Emergent Properties

Our strategic thinking can be noticeably improved if we embrace the idea of emergent properties, which explains why our knowledge about individual parts doesn’t allow us to make confident overall predictions. Our judgment often suffers because we are tempted to predict overall systemic effects by examining individual elements. Such reductionism, or the thinking that we can predict systemic properties by analyzing individual units of the system, is very fashionable in all occupations. For instance, corporate analysts often try to predict business performance by analyzing the composition of the executive team, thus relying on a simple assumption that if a company is comprised of superior individuals, then the corporate decisions and performance will also be superior.

One of the central ideas in systems thinking is that of the emergent properties, which is the opposite of reductionism. The crux of the emergent properties model is that our knowledge about individual elements of a system doesn’t allow us to predict their systemic effects. In essence, a certain property is not present in parts but only emerges when the parts are combined. Therefore, we should be very careful when making overall predictions based on our knowledge about individual parts.

Emergent Properties in Natural World

Emergent properties can be easily found in all sorts of fields, from physics (e.g. superconductivity), cybernetics, and artificial intelligence, to language, social science, and music. However, it is most easily illustrated with examples from natural world. For instance, in chemistry, our knowledge of the individual properties of sodium, which is a metal, and chlorine, which is a gas, does not allow us to predict the emergent properties of these two elements, which is a sodium chloride—a table salt.

In biology, our knowledge about individual brain cells—neurons—does not allow us to predict emergent properties of cell combinations, such as memory. As one biologist asked rhetorically, could the behavior of a “cheetah chasing a deer be predicted from knowledge about the atoms and molecules making up these animals?”[1]

Emergent Properties in Social Life

It is relatively easy to recognize emergent properties in biological systems, and most people would easily agree, for example, that in sports, a team of individually mediocre players could outperform a team of individually superior players. Yet, it is much more difficult for most of us to recognize emergent properties in many social systems.

For example, some economics “experts” will argue about the rationality of the markets from the simple assumption that individual economic agents are rational decision-makers. Yet, even before the emergence of behavioral economics which knocked out such fallacious and simplistic assumptions about human rationality, some traditional economists at least partially recognized the idea of emergent properties, which they usually referred to as the fallacy of composition. Even neo-classical economists and game theorists showed that individual rationality could easily produce systemic irrationality, and conversely, individual irrationality could produce systemic rationality.

Politicians, of course, are also no enemies of reductionism. It has been always very fashionable in politics to proclaim that individual improvement will mean the improvement of social and political system. With Margaret Thatcher, for example, you would “get a responsible society when you get responsible individuals.”[2]

Practical Implications

There are different views of emergent properties, with proponents of the weak emergence arguing that the relationship between the parts and the whole simply cannot be determined because of technical difficulties or imperfect knowledge about the parts, and with proponents of the strong emergence arguing that higher levels are in principle not deducible from lower levels.[3]

Whatever is the case, the idea of emergent properties has important practical implications for improving our strategic thinking and judgment. When we are evaluating a situation, we should be careful about drawing conclusions from our knowledge about individual elements, and instead recognize systemic effects may be unpredictable from individual elements. So, for example, we shouldn’t assume that we can predict group decisions merely from our knowledge about individual people comprising a group—whether members of a political committee, a corporate task force, or a trial jury.

Embracing Inconvenient Mental Models

Various mental models from systems thinking, including the emergent properties model, are critical for effective analysis, and yet most of us have difficulty incorporating them into our thinking toolkit. One reason may be motivational: we acquire and rely on mental models which give us a sense of predictability, but mental models from systems thinking threaten our sense of predictability, even if it is illusory and simplistic; therefore, we unconsciously may push out such inconvenient models lest they destroy our happy delusions.


[1] Francisco Ayala, Biological Reductionism: The Problem and Some Answers, in F. Eugene Yates (ed.), Self-Organizing Systems (New York: Plenum, 1987) p. 318, cited in Robert Jervis, System Effects: Complexity in Political and Social Life (NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997) p. 15

[2] Robert Jervis, System Effects: Complexity in Political and Social Life (NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997) p. 15.

[3] See e.g. Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi, The Systems View of Life (Cambridge University Press, 2014) p. 157.