Podcast – Episode 0039 – Systems Thinking & The Illusion of Cause and Effect

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In this episode, Joel and Antonia talk about systems thinking. They reject the notion of cause and effect and instead posit the idea that everything is an emergent property of a system.

In this podcast on Systems Thinking and the Illusion of Cause-and-Effect you’ll find:

  • There is no such thing as Cause and Effect but only “Emergent Properties of Systems”
  • Systems Thinking is a way of thinking or interacting with reality that is different from basic Cause and Effect.
  • When we try to create influenced results, we end up having limited influence over it because we are not seeing the other Influencers or Nodes in the system.
  • To have a desired result, recognize that nodes have to work in a certain way to have an “emergent” (thing that emerges from all things working together).
  • We turn to Cause and Effect thinking because things are too complex to understand and because it is easier to fuse Sequential events.
  • A System is a cluster of themes working together influencing each other; doing things synchronously and asynchronously and brings about an inevitable emergent.
  • Two things to keep in mind about systems:
  1. Initial Condition (starting condition of a system)
  2. How the nodes in the system interact with each other
  • Systems thinking is more accurate than Cause and Effect thinking. It improves relationships and gives more favorable results.
  • Raymond Kurzweil’s Theory of Singularity states that Technology doubles in an exponential growth curve. Singularity is the time period where technology is doubling too fast to observe.
  • The value of node connections is going up while the cost of information is lowering down.
  • Intuition is needed now more than ever to figure which systems to work on, how systems are working and how to manage information.
  • Gregory Bateson (Author, Steps to an Ecology of Mind) states “Systems are delicate. We don’t see them so we break them”.


Things we reference in this podcast:



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Showing 19 comments
  • Kelly

    Hey I loved this episode. I recently started listening to your podcast from the beginning and I wish I would have discovered them earlier. This was intriguing. I didn’t realize that there is a clear definition and label for the recognition of the complexities that influence every single event. The concept isn’t new to me, but the label is. I was piqued by one word that Antonia used a couple times: inevitable. For example, in the illustration that Joel gave at the end about /the criminal painted as merely “pure evil”, Antonia used inevitable to describe the outcome as the system built it. Does this entirely discount personal choice? Or on the other hand, does it necessarily culminate in determinism? Thanks for providing some mind fuel for the rest of my day – you guys are great!

    • Antonia Dodge

      I answered this question in a Facebook conversation. I’ll copy/paste it here:

      Q: Is “systems thinking” essentially “determinism” by another name?

      A: No. Because we influence the systems and therefore the emergents are not exclusively based on outside factors.

      If a car starts it’s because someone put the key into the ignition and turned it. But it’s also because all of the components in the car are running and compatible with each other. If they aren’t and a person turns the key nothing will happen. So the emergent (the car turns on or does nothing) is based upon the nodes in the system working in a certain order, but the catalyst was human will in this case.

      In an individual there are many components that we have no control over that influence our identity. But there are also components over which we have a lot of control. I think of it as an airplane with a GPS system that is preprogrammed. While at the time we make the decision we may have already set up a system in motion which makes that decision inevitable, there was a time when we were ‘programming’ ourselves (or deciding either consciously or unconsciously to hand that power over) when we had the power to influence the decisions we’d be making in the future.

      The answer isn’t so easy as determinism or nondeterminism. As always, it’s somewhere in between. And systems thinking is a tool that helps diagnose when we can have influence and when it’s out of our power.

      As I understood determinism it ultimately indicated that things happen outside of human will and that people really have no way of controlling outcomes in their lives. It makes it impossible to hold people accountable since they have little to no influence over their identities, behaviors and outcomes.

      I really don’t think this is a way of codifying that.


      Hope that helps. 🙂


      • Kelly

        Thanks Antonia!

  • Aleem Khan

    I must say you guys rocks. Thanks for explaining it well.

    I am doing a research on this topic to develop a workshop for my clients. Is there anymore episodes or useful resources on this topic?

  • Claire

    As an ENTP, I was really looking forward to this podcast – Systems thinking!! All the keywords that would light up an ENTP brain right? 🙂 But sorry to say, this podcast was unstimulating – almost boring in a sense that there was nothing NEW for me. Perhaps because “systems thinking” is how I usually think as an Ne dominant user – But Antonia you are also an ENTP, and I definitely heard the enthusiasm in your voice when explaining this concept – Is there something I’m profoundly missing out on? Is there some material I can dig into that could at least let me peak into the content of the 5-day seminar on systems thinking that you attended and left with your brain fully packed?

    • Antonia Dodge

      This is an early episode, and I’d agree not my favorite. I think we didn’t do the subject justice in this podcast. It’s actually a bit of a frustration for me since I love the topic so much.

      Getting the most basic principles of systems thinking down isn’t really that complicated, it’s developing the discipline of applying it to literally everything. It means whenever I think I know the source of something I’m already wrong, since there’s no single node in a system that creates the emergent. It’s thinking of things in terms of their initial conditions, the relationship each node has to all the other nodes, the question of what would happen if the nodes were changed, swapped out or removed, trying to figure out which nodes are the most important in any system (since it can be tricky), and so on.

      Again, the principles are relatively simple. The actual discipline itself is anything but. O_O


  • Ralph Rickenbach

    System thinking has found its expression in biocybernetics. In German, Prof. Frederik Vester has written extensively about such systems.

    I recommend his work at http://www.frederic-vester.de/eng/.

  • Eric Rayl

    Thanks for another great episode. I’m so glad that a podcast like this exists. It’s basically everything cool and interesting in my mind (about personality psychology) all wrapped up into one nice little gift basket. Every week you guys tackle some new angle or aspect of personality and it’s all so very interesting!

    As for systems thinking, I found this to be very compelling. I suppose I always “knew” things/events/situations happened like this, but I never really considered it in-depth. But it makes so much sense, and I agree completely. I have a more holistic mindset to begin with though, so converting me probably wasn’t much of a challenge! 😉

    One comment that I would like to provide has to do with the concept you guys brought up regarding the necessity of having more Intuitive thought as a requirement for success in the accelerating information environment in which we live. Or, as information increases, so does our necessity to become more intuitive, as a species as a whole. This makes sense.

    I was actually thinking about this the other day before I heard this podcast. I was thinking of the use and increasing popularity of the word “meta” in our language. Consider the fact that as we get more and more options in our media-rich environment, we also get more and more self-aware statements and references. No longer is a sit-com just a sit-com, but it is a “snarky” sit-com which is heavy on irony and self-considereation. Shows like these and every other type of media (commercial, movie, song, podcast, book, magazine, journal, etc) all have examples like this where the thing that it is remarking on is actually the thing that it actually is. It’s like the Buddha watching Buddha (Paik). As examples like these seem to be growing in our contemporary time, I would make the guess that we (as a species) are actually in the process of shifting towards a more Intuitive thought preference. This increase of self-referential behavior can be noted within just the last 5-10 years even. The idea and concept of “meta” in our popular vocabulary may be the “canary in the coalmine” for the shift towards more Intuitive thought preferences in this information-heavy age. But, of course, it would have to be as how else could we examine how the engine of car works while it is, at the same time, driving down the freeway at 60mph?

  • Frederick

    Kind of make sense. I probably should have asked a different question, how can somebody could develop this systems thinking skill? This is probably a better question 🙂

    Is it something that will emerge naturally over time because your brain actually needs to create the wiring to think in this way or you simply need to train yourself in thinking in this way?

  • Antonia Dodge

    Hey, Frederick!

    It’s not so much that every component is 100% responsible for the system to work, it’s that each component (or, “node”) plays an important role and it’s important to figure out 1) what that role is, 2) if it’s doing its job correctly, and 3) how the nodes are interacting with each other.

    Like we mentioned in the podcast, the windshield wipers aren’t as important to the car starting up as is the engine. But in some systems it’s not as obvious which parts are more/less influential. That’s why systems thinking requires thoughtfulness and care.

    The 80/20 principle is more about understanding ROI – which investments are worth your time/effort. When you’re seeking a specific emergent, is it worth the trouble to seek that emergent? Is it going to be 80% of your time for 20% of the return? If so, it may not be worth even diving into that particular system.

    So, they aren’t directly correlated, but there is some overlap between the models (as there generally is with most models).

    Make sense?


  • Frederick

    Great podcast! Uhm this creates a paradox in my mind.

    If every component of a system is 100% responsible for the system to work (like the example of moving the car from FL to AK) how is it possible that some nodes are more important than others? (80/20 principle)

    Or maybe the 80/20 principle is referring to the MINIMUM amount of nodes needed to create an emergent?

  • Tyler Raivis

    Hi, guys! Just wanted to say a quick thanks for your podcasts and articles. I find your talks absolutely delicious to my brain, its like a breath of fresh air after spending a day in a cramped classroom full of people. I am an intuitive and i have always been very different and little wierd so i have felt marginalization for most of my life until i learned to realy own my w̶e̶i̶r̶d̶n̶e̶s̶s awesomeness. I dont feel marginalized anymore, but i still find it rather hard to connect to people around me. I believe its because vast majority of people in my life are sensors. And because it is vitaly important to me to share and connect with someone, i am wondering how can i connect to sensors. Im also wondering how does a connection feel to sensors and what triggers it. For example, i expierience feeling of connection with someone when im discussing things that i have a passion for, things that are dear to me and why do ceartain things make me feel a certain way. It seems to me that sensors are not so open about sharing that sort of thing or maybe they just dont care about that as much. Maybe sensors feel more connected when they can share their opinion about developement of relationships or future aspirations (career plans or long term household improvement – something more easily observable). Or maybe im wrong and it doesnt have anything to do with being sensor/intuitive? I real y want to figure this out, any tips will be much appreciated.

    • Antonia Dodge

      I’m so glad the stuff we’ve produced is providing value for you!

      I get what you’re saying about connecting with others. Finding other Intuitives to talk with is pretty vital. You can definitely connect with Sensors as well, but there is something about Intuitive conversation that is basically food for N’s.

      That said, I created a video about communication between Sensors and Intuitives and what I believe is the most helpful model. Check it out and see if it works for you:



  • Julian Lee

    Some of the best systems thinkers, and ‘ecological’ thinkers, are actually science fiction writers, and the great filmmakers! I’d say that great architects also make superb systems/ecological thinkers!

    • Antonia Dodge

      Definitely! It would be really cool see a list of sci-fi books and movies of any/all genres that are examples of systems thinking in action.


      • Julian Lee

        “Avatar” by James Cameron is a good example of systems thinking in movies, along with “The Butterfly Effect” with Ashton Kutcher, and the animated sci-fi film “Wall-E”. As for books, “Dune” by Frank Herbert is a great example, and so were a lot of novels and short stories by sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein. Frank Lloyd Wright was one the best systems thinkers and wrote many essays books, on architecture, that are full of systems and ecological thinking.

      • Drew

        This scene from “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” was on my mind for the duration of the podcast. I think it’s a really accessible demonstration of the concept!

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