Tough, Smart or Wise?

Neural Networks, Tribalism and Dynamic Systems


By Richard Althouse, Ph.D., Immediate Past President, International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology


Birds of A Feather Flock Together photoEvery living organism is neurologically programmed, each in its own way, to survive. As I mentioned previously, there also is survival strength in numbers; "birds of a feather flock together.” Anyone following the current political debates and policy disagreements will recognize the efforts by individuals to not only protect their own political tribes from assaults by members of other political tribes, but also make their own tribes bigger by denigrating the ideologies of members of other political tribes – and by making dire predictions of what will likely happen if members of those other tribes are elected into offices of government power. Most of these appeals are fear-based, designed to trigger our anxiety arousal networks. In the end, our neural networks will prompt us to vote for those individuals whose stated ideologies and promised policies help us "feel” safer, less anxious and more secure, often at the deliberate expense of objective information to the contrary.


These emotionally-based decisions can reduce our fright or anger, both now and in the future. Unfortunately, they often do so in ways that are not in our best survival interests in the long run. When we finally recognize that disparity, we often feel lost in our attempts to understand why; we generally tend to find someone or something to blame and then take what we believe is the appropriate action (e.g.,"throw the bum out!”). That is because we tend to think of problems and their solutions in a linear, cause-and-effect way. However, we actually live in a world of intersecting paths to effects, one in which a linear problem-solving model often does not work very well when faced with a problem created by a dynamic system.


A dynamic system is constantly adjusting and reacting to changes. Simply defined, the dynamic influence in systems is notable in feedback loops in which events influence responses which, in turn, influence the continuation of the events. I like to think of this as a "circle of influence.”

A common dynamic system is a household heating system. A decrease in air temperature (A) influences a thermostat (B), which then influences a furnace (C) to operate. The functioning furnace (C) produces an increase in air temperature (A) which influences the thermostat (B). This causes the furnace (C) to cease operation, until such time as the air temperature (A) decreases again. And the cycle repeats. Although composed of more interacting parts, our criminal justice system is conceptually no different than our heating system.


While there are a number of academic systems models, we already have an intuitive understanding and a common language that describes two such system patterns. A "virtuous cycle” is one in which things can only get better. A "vicious cycle” is one in which things can only get worse (e.g., the "race to the bottom.”). However, most of us are not familiar with the concept of system patterns, let alone their basic structures or archetypes.An archetype provides a working model of how the system actually works, rather than how we think or hope it works. System archetypes are composed of two or more interacting parts and feedback loops. As examples, there are at least two system archetypes at work in the criminal justice system: Shifting the Burden and Escalation.

Shifting the Burden:

The War on Crime: When the solution contributes to the problem.

When a problem that demands attention occurs – particularly when fear and anger are involved (e.g., increased crime rates) – but the underlying issues are difficult to address (e.g., poverty, racism, economic inequality, unemployment rates), it is easy to "shift the burden” to more easily conceptualized ideologies. For example, we may blame the "criminal personality,” believing that they are bad, evil, genetically flawed, or morally compromised people”, and implement solutions that seem rational, easy and efficient ("lock them up!”).


But we leave the underlying problems untouched, perhaps to get worse and more difficult to fix later on. Consequently, the easy solution eventually doesn’t work, as the side effects of the solution (e.g., inmate overcrowding, increased budget strain, inadequate treatment resources) help perpetuate the underlying. These, in turn, continue to influence the symptomatic problem (crime).

Unfortunately, it is easy to forget the systemic influences when our fear and anger tempt us to rationalize increasing the use of the easy solution. We get even tougher on crime (e.g., "three strikes,” "truth in sentencing,” more punitive sentences), frequently with little advantageous effect. But we see an increase of those negative side effects, including inmate litigation and the "revolving door” effect. And these effects often continue to undermine the solution in ways that contribute to the problem. The result? In part, because there has been a definite gap between evidence-based research and the criminal justice process, the sociopolitical rush to incarcerate ironically has led to a practical rush to release! As Joel Dvoskin observed at a recent MHCC conference, "We couldn’t do it worse if we tried!” I could not agree more!

Let’s turn briefly to Escalation, a system archetype subset of the war on crime.


Escalation: The War on Drugs: When the solution becomes the problem


Remember the childhood challenges of dares, double dares and double dog dares? How about the prohibition era of the 1930s, or the "cold war” era of the ‘50s and ‘60s? We all know how escalation works, and it aptly describes the war on drugs.


Two tribes, providers and consumers versus legislators and law enforcement, have an interest in their own welfare (e.g., money, pleasure, staying employed) that depends on having an advantage over the other. When one tribe gets ahead, the other attempts to re-establish its advantage. This often results in a "vicious cycle,” with each side justifying increasingly aggressive responses to the other’s actions. Over time, each side has to ramp up its efforts until the responses are so extreme (e.g., murders, gang turf wars, military interventions, international conflict) that either something happens to change the system pattern (e.g., repeal of the 18th amendment), or there’s no one left to fight. If the pattern exists long enough, it can become a matter of everyday life (e.g., the cold war, the war on drugs) and become embedded in social conscience. It can become even more difficult to re-conceptualize and construct a more effective intervention.


The problem with this model of doing business is that it can end badly for many without either side having a definitive victory. All the while, it creates more side effects (e.g., increased numbers of drug-war combatants and casualties, a market for more diverse drugs, younger drug users, increased incarceration rates) that become problems that demand their own solutions and can detract from or undermine the initial goals of the intervention.


This very system resulted in the eventual repeal of the 18thAmendment, supported in part by some of the very folks who argued for prohibition in the first place! Unfortunately, as is often the case with social systems, it took many years for that to happen.

Why Understanding Dynamic Systems is Important: Tough, Smart, or Wise on Crime?


We are living in an increasingly complex world, and it is becoming more difficult to see the forest for the trees. An understanding of the concepts behind systems archetypes provides the conceptual tools that enable us to more easily grasp the workings of a complex system (i.e., one that has a number of interacting parts), particularly when things are not going well. As a result, we can explore and conceptualize more efficient interventions while minimizing unintended consequences that often come back to bite us.

Because our neural networks are designed to respond to perceived threats in order to protect ourselves, we have an emotional reaction to danger. When sufficiently fearful, anxious, or angry, we can react, and have reacted, in ways that unintentionally create a dynamic system – often one rooted in tribalism – that works against us in the long term. But these reactions can cause us to overlook more evidence-based and productive interventions that we could apply now.

Being able to identify this problem, understand how dynamic systems work and recognize which system archetypes are at work behind the scenes can save us a lot of trouble over time. We can identify the intervention and outcome differences among such choices as being tough (e.g., "lock’em all up, throw away the key, and forget the rest”), smart ("lock up only the ones we are afraid of, and provide adequate rehabilitation services”), or wise (e.g., evidence-based social programs that reduce incarceration rates) as we continue to deal with issues related to crime.

Fortunately, there are easy to construct system diagrams that help us to understand system archetypes and explore interventions, and two or three of those will be covered in my "Standing at the Gates of Change” presentation at the conference in March.

Meanwhile, I’ll end with this observation: Systems never fail.

Next Time: A re-conceptualization of free will. Can there be such a thing?


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