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What is Systems Thinking? Definition, Characteristics, Advantages and Examples

There are different ways of interpreting the information. While some isolate a piece of data and seek to think about its individual characteristics, there are those who try to draw some general conclusion about it. Meanwhile, those who are governed by systems thinking will try to find the connections between that data and others, based on the idea that they are part of a larger set.

So, what exactly is this kind of thinking? Why is it used in family and couples therapy? Next, we clarify these questions and we tell you what its advantages are. Keep reading!

What is systems thinking?

Systems thinking is a type of thinking that is concerned with the interrelationships between the components of a set, which is called a “system.” He considers that the whole is more than the sum of the parts, so his interest is focused on the whole.

This theoretical approach draws on various disciplines and theories, such as biology, engineering, communication theory, among others. One of its precursors is Ludwig Von Bertalanffy, a biologist who postulated the General Systems Theory.

Then, from the Palo Alto school, the anthropologist Bateson, along with other collaborators, studied the dynamics of families with a member with schizophrenia, and postulated the so-called “double bind theory“.

It also receives contributions from engineering and cybernetics, when considering information flows and communication processes following the axioms of Watzlawick. Therefore, the systemic theory is considered to be a meta-theory. In this way, the beginnings of Systemic Psychology took place, which continued to evolve.


Some of the principles or characteristics of systems thinking are related to the following:

  • People are part of different systems, which influence their way of being and behaving.
  • Systems work in a complex and dynamic way, pursue objectives and are organized with hierarchies. They also tend towards a dynamic balance.
  • These systems can be closed or open, depending on their permeability to exchange information between the inside-outside.
  • Systems thinking is interested in the connections, relationships and patterns that are established between systems and between their elements. So, his approach is not of the stimulus-response style, nor is it linear, but complex and interrelated.
  • When approaching a problem, it understands that not only must the immediate system be taken into account, but that influences can come from or be present in more distant or larger systems.
  • It is characterized by multicausality and circularity in its explanations of the causes that originate or sustain a problem. The vision is never linear because it considers that all the elements of the system affect each other from an action.
  • He has a constructivist vision of reality, that is, there is nothing given.

What are the advantages?

Systemic thinking provides numerous advantages, but one of the most important has to do with its overall or total vision, which allows a reading from complexity.

Also, by drawing on information from different sources (or systems), you can access a multiplicity of points of view. This makes it possible to have a better understanding of a situation or phenomenon to guide decision-making.

In this sense, reality is a network of relationships, so the systemic approach has much to contribute and say about it, since it does not “isolate” it or focus on a single aspect. Thus, for example, at the organizational level it facilitates the strategic and overall vision.

Examples of systems thinking

As mentioned, systems thinking is used in different areas. If we think within the clinical setting, a typically systemic approach has to do with “the designated patient.” This is the bearer of the symptom and he is the one who “condenses” or expresses a situation much greater than himself.

For example, in a family, when one of the children begins with an allergy and physical ailments, from systemic thinking they will wonder what else that symptom is meaning. That is, what is it that comes to express. In some cases, a possible answer has to do with the separation of the parents.

Now, if we consider systemic thinking in the organizational field, in the face of recurring complaints in the sales area, the solution will not only be to ask what is happening in that area, or to make adjustments in it.

Based on this, it will be concerned with identifying who are all the other actors involved, the relationships between them and how they maintain the situation or hinder it. Thus, the performance of an organization depends on all the elements that compose it.

Systems thinking addresses complexity

Systems thinking does not deny the particularity of people. Not at all. Its orientation is to see a person “in relation to”, that is, as part of an environment that influences him. This always respecting the uniqueness of the parts and the whole of the whole.

Finally, one of its greatest contributions is the complexity with which it allows us to think about the behavior of the components of the system; there is no single answer, there is no single way. This facilitates the understanding of the problem, the deployment of alternatives and creativity in the search for solutions.

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