The Complexities of Society

The Complexities of Society

I have a hard time debating and arguing with friends about how to think about society. A large reason why is because, at best, I often find myself making the argument of, “well, maybe?”  Politics is a never ending attempt to answer the question of who gets what and when. We have scarce resources like money, roads and infrastructure, and influence and fame. These things are distributed across individuals with deliberate decisions and sometimes seemingly by random chance. Occasionally we step in to try to change these allocations, to provide greater rewards and incentives for those who pursue certain resources and goals over others, and punish those who deviate from courses we find appropriate. But figuring out how people will react to any given decision and figuring out which levers will lead to which outcomes is nearly impossible. I almost always find myself unsure exactly that the changes people advocate for will really have the desired impact or that the problem they identify is really caused by the root cause they suggest. I often find myself saying, “well, maybe” but having a hard time convincing others that their thoughts should be less certain.
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker discusses the complexities of society when writing about how hard it is to identify a single factor that has lead people to become less violent over time. Especially in WEIRD societies, there is a lot of evidence to demonstrate that people are less violent today than they used to be, but it is hard to point to a single (or even a few) key factor and explain how it (they) reduced human violence. As Pinker writes, “a society is an organic system that develops spontaneously, governed by myriad interactions and adjustments that no human mind can pretend to understand.”
The best social science experiments that we can develop and the best models from social science only manager to explain about 40% of the variance that we observe across societies. We cannot singularly point to racism, inequality, or the percent of high school graduates and understand a given social outcome. We can see correlations, but rarely do we see a correlation that explains anywhere close to 50% of the differences we observe between desired and undesired social outcomes. We are unable to point to a given factor (or even a handful of given factors) and confidently say that we have identified the most important or the clear driving factor(s) that determine(s) whether someone is a success or a failure, whether a society is peacefully democratic or violently autocratic, or whether a society’s economy will boom or bust.
This is why I am so frequently stuck with, “well, maybe,” as a response to so man of my friend’s arguments. When a friend or family member is convinced that people need to change one thing in order to make the world a better place I remember that the best social science models explain less than half the variance. So pointing to a single factor and claiming that the world would be dramatically better if we changed that factor doesn’t feel convincing to me. Maybe it would have an impact, but maybe it wouldn’t. The complexities of society prevent us from ever being certain that a single change or a single decision will ever have the intended outcome we expect or hope for.

A Complex Model of Human Beings

Throughout his book Return on Character, author and character researcher Fred Kiel talks about the complexity of human development, the complexity of our interactions with others, and the complexity of creating a model to understand how we grow into the people and decision makers that we become. In the book, social science research is brought in to help describe human behaviors, but for Kiel the studies don’t fully explain who we are. He approaches the science and discoveries accepting that they explain aspects of our decisions, but he seems to have a belief that there often seems to be a disconnect between our experiences and the results of science. Hinting at the multidimensional context of our lives, Kiel suggests that we are too complex for all of our decisions and interactions to be explained by one general theory. Regarding research he writes,

“Ongoing research is helping us more fully understand the nature of who we are as human beings and how our basic human nature supports the genetic predispositions and life experiences that determine who we are as individuals. We can use these new findings to embrace a model of human nature that describes us as capable of becoming mature, complete individuals, not just self-focused rationalists—a model that supports organizational life in all its rich complexity and celebrates the deep and meaningful connection between who we are and what we do.”

Kiel is showing a shift in thinking about people and is looking at us from a perspective of individuals tied to a community with varying degrees of commitment and responsibility.  He is showing that our research is beginning to accept human beings as more complex social beings with individual desires and motivations, which is not easily built together with one single model of humanity.

Understanding that there is not one model for how we relate to others and act during our lifetime seems to suggest that we have the power to shape ourselves and who we become by managing our reactions to the world around us and by understanding our social connections. Kiel supports the idea that we can change ourselves in relation to our society while at the same time our society and culture, especially our close relationships, can have an impact in changing our lives.  Human behavior is not set in stone, and we have the power to shape our behavior and seek out cultures and environments that support the decisions and behaviors we desire.