Skepsis #16: Agents or Systems?

Two modes of thinking about the world. Future visions for Earth 🌎

Agency Bias vs Systems Bias

I’ve noticed that there are two distinct styles of reasoning in the world. I suspect it has something to do with why people come to develop very different worldviews. And it leads people to interpret cause and effect in the world differently.

9. The Blame Instinct

Image courtesy of Gap Minder

Some people seem to have a more paranoid bent, seeing human agency, personal desires, and planning (with often malicious intent) as the cause of various outcomes. People like this are prone to believing in conspiracy theories, too.

I’m calling this “agency” bias because people on the far side of this spectrum see personal agency and intent behind everything.

Other people look at the world through the lens of chance and circumstances. Incentives and systems cause people to behave in certain ways. People aren't acting out of their own agency to conspire against the world but rather as a result of the immediate environmental context and systemic incentives. People don’t have free will.

I’m calling this “systems” bias because people on this side of the spectrum will interpret everything as a deterministic system, where human agency plays no role.

I’ll admit that I have not looked up whether there is any psychological research into these specific patterns of belief (agency vs systemic thinking), but I suspect that there's both a psychological and an educational component to it. Maybe this could be related to someone’s personality, specifically where they end up along either of the Big 5 personality traits?

Some people are just more prone to have a sort of agency bias, and some people will naturally gravitate towards seeing the world through a systems lens. Your personal level of paranoia/neuroticism will play into this, as will your degree of belief in things like people's ability for agency vs how much of their lives are determined by circumstances. 

Another way of viewing this as a matter of reasoning styles or decision making, e.g. "intuitive" vs "analytical".

People who are intuitive are more likely to think in emotive terms and will judge other people by the same standards. People who are analytical will take a more logical approach and will expect other people to behave in the same way.

Some of these beliefs will be created as a result of formal education and how much you've learned about how people think (i.e. learning about critical thinking and learning facts about the world probably changes your disposition). But I believe some people can be incredibly well educated and still be prone to “agency” bias, so education and personal experience can’t explain the differences.

Everyone ends up somewhere on this spectrum, some people are very far along towards the agency side, and some much further along on the systems side. 

Personally, I’m clearly further along on the “systems”-side of the spectrum. But I should make it clear that I’m not claiming either of these perspectives is fundamentally wrong or right, but that they blind you to obvious truths about the world if you're not aware of where your thinking is coming from.

I've noticed this more and more in my own life, both as a result of how I act and view the world (in opposition to others) and as a result of how other people act and make decisions. Just the fact that I'm writing something like this will probably tip you off that I'm more on the systems/analytical side of things. But I have friends who have a more emotional/paranoid bent. Both ways of viewing the world can be useful. 

What I've found is that in some circumstances the better way of understanding something is as a result of someone’s agency. Something happens in the world and it's a result of a bad actor; the best way to approximate the cause of the event is to understand it as a matter of there being a bad guy. If you can stop him you can make the world better. (This could be a bully at work, a dictator or anything in between.) Perhaps people with a systems bias will be overly naïve in such circumstances, unable to see the forest for the trees.

In other times the better way to think is in terms of systems and incentives. People are mostly affected by their internal and external environments and incentives, social or economic. People operate within systems. These systems will determine people’s behavior much more then they can themselves. Understanding this should allow you to appreciate how little control people have over what happens to them or even what they themselves do. This can lead to more empathy, but also to a different approach towards making people do what you want them to do (see Nudging).

I think this way of understanding people’s perspectives applies as much to personal relationships as it does to world affairs. For example, one difference is how you think politics works, or should work. Is it just a matter of electing the right people or is it a matter of having the right systems and incentives in place?

This framework is still a half-baked idea, but one that I’ve found to be quite useful.

What about you, can you think of examples where you or people you know have expressed biases like these in either direction? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.

Interesting things I’ve come across

Peter Kaufman on The Multidisciplinary Approach to Thinking - Various distinct ideas combined into a holistic way of viewing the world. Good all-around advice. The main point is that we should apply the core concepts from each of the major scientific disciplines to our way of viewing the world. See my notes on this talk here.

We all want someone that we can trust, and who’s not just trustworthy, but principled, and courageous, and competent, and kind, and loyal, and understanding, and forgiving, and unselfish. This is what everyone is looking for. So BE THAT PERSON. Be everything on that list. To lead other people, to get them to like you, to lead a good life, be trustworthy, principled, courageous, competent, kind, loyal, understanding, forgiving and unselfish.

Visions of Earth - This is a series on YouTube by Isaac Arthur on futurism and a possible near and far future realities for life on Earth. He has many other videos on futuristic topics like faster than light travel, aliens, megastructures, future tech, and energy that I’ve really enjoyed watching over the past few weeks. Most of the videos are pretty approachable for a layperson like me but deep and nuanced enough to make you think. A good place to start is with this video on Arcologies:

Ray Dalio on the Artificial intelligence Podcast - Lex Friedman interviews famous investor and thinker Ray Dalio - one of the richest people in the world - about his principles framework, money, building an idea meritocracy, what it means to live a good life and much more. I’ve listened to other interviews with Ray but with Lex as the host, I feel like he really brought out a lot of insights from Ray that most other interviewers haven’t been able to.

The love that lays the swale in rows - an essay on our relationships with labor and technology.

The value of a well-made and well-used tool lies not only in what it produces for us but what it produces in us. At its best, technology opens fresh ground. It gives us a world that is at once more understandable to our senses and better suited to our intentions—a world in which we’re more at home. Used thoughtfully and with skill, a tool becomes much more than a means of production or consumption. It becomes a means of experience. It gives us more ways to lead rich and engaged lives.


Stay safe out there,

/Phil