System Traps: How to Avoid System Failures

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Thinking in Systems" by Donella H. Meadows. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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What are system traps? Why do we fall into system traps, and how can we avoid them?

System traps are the issues systems encounter that cause them to fail. Read more about the types of systems traps, and why they cause system failure.

Read more about system traps below.

System Traps: How We Fail

In previous chapters, we’ve explored a range of system models and how they relate to real-life situations, such as restocking a car inventory lot and managing renewable resources. We’ve explored how misbehaving in the system can cause poor system performance, whether that means wild oscillations in restocking the car lot or driving the fish population to extinction. And in the previous chapter, we covered our limitations in comprehending how systems work.

Taken altogether, it’s little surprise that we can design systems that completely fail to achieve the purpose we desire. Furthermore, when problems appear, we can fail at designing the right solution for the problem, and our behavior can make the situation worse.

In this chapter, we’ll describe system archetypes, which are system structures that produce problematic patterns of behavior (the author also calls them “system traps”). These archetypes are ubiquitous in the real world, explaining phenomena such as nuclear arms races, the war on drugs, and business monopolies. We regularly get mired in these problems, but by understanding how the system predictably produces the behavior, we can also find the right way to intervene.

A theme to keep in mind: beyond fixing the problem, it’s far better to avoid getting trapped in these problems in the first place.

Escalation

This is one of the most common system traps. Also known as: Keeping up with the Joneses, arms race

Two or more competitors have individual stocks. Each competitor wants the biggest stock of all. If a competitor falls behind, they try hard to catch up and be the new winner.

This is a reinforcing loop—the higher one stock gets, the higher all the other stocks aim to get, and so on. It can continue at great cost to all competitors until one or more parties bows out or collapses.

A historical example was the Cold War, where the Soviet Union and the United States monitored each others’ munitions and pushed to amass the larger arsenal, at trillions of dollars of expense. A more pedestrian example includes how advertising between competitors can get increasingly prevalent and obnoxious, to try to gain more attention.

Addiction

Also known as: dependence, shifting the burden to the intervenor. These system traps are common as well.

An actor in a system has a problem. In isolation, the actor would need to solve the problem herself. However, a well-meaning intervenor gives the actor a helping hand, alleviating the problem with an intervention.

This in itself isn’t bad, but in addiction, the intervenor helps in such a way that it weakens the ability of the actor to solve the problem herself. Maybe the intervention stifles the development of the actor’s abilities, or it solves a surface-level symptom rather than the root problem. 

The problem might appear fixed temporarily, but soon enough, the problem appears again, and in an even more serious form, since the actor is now less capable of solving the problem. The intervenor has to step in and help again to a greater degree. Thus the reinforcing feedback loop is set up—more intervention is required, which in turn further weakens the actor’s ability to solve it, which in turn requires more intervention. Over time, the actor becomes totally dependent on—addicted to—the intervention. 

An example is elder care in Western societies: families used to take care of their parents, until nursing homes and social security came along to relieve the burden. In response, people became dependent on these resources and became unable to care for their parents—they bought smaller homes and lost the skills and desire to care.

More System Traps

Read the full summary to learn more common system problems:

  • Policy resistance, where a policy seems to have little effect on the system because the actors resist its influence. Example: The war on drugs.
  • The rich get richer, where the winner gets a greater share of limited resources and progressively outcompetes the loser. Example: monopolies in the marketplace.
  • Drift to low performance, where a performance standard depends on previous performance, instead of having absolute standards. This can cause a vicious cycle of ever-worsening standards. Example: a business loses market share, each time believing, “well, it’s not that much worse than last year.”
System Traps: How to Avoid System Failures

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Here's what you'll find in our full Thinking in Systems summary:

  • How the world, from bathtub faucets to fish populations, can be seen as simple systems
  • The key system traps that hold back progress, such as escalating arms races and policy addiction
  • Why seeing the world as systems can give you superpowers in work and life

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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