Social Force Diagrams


Social Force Diagrams reduce confusing complexity to clear simplicity by organizing the main forces causing a social problem into a standard diagram format, using a standard vocabulary of terms. This standardization makes it much easier to find a difficult problem's causal structure. The standard format is shown below. Meetup Group.

Standard SFD

How Social Force Diagrams Work

Like the way physical problems are caused by physical forces like gravity and momentum, social problems are causes by social forces. Social Force Diagrams organize the forces into three main types: Root Cause Forces (R), Superficial Solution Forces (S), and Fundamental Solution Forces (F).

The Law of Root Causes tells us that all problems arise from their root causes. Therefore all problems are caused by their root cause forces, represented by the left blue block arrow. Once this force is understood, you have found the root causes.

But finding those root causes is not easy in difficult social problems due to system complexity. To make correct root cause analysis easier, Social Force Diagrams divide a problem into two layers: the superficial layer, which is easy to see, and the fundamental layer, which is hard to see.

Superficial Layer - First you use analyze the superficial layer to determine what the Superficial Solution Forces are. This is relatively easy because you already know what the symptoms and the superficial solutions are. Superficial solutions are the solutions that have been failing to solve the problem, because they were designed to solve the intermediate causes. Unless the laws of physics change, this will never work. Given that information, finding the low leverage points and intermediate causes follows fairly easily.

Fundamental Layer - Once you get this far, you have an important clue for how to dig deeper and penetrate to the fundamental layer. What is the deeper cause of the intermediate causes? That will lead to the root causes. From there you can determine the high leverage points that, which pushed on, will resolve the root causes. Finally, you can develop fundamental solution elements to push on the high leverage points. If you have correctly identified the root causes, your fundamental solutions will probably work, though fine tuning is almost always necessary.

The Two Key Equations - Why exactly do superficial solution work only partially, temporarily, or not at all? It's because the Superficial Solution Forces can never be greater than the Root Cause Forces. The diagram shows this law of physics with S < R. The equation means "S is always less than R." By contrast, Fundamental Solution Forces work because F > R, meaning "F is always greater than R." Note how diagram arrow thickness also shows these laws.

These two equation, S < R and F > R, epitomize how activists need to think in order to solve the very difficult social problems we face today. The two equations form the Second and Third Laws of Root Cause Analysis.

Mode Change - Once the root cause forces are resolved, a system mode change occurs. The result is the New Root Cause Forces, shown in the right blue block arrow.

In difficult large-scale social problems, Root Cause Forces arise from faulty feedback loops. Finding the root causes identifies the loops at fault or missing. The high leverage points are the key portion of the new feedback loop structure needed to resolve the root causes. The fundamental solution elements are ways society can push on the high leverage points. Once this is done, the change in the system's feedback loop structure causes a system mode change. The result is the New Root Cause Forces. Because this force emanates from the structure of the system, it is fairly stable and permanent, which is exactly what we want our solutions to be.

Example 1 - The Authoritarian Ruler Problem

The best way to learn Social Force Diagrams is to study how the tool can be applied to past difficult social problems. Below is one such problem.

Standard SFD

One of history’s most intractable problems was autocratic rule by countless warlords, dictators, and kings. The Autocratic Ruler Problem was eventually solved by the invention of modern democracy. This took thousands of years and much painful trial and error because the root cause was unknown.

However, now it is. This allows the retrospective social force diagram shown above to be constructed. The diagram shows at a glance why superficial solutions failed to solve the problem for so long, why the fundamental solution worked, and why, once the mode change occurred, political systems have tended to stay in the new mode due to the right new balancing feedback loop.

Like the other examples, the diagram is simplified. It is not the summary result of full application of the System Improvement Process (SIP), which would involve a social force diagram for each subproblem, a filled in SIP matrix, and simulation models as needed.

Example 2 - The Recurring Wars in Europe Problem

Below is a social force diagram for the Recurring Wars in Europe Problem. The diagram shows at a glance why traditional solutions didn’t work. They didn’t resolve the root cause. But after the horrors of two successive world wars on European soil, problem solvers said never again and looked deeper for the root cause. They found it. The resulting solution, the European Union, driven by the Benefits of Cooperation feedback loop, caused a permanent mode change. Today no member of the union would even consider war against an-other member since that would be terribly self-destructive.

Recurring Wars Problem

The superficial solutions failed because they pushed on a low leverage point. All those peace treaties, military defenses, royal marriages between countries, and so on did nothing to resolve the root cause. The drive to maximize a state’s competitive advantage was a much stronger force than the superficial solutions.

The fundamental solution worked because it pushed on a high leverage point. A high leverage point is connected to a root cause in such a manner that pushing on the high leverage point greatly reduced the root cause force to an acceptable level or eliminates it altogether. This resolves the old root cause forces and creates new root cause forces.

The new root cause forces resulted from careful design of the fundamental solution. Once member states took the first strong step toward tight inter-country coupling, a new reinforcing feedback loop began. The European Union started with market integration and proceeded to further integration (for most members) via a common currency, membership in NATO, military integration, open borders be-tween member states, common policies on agriculture, fisheries, and regional development, etc.

The diagram explains why the United Nations has failed to prevent war between its member states. The United Nations’ work does not push on the high leverage point sufficiently.

Example 3 - The Money in Politics Problem

A third example is the Money in Politics Problem. The problem has plagued democratic systems ever since they were born, though it has grown more acute in the last several centuries due to the appearance of large for-profit corporations, labeled Corporatis profitis in the diagram.

Recurring Wars Problem

The symptoms are that political elections and decisions mainly favor powerful special interests, notably large for-profit corporations and the rich. The problem is widely called the corruption or “money in politics” problem, since it’s obvious there’s too much special interest money in politics. If that’s the cause, then the leverage point strategy is also obvious: regulate the undesired behavior. This has been attempted with campaign finance reform, lobbying restrictions, etc.

But serious reform via new laws doesn’t work in most countries, especially large ones like Russia, the United States, and India, for two reasons. First, the foxes are guarding hen house, so they oppose such legislation, causing it to pass in weakened form or not at all. Second, if it is passed, politicians and special interests adapt and find new ways to circumvent the new laws. Continual solution failure indicates there must be a deeper cause of too much special interest money in politics.

If one drills down for that deeper cause, armed with a process like SIP, eventually you will find the root causes. This we have done as presented later. Briefly, the main root cause is mutually exclusive goals between Corporatis profitis and Homo sapiens. The goal of Corporatis profitis is maximization of short term profit. The goal of Homo sapiens is optimization of long term quality of life for people, for those living and their descendants. These goals are so mutually exclusive they cannot be achieved in the same system. Currently the corporate life form dominates the human system to such an extent that its goal has become the implicit goal of the system, as demonstrated by system behavior. The inevitable result is the superficial solutions don’t work.

But if problem solvers direct their efforts to fundamental solutions that can resolve the root cause, everything changes. Once the root cause is resolved the system undergoes a mode change, to the new symptoms as shown. All this requires is correct knowledge of the problem’s root causes.

More Than Two Layers

The above Social Force Diagrams all have two layers. This is the simplest possible diagram. As the analysis grows in complexity it becomes necessary to use more than two layers. Below is are examples from the book Cutting Through Complexity.

The examples show analysis results for applying the System Improvement Process to the global environmental sustainability problem. The first example shows a Social Force Diagram for the unsustainable mode. The second example shows a diagram for the sustainable mode, which occurs after the mode change induced by solution elements implementation.

Summary DiagramFirst let's look at the summary diagram. This shows the system before the mode change in terms of how the four subproblems, the key feedback loop, and the all-important Main Root Cause.

The diagram summarizes the shape of the larger more complex diagrams. You can see at a glance how the Main Root Cause causes subproblem B. This in turn causes subproblems A and C. Due to the feedback loop, growth in strength of subproblem C increases the strength of subproblem B, which creates the reinforcing feedback loop. This loop causes the problem to spiral out of control quickly, so fast you hardly know what's happening.

For example, that's what's happened in the United States in 2016, with the sudden ascendance of Donald Trump and the Republican Party to control of all three branches of government. The rise to power, and the resulting damage, is unprecedented and severe.

Next let's look at the multi-layer Social Force Diagram for the unsustainable mode, shown below. The above diagram has been expanded to show the necessary detail. If you read this diagram slowly you can see the entire analysis, summarized at a high level.

SFD Unsustainable Mode

Finally, below is the multi-layer Social Force Diagram for the sustainable mode, after the mode change caused by solution elements pushing on the high leverage points.

The important point is that after the mode change occurs, only the solution forces for subproblems B and D are necessary for long-term mode change success.

SFD Sustainable Mode

Miscellaneous Examples

The Messy Apartment Problem SFD was designed to be a slightly humorous take on a common problem. It's not meant to be fully correct, as that would take much more analysis.

The two fundamental intermediate cause (FIC) nodes are fundamental rather than superficial, because there were no associated solutions that attempted to resolve these intermediate causes. Instead, these nodes were discovered as part of the root cause analysis.

Of considerable interest is the Upscale Bachelor Pad feedback loop diagram and the People Expect... node. The fundamental solutions (FS) cause two changes. One is an increase in Cause People to Visit. The other is an increase in the People Expect... node. This in turn increases the Incentive to Keep It Clean node, which creates the feedback loop.

Overall, this is a fairly sophisticated SFD that illustrates the flexibility and power of the tool. Its strongest feature is diagraming the feedback loop that causes the mode change and keeps the system in the new mode.

Is the feedback loop really fairly permanent and self-managing? That's what a deeper analysis could explore.

Messy Apartment Problem


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The Six Laws of Root Cause Analysis

The scientific rationale behind Social Force Diagrams is explained by The Six Laws of Root Cause Analysis:

1. All problems arise from their root causes.

2. Superficial solutions fail because S < R.

3. Fundamental solutions succeed because F > R.

4. If analysis shows no F > R exists, the problem is unsolvable.

5. Difficult social problems have multiple root causes.

6. Mode change requires changing the system by reengineering its dominant feedback loops.