Systems theory, also called systems science, is the multidisciplinary study of systems to investigate phenomena from a holistic approach. Systems, which can be natural or man-made and living or nonliving, are found in many aspects of human life.
People who adhere to systems thinking, or the systemic perspective, believe it is impossible to truly understand a phenomenon by breaking it up into its basic components. They believe, rather, that a global perspective is necessary for comprehending the entire phenomenon.
Systems theory finds some of its roots within the biological sciences, as some of the founders of its core concepts, including Ludwig Bertalanffy and Humberto Maturana, were biologists. One of the main perspectives of systems theory is viewing an individual or group as its own ecosystem with many moving parts that affect each other. Principles of systems theory have been applied to the field of psychology to explore and explain behavioral patterns. This approach was spearheaded by several individuals, including Gregory Bateson, Murray Bowen, Anatol Rapoport, W. Ross Ashby, and Margaret Mead.
Find a Therapist
A system is characterized by a group of parts that interact to form a coherent whole. Systems have distinct boundary separating them from external elements and distinguishing between inputs, or factors that impact the system, and outputs, or effects and products of the system. Systems may also have feedback loops, which occur when outputs of a system return as inputs, forming a circuit. Changes in one component of a system will affect other components as well as the overall entity. This dynamic makes it possible to predict what might happen when a system experiences a known change.
Systems theory has been applied in the field of psychology, where it is called systems psychology. People who view psychology through the lens of systems theory see individuals as seeking homeostasis within their systems or groups. To create a system that works for all members, the expectations, needs, desires, and behaviors of each person within it must be considered. When issues arise, these are attributed to breakdowns in systemic interactions rather than deficiency of one person.
In the late 1960s, Dr. Murray Bowen applied systems thinking to the family unit and developed family systems theory. This theory views the family as an emotional unit and assumes individuals cannot be fully understood in isolation. Instead, Bowen theorized, individuals must be viewed as part of their family of origin. Bowen’s concept later developed into an effective and widely popular form of treatment, called family systems therapy.
In family systems therapy, familial relationships, patterns, communication, and behaviors are examined within and beyond the therapy session, allowing the therapist and other family members to observe how certain behaviors could be impacting the family. Once these behaviors are recognized and understood, family members can learn new behaviors that have benefits for themselves and the rest of their family.
The efficacy of family systems therapy has motivated researchers and mental health experts to apply its primary principles to other groups of people. This new approach, called systemic psychotherapy or systemic therapy, helps groups gain insight into how each member’s role within a group may affect its functionality. It can be applied to organizations, communities, or businesses. Systemic psychotherapy has expanded into a nondirective, multifaceted treatment method currently applied in a variety of circumstances. Systemic psychotherapy has been found effective in addressing issues including:
A notable dynamic of systemic psychotherapy is its emphasis that a family or community plays a vital role in its own recovery and psychological health. As a result, families, couples, or members of an organization are directly involved in their own therapy to resolve an issue, and individual participants can begin transforming their own behaviors to be more adaptive and productive.
Systemic psychotherapy helps members of a group attain positive relationships, secure interrelationships, and overall well-being. Effective communication is a key tool in this treatment approach. Dialogue is constructed to build knowledge, strength, and support for an entire entity. It is important to note that the close relationship between systemic psychotherapy and family systems therapy has led many people to use these terms interchangeably.
One criticism of systemic psychotherapy is that it neglects the past perspective when addressing issues. In some cases, looking at an individual’s history with a mental health concern may be crucial to reaching a solution.
- Adams, K. M., Hester, P. T., & Bradley, J. M. (2013). A historical perspective of systems theory. Industrial and Systems Engineering Research Conference. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/288782223_A_historical_perspective_of_systems_theory
- Mele, C., Pels, J., & Polese, F. (2010). A brief review of systems theories and their managerial applications. Service Science, 2(1-2), 126-135. doi: 10.1287/serv.2.1_2.126
- Stratton, P. (2011). The evidence base of systemic family and couples therapies. Association for Family Therapy & Systemic Practice. Retrieved from http://www.aft.org.uk/SpringboardWebApp/userfiles/aft/file/Training/EvidenceBaseofSystemicFamilyandCouplesTherapies(Jan2011).pdf
- Systemic psychotherapy/Family therapy. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.svhf.ie/systemic-family-therapy.html
- Systemic therapy. (n.d.). Clinical Partners. Retrieved from https://www.clinical-partners.co.uk/counselling-and-psychotherapy/different-types-of-treatment/systemic