Ecological Thinking

Don't hate the player, hate the game

Recently I've been thinking about the world in ecological terms. It’s an interesting change in perspective — not just a shift (viewing the same thing from a different angle), but an inversion. In ecological thinking, figure becomes ground and vice versa.

Instead of focusing on the players, who are waving their hands, making noise, and generally being conspicuous, ecology asks us to focus on the game -- the incentive structures and ground rules under which the players act.

It's a movement from story thinking to systems thinking.

Central to ecology is the concept of a niche. A niche is

an abstract space in the environment which some actors may be able to exploit successfully for an extended period. [ref]

A niche involves not just location but also behavior. "It is the behavioral space in which an organism moves and competes for resources" [ref]. Niches can vary in size, and are usually said to be wide or narrow. A wide niche supports many different actors, while a narrow niche supports few.

Here are some examples of ecological thinking:

  • There will always be cheaters because there is always a niche for cheating. This result shows up again and again in the literature on evolution — no sooner does a species develop behavior X than other members of that species develop the ability to exploit X, or another species develops X-mimicry, allowing them to get benefits that they don't 'deserve.' But of course this applies just as much to people and social systems as it does to the biological world. Wherever the majority of people play fair, there's an element of trust that cheaters can exploit to their advantage. You will never be able to eliminate cheating; the best you can hope for is mitigation.
  • In a democracy you get the government you deserve and you deserve the government you get. If a candidate for office makes a promise and breaks it once she's in office, blaming her misses the point. She's just playing a role in a system that allows people to make promises they can't keep. If she didn't make too many promises, someone else would, and we'd elect that guy instead.
  • The emphasis on corporate culture in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. The culture of a company is its ecosystem, defining what kind of niches are productive within the company. People are a 'fit' for the culture if there's a place for them, a niche. Some cultures are good for hackers, some for professional engineers, some for fresh college grads, some for weekend warriors, some for slackers, some for those trying to 'get ahead.' Some cultures have more and larger niches for people who play politics, or who suck up to their managers. Some cultures are simply healthier than others, in the same way that some biological ecosystems are healthier than others.
  • The fundamental attribution error in social psychology. This is the basic human tendency (read: bias) to explain someone's behavior as deriving from their underlying personality, rather than from their situation or role. More at Wikipedia.

So here is the core insight, in two parts:

  1. In complex systems, niches exist. They are a property of the system, independent of the particular actors within the system.
  2. Niches exert a constant pull on behavior; they are semi-stable attractors. If there's a niche for a particular type of behavior, and if the space is crowded enough (competition), the niche will be filled.

When you put these two facts together, you start to see behavior as a property of the system rather than the individual. Of course the individual is still proximately responsible for the behavior — and morally responsible, if that's the axe you're trying to grind. But sometimes it's more productive to look at the system rather than the individual.

Ecological thinking doesn't give the complete picture by any means. It just provides a different perspective. Sometimes the problem you're facing is one that requires story-thought (attention to the details of individuals), but sometimes it requires systems-thought. You need both weapons in your arsenal.

Originally published March 24, 2012.