Is the World on Track? Four states of collective behavior in complex systems

“We know what we are, but know not what we may be.” William Shakespeare

Today we face unprecedented challenges requiring global collaborative effort and coordinated action. The world, though, seems to be slipping backwards and falling apart. We witness intolerance, authoritarianism, and nationalism to spread across America and Europe. Something just doesn’t feel right. That it actually feels like déja vu in human history.

I don’t offer you here a historical, political or other kind of traditional analysis. I’d like to share with you my personal insight and intuition, a crude picture of the reality and what is going on. It tells us what is possible, where we are now and how we can find our way for a more just and sustainable human society. This view has emerged from my doctoral research on sustainability.

To grasp this broad insight, we need to embrace a new vision of reality, to look at the world through the lens of complexity science. As a reminder, complexity is a trans-disciplinary approach to scientific inquiry. It is based on the integration of knowledge from many disciplines and the use of computational technologies.

Complexity view of reality

Complexity view suggests that our world is a complex web of invisible interactions or relationships. These interactions are in fact exchange of energy or information within and between complex systems. Cells, brains, organizations, economies and societies are all examples of complex information-processing systems.

Complex living systems differ from simple ones in their ability to learn from their environment. They are capable of accumulating information and building a memory over time. This fact explains why all complex phenomena are able to adapt themselves to external changes and co-evolve organically with their environment while maintaining their own integrity as time passes.

Complex systems are interconnected and nested within each other like Russian dolls. Researchers say that they are “hierarchically organized”. For example, human brain is a complex system of cells (neurons). But at the same time it is a part of more complex systems such as organizations, economies or societies. The more complex, higher-order systems are more adaptive and long-lived as they can process much more information from their environment and provide more fine-tuned responses to external challenges.

To understand how complex systems evolve while preserving their own identities, complexity scholars look at the patterns of small-scale interactions that take place within these systems. Small-scale interactions determine the patterns of collective behavior over long run. This phenomenon is also known as the “butterfly effect,” when small-scale changes trigger large-scale transformations at the level of the whole system.

Four universal types of collective behavior

Computer simulation of the behavior of complex natural systems showed that there are four key patterns of collective behavior: (I) fixed, (II) cyclical or ordered, (III) chaotic and (IV) complex. These four qualitatively different types of collective long-run behavior are determined by the nature or strength of microscopic interactions (e.g., weak, strong, absent or repulsive) and can explain the overall system’s capacity for information-processing, learning and adaptation.

To better understand the nature of these four types of collective behavior, let’s take an example of physical matter. As we know, there are four states of physical matter: (i) plasma, (ii) solid, (iii) gas and (iv) liquid. Each of these molecular states corresponds to a specific class of collective behavior and information-processing capabilities:

  1. The fixed class (e.g., plasma) of collective behavior is the simplest homogeneous state without spatial and temporal dimensions so that any information is completely destroyed “on the initial state.”
  2. In the cyclical regime (e.g., solid matter), stable or periodic structures emerge and persist over time but new information does not propagate at all as individual components (e.g., molecules) are ‘overly dependent, with one mimicking the other — not a cooperative computational enterprise’.
  3. By contrast, the chaotic regime (e.g., gases) gives rise to unbounded growth as individual agents are “overly independent” so that each agent “does something totally unpredictable in response to the state of the other.” In the chaotic state, new information propagates too well, “causing information to decay rapidly into random noise.”
  4. A system can enter the complex state (e.g., liquid) where individual agents not only transmit new information “in the form of signals over arbitrarily long distances,” but also store the previously accumulated information “for arbitrarily long times”.  This system’s ability to “both store and transmit information” is called the region “at the edge of chaos” where more complex, long-lived structures are formed and self-replicated. For example, the complex structure of water — the complex state of physical matter— enabled the emergence of biological life (or bio-molecules).

These four classes of collective behavior are universal in nature and can be found in any kind of complex systems. For example, bio-molecules can be classified into four qualitatively different states of collective behavior such as carbohydrate (glycan), protein, lipid and nucleic acid. Among these four types of bio-molecules, only nucleic acid gave rise to a self-propagating structure (DNA) capable of storing and transmitting genetic information for self-assembly and self-organization of living cells.

At the level of a biological cell, there are four stable classes of collective cellular behavior forming epithelial, muscular, connective and nervous tissues. Similarly, only one of these four states of cellular behavior — nervous tissue —  is capable of self-organization into a more complex higher-order system such as an animal or human brain.

Furthermore, computer modeling of biological systems shows that there are four states of immune system’s behavior (virgin, suppressed, anti-immune and immune). Only the immune state is capable of learning and adaptation to preserve an organism’s health or identity in an ever-changing adverse environment.

If we can identify what are the four types of collective behavior in complex social systems, then we can figure out which state of social systems’ behavior is the most preferable for collective learning, adaptation and evolution. In other words, we will be able to see which state of social behavior is the most conducive to human collective intelligence, prosperity and sustainability.

Attractors in complex systems

But before getting there, we need to introduce the concept of attractors — ”a few crucial parameters” that determine the four patterns of collective long-run behavior. ‘Those parameters cannot always be characterized in advance, however; they must emerge from a careful study of the whole problem.”

Because all complex systems exhibit “attractors to which the systems settle down,” to uncover the characteristics of the attractors is to understand the development and evolution of complex systems. For example, in the case of physical thermodynamic systems only two parameters — temperature and pressure — regulate the microscopic interactions and thus determine the global properties of collective behavior of physical matter (see the Figure 1).

Four states of physical matter

Attractors in complex social systems

In regard to complex social systems, complexity scholars suggest that human values and beliefs are “vital parts of the cultural schemata of societies functioning as complex adaptive systems.” Human values “operate as constituents of dynamic systems of social action because of their interconnectedness, their informational or directive effects, and their capacities to serve as ‘carriers’ of psychological energy.”

Human value orientations have been shown to influence people’s willingness to cooperate and to take political action; pro-environmental behavior; their evaluation of fairness and preference for equality in outcomes; individuals’ capacity for trust, reciprocity, moral judgment, social awareness and feelings of personal well-being. In other words, human values can be understood as “complex precodings for behavioral choice.”

Given that human values have distinctive neurobiological underpinnings or patterns of brain connectivity, one may suggest that human values represent those invisible forces (attractors) that implicitly regulate human interactions and underlie collective performance of different social structures, from social groups to nations.

Four states of collective behavior in social systems

According to a cross-cultural study of the universal structure of human values, a vast diversity of context-specific values and beliefs can be reasonably condensed into two higher-order value dimensions — (1) Self-Enhancement vs. Self-Transcendence (material self-interest vs. social purpose) and (2) Conservation vs. Openness to Change (central control vs. individual freedom).

I draw upon these two universal value dimensions to represent four possible dynamic states of collective long-run behavior in complex social systems (see Figure 2) or cultural ideologies.

Four cultural ideologies

Figure 2. Four states of collective behavior in social systems

The less complex fixed regime can be found in human societies operating under the oppressive authoritarian government with a high level of corruption in political institutions (the dominance of material self-interest), but a low level of national identity or official ideology. This type of national culture is ruled by “the mixture of instilling fear and granting rewards to loyal collaborators, engendering a kleptocracy.” Violations of human rights, political repressions, discrimination lead to collective dehumanization and suppression of meaningful human interactions. Accumulated collective knowledge and cultural patrimony are lost or destructed. Such knowledge-free social systems are not durable but highly costly for humanity (e.g., genocide, terror, massive destruction, etc.).

The cyclical or ordered regime of collective human behavior can be found in collectivistic (paternalistic or traditional religious) cultures with a strong “psychological and emotional identification between leader and followers.” This strong emotional devotion and self-sacrifice of believers is crucial for maintaining social stability (order) over long periods of time. Strong social cohesion, however, stifles non-conformity, diversity and new voices — the key driver of technological innovations and social progress. For this reason, the ordered collectivistic cultures tend to stagnate or ossify over time as they do not provide enough freedom for “creativity, change, and response to new conditions.”

By contrast, Western individualistic societies built on “a belief in personal agency” are conducive to human creativity and innovations that underlie significant advances in science, technology and economic life. However, when individual freedom is used for selfish materialistic purposes, such value configuration results in socially and environmentally destructive human behaviors. As research in social psychology and neurosciences shows, people with materialistic value orientations don’t care about others and a broader environment, they are short-sighted and use others as a means to their own greedy interests. Without a higher-order social purpose, individualistic social systems tend to disintegrate and face a wide range of sustainability challenges (the chaotic state of collective behavior).

Only when individual freedom for human creativity and self-expression is combined with some sort of ‘common code’ for human interactions or common social interest (ethical sustainable culture), complex social systems can achieve the complex regime where the potential for creative evolutionary change is maximized. As discussed elsewhere, this common code for human interactions is embedded in the long-term memory of social systems or “cultural DNA” (arts, music, imaginative literature, human history, etc.). Humanistic emotion-laden knowledge stimulates human higher-order cognition responsible for memory, introspection, empathy and perspective-taking and thus channel human creativity for social needs and purposes. That’s why “healthy societies… have to keep order and chaos in balance,’ to ‘reach that elusive, ever-changing balance between freedom and control.”

Implications of complexity worldview

Like other complex information-processing systems, human societies oscillate between four states of collective behavior or cultural ideologies. In the pre-scientific era, religion played a dominant role in shaping human values and beliefs in the Western world. Dogmatic beliefs and obedience maintained a rigid social order over centuries but at the same time restraining the emergence of new progressive ideas and slowing down the development of a whole society.

The Greek invention of science and its re-discovery in the Age of Enlightenment had altered the trajectory of human development. “With the accelerating disintegration of the established cultural traditions, brought on by increased fluxes of people and ideas”, human beliefs and values have become “increasingly determined by science”  shaping “not only our immediate actions, but also, over the course of time, the form of our society.”

The problem is that the advent of classical science in Western civilization brought us not only the much desired freedom (liberalism) but also introduced a materialistic myopic worldview, which undermines people’s well-being, social interactions and, as time passes, sustainability of our global society. While business education, mass media and money reminders propagate and reinforce this self-destructive cultural ideology, recent research in social psychology and neurosciences shows that a recurring exposure to moral and natural beauty may help humans to elevate themselves and realize their full potential as moral beings.

Related posts:

Complexity as a New Approach to Scientific Inquiry
What is Reality? Looking at the World Through a Complexity Lens
Evolution at the Edge of Chaos: Biological vs. Social Systems


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