier reefs to form, numerous conditions (such as water depth, temperature, clarity, and purity) must be met. Growing over the course of many years, barrier reefs help to create complex, abundant, and highly diverse ecosystems.

In a barrier reef and its accompanying lagoon, what is (a) an example of the part contributing to the nature of the whole? What is (b) an example of the whole contributing to the parts? (Sometimes the two are difficult to distinguish!)

  • Top predators such as rays, eels, and small or juvenile sharks help keep the populations of many species of fish and other prey in check. (a)
  • Because of the richness of the ecosystem, the coral polyps benefit from the abundance of shrimp, plankton, and other small creatures. (b)
  • The waters of the lagoon are much calmer than those of nearby beaches with no coral barriers, providing a sheltered habitat for many species. (b)
  • Photosynthesizers such as algae, plankton, and anemones form the basis of a rich and complex food web. (a)
  • Because of the complex diversity of the ecosystem, populations of all species are less likely to experience cycles of extreme boom and bust. (b)
  • Crevices and narrow passageways within the reef provide safe refuge for myriad members of smaller species. (a and/or b!)

Wholes and Fragments

What looks like a whole system may really be a collection of fragments. Fragmented wholes come in two varieties:

  • A whole may split into parts, in such a way that the parts cease to function fruitfully together. Long before a divorce is finalized, even while the partners are still living in the same house, they may be living separate lives.
  • Parts that really don’t belong together may be artificially joined. We’ve all been the outsider at times, flung into a social group that has its own deep history and intricate web of unspoken understandings. In time we may become a true part of that group, but in the beginning it is painfully obvious that we don’t belong in the same way that the others do.

Members and Relationships

All systems are comprised of various parts, components, or members but complex systems are distinguished by the relationships amongst their members, which adapt and change over time. Even the members themselves tend to change over time. Generally speaking, relationships can be characterized according to three criteria:

  • Strength (stronger or weaker)
  • Equality (more or less equal)
  • Benefit (mutually beneficial or harmful, beneficial or harmful to one but not the other, or neutral to one or both)

Natural systems may exhibit all sorts of relationships, but even apparently adversarial ones (as between predator and prey) tend to be mutually beneficial and supportive to the balance and well-being of the whole.

Negative Feedback

Complex systems invariably exhibit feedback, whereby the effects of the system or one of its elements are communicated back, thereby altering the system or element itself. Both negative (damping or limiting) and positive (amplifying or encouraging) feedback are characteristic of complex systems.

The primary way in which complex systems maintain dynamic stability is through various types of negative feedback. Despite how it sounds, then, negative feedback is usually a good thing! The word negative just means that tendencies of the system to become extreme are held in check.

A thermostat is a mechanical system that employs negative feedback. It kicks the furnace on when the temperature gets too low, then shuts it off when the temperature rises too high, keeping the house within a zone of optimal comfort.

The key to this system of regulation is the thermostat’s ability to detect fluctuations in temperature. We find such sensitivity to both internal and external conditions in all complex systems. We also find that diversity in a system helps assure that there is enough constructive feedback to maintain the stability of the system.

Negative feedback is based on relationship. Our planet works to maintain the atmospheric balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide, which is dependent on the interrelated activities of plants and animals. Through complex systems of negative feedback loops, it recycles minerals and nutrients, maintains diversity, and enhances stability within ecosystems

An adequate level of diversity in turn helps assure that there is enough constructive feedback within the system to maintain a healthy balance. In ecosystems with low diversity, a comparatively few species are present or dominant. Their interrelationships may be very strong but, because they are few in number, the health of one species can be inordinately affected by a disease or event that significantly reduces the numbers of another. This means that the system as a whole is more prone to instability or even collapse.

In human communities it is also true that an adequate level of diversity helps assure sufficient constructive feedback within the system. As a general rule, adequate levels of diversity stimulate redundant feedback mechanisms, which in turn stabilize human cultures.

On the other hand, some exceptionally strong relationships such as marriages are quite limited in the number of their members. The stability of such a relational system derives from the strength of the relationships and the intensity of feedback between the members. It is also true that, as spouses come to know each other more and more deeply, the types of feedback they can offer one another become increasingly diverse. Thus, increased intimacy yields more diverse knowledge, which tends to contribute to systemic stability.

Positive Feedback

Positive feedback amplifies (rather than limits) systemic behaviors. Global warming is example of positive feedback. Higher temperatures melt icecaps, which lowers the earth’s albedo (the ability of white surfaces to reflect heat rather than absorb it, thereby keeping the planet cooler) and leads to higher temperatures, and so on in an escalating loop.

In human systems, positive feedback loops are sometimes termed vicious cycles. The sensitivity and listening that is characteristic of negative feedback is sadly missing in escalating arguments. I hurt your feelings, you hurt mine back, and soon we’re not speaking for days.

In human social systems, positive feedback loops also feed strife along racial, ethnic, and religious fault lines. These cycles of hurtful and inflammatory behavior are often characterized by a hostile and adversarial tone rather than respectful dialogue (sensitivity and listening) as the basis for mutual collaboration.

Thus, positive feedback (despite the name) often leads toward chaos and instability. However, positive feedback is not always bad. Virtuous cycles also exist. For example, a child takes its first wobbly steps into the arms of a smiling mother and is encouraged to try some more. Sometimes old systems must die or be destroyed so that new ones can take root.

Moreover, periods of turbulence can give complex systems the means to change and adapt. For example, a worsening drought causes corn plants to “shuffle” their genes, which helps them come up with drought-resistant combinations. Thus, positive feedback can be essential for survival.

Positive feedback can also be built into a system’s normal course of development. Adolescence, with its extensive physiological, hormonal, psychological, and neurological changes, is a time of positive feedback, full of turmoil and struggle. Yet adolescence is not an illness. It is a time of vast brain “re-wiring,” a necessary period of transformation on the path to maturity.

When systems have alternating periods of stability (usually longer) and chaos (usually more brief), they are displaying intermittence. We tend to be afraid of chaos; we try to avoid it. Yet, remembering nature’s frequent use of intermittence can help us see chaotic periods as opportunities for growth and change.

Sometimes such change can be dramatic. The butterfly effect, which says that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can theoretically lead to a tornado in Texas, is no myth. Positive feedback is the mechanism that allows the butterfly effect to happen, allowing changes to ripple out incrementally, until they reach a tipping point and start to snowball.

The changes that spread in this fashion may be hurricanes or other disasters. But they may also bring about renewal and rejuvenation. By helping new innovations spread rapidly, positive feedback becomes the agent of creative, transformative change.

Qualitative Aspects of Feedback in Human Systems

In human systems the effects of feedback may depend as much on the way it is given as the fact that it is given. For instance, a mother will naturally want to provide negative feedback by curbing her young child’s impulse to run blindly into the street. She might grab the child roughly, slap him, and berate him for being so stupid. Or she might firmly but gently restrain him, pointing to the cars and explaining that he could be hurt if they hit him. Technically, either course of action qualifies as negative feedback that aims to accomplish a systemic good. It may even be that the first way elicits more compliant behavior. (Machiavelli certainly made a persuasive case for the use of fear, cruelty, and deception.) But the qualities of the two methods make all the difference in the world to the child, and to the nature of the child’s continuing relationship with his mother.

People’s interactions are almost always qualitative, whether in terms of information, impulse, emotion, or idea. We commonly speak of the quality of information. The better it is, the better able we are to achieve a good outcome. Flow of information is a component of both negative and positive feedback.

Our desires, urges, and other impulses vary widely in quality. If you hit me, my first desire may be to strike back. Alternatively, I may understand why you did it, experience forgiveness, and desire to heal the rift between us. These two courses of negative feedback (attempting to address your egregious behavior) allow for starkly differing possibilities to unfold. Impulses such as hopes and aspirations are also key to many instances of positive feedback. Our achievements lead us closer to our goals, which in turn spurs us to redouble our efforts.

Our communication is almost always laden with emotional content. Consider the example of correcting the child running into the street (negative feedback). In the first case he experiences a tidal wave of anger, in the second a gentle swell of caring and concern. A leader can use our instinctive fear of the “Other” to keep us from seeing “aliens” as people who are much like ourselves. In a worst-case scenario, this may engender a spiraling cycle of positive feedback culminating in a campaign of genocide. Or she can appeal to our innate sense of generosity by encouraging us to welcome immigrants as valuable additions to our communities, which kindles a more beneficent cycle, in which the immigrants respond in kind. This in turn leads to increasing levels of mutual appreciation amongst diverse fellow citizens. Of course, it is possible that we will arrive at technically similar immigration policies through appeals to either fear or generosity. However, the way we get there makes a huge difference, because it feeds different emotional qualities that continue to resonate within our communities.

In the realm of ideas, we often experience “aha” moments. It’s not hard, then, to see the difference between a plausible concept and the ideal solution. When we come up with the latter, we can use positive feedback loops to spread helpful innovations. New ideas can also function as correctives (negative feedback) to previous conceptions that were incomplete or erroneous.

Feedback in human systems is always imbued with the qualitative aspects of our nature. Which aspects we choose to engender and communicate will play a critical role in the utility of the feedback we engage in.

If you enjoyed reading this, you might enjoy working with me on personal or organizational development. Explore this website to find further information on my approaches. To SCHEDULE A FREE CONSULTATION, at which we will discuss how I might best serve your needs, go to Contact and call and/or email.

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