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Systems psychology is a branch of applied psychology that studies human behaviour and experience in complex systems. It is inspired by systems theory and systems thinking, and based on the theoretical work of Roger Barker, Gregory Bateson, Humberto Maturana and others. It is an approach in psychology, in which groups and individuals, are considered as systems in homeostasis. Alternative terms here are "systemic psychology", "systems behavior", and "systems-based psychology".


Systems psychology studies human behaviour and experience in complex systems. It includes the domain of engineering psychology, but in addition is more concerned with societal systems and with the study of motivational, affective, cognitive and group behavior than is engineering psychology.[1] In systems psychology charateristics of organizational behaviour for example individual needs, rewards, expectations, and attributes of the people interacting with the systems are considered in the process in order to create an effective system.[2] The term "systems psychology" itself was first coined by John B. Parry in 1958 in an industrial context. Ever since, systems psychology has emerged in multiple areas:

Systems psychology has emerged here as a new approach in which groups and individuals, are considered as systems in homeostasis. Within open systems they have an active method of remaining stable through the dynamic relationship between parts. A classic example of this homeostatic dynamic is the "problem behavior" of a bed wetting child having a stabilizing function of holding a troubled marriage together because the attention of the parents is drawn away from their conflict towards the "problem" child. Systemic psychology is based on the theoretical work of Gregory Bateson and others. Therapeutic applications were developed by Virginia Satir, the Milan Group, and others.

More recent developments in systems psychology have challenged this understanding of homeostasis as being too focused on causal understanding of systems. This change in thought from 1st order cybernetics to 2nd order cybernetics involved a postmodern shift in understanding of reality as objective to being socially and linguistically constructed.

The heart of this criticism is in concluding too much of a direct causal relationship between parts in the system (for example that the problem behaviors of the child would vanish if parents would just get along). Rather than looking for causes in systems, this newer school of systemic psychology instead seeks to change destructive patterns in systems (ex: a family) by encouraging people to see things from new perspectives via techniques such as circular questioning, thus bringing about possibility for a shift in the power dynamic.


Gestalt psychology, developed in the 1920s, has been an important example for the development of General Systems Theory in the 1940s. Gestalt psychology is a theory of mind and brain that proposes that the operational principle of the brain is holistic, parallel, and analog, with self-organizing tendencies; or, that the whole is different than the sum of its parts. The concept of General Systems Theory arose out further of the biological sciences. It attempts to map general principles for how all systems work, especially living systems. Several biologists and social scientists were involved in the emerge of general systems theory in the 1950s.

In the 1950s and 1960s Ludwig von Bertalanffy wrote several articles and a book on systems theory and psychology, psychopathology and psychiatry.[3] The field of systems psychology at fist emerged outsite the academic world in industry. John B. Parry in 1958 first mentioned this term in a context together with "personnel psychology" as sometimes known divisions of "aviation psychology".[4] The first book with the title Systems psychology by Kenyon B. De Greene in 1970 also focused on systems psychology in the context of engineering, in particular connected with human factors, systems theory and systems engineering. In this direction Bruce Christie explored the outlines of the emerging area of human factors starting from the systems psychology base, rather than classical ergonomics.[5]

In the 1960 Systems psychology further emerged in new fields of applications. It was applied to understand the functioning of children in the family systems. Ecological systems psychology has also been applied to other systems, including the school and healthcare network, and this approach has been used to analyse relationship patterns among systems, social-ecological model of develepment, in particular, has proven a broad conceptualization of ecological systems theory that accounts for multiple contexts in which children develop.[6]

In 1992 Linda E. Olds in "Metaphors of Interrelatedness" started working toward a general systems theory of psychology.[7] Olds wondered how a systems psychology or a process psychology keeps consciousness focused on the whole rather than the parts. How can a systems psychology help individuals reconceptualize themselves in keeping concepts which radically change their perceptions? (p.92) She stated about systems approaches to therapy, that systems models could join other therapeutic perspectives that place central emphasis on the importance of surrender to the larger whole as a way of mediating and transcending internal conflicts.(p.93) The growing field of transpersonal psychology could be of help to the workout of a systems psychology, in calling on metaphors to move beyond strict identification with our personalities, bodies, minds feelings, or even with our highest "selves".(p.107)

In 2003 Thomas J. Power clarifies the link between children health and hygiene in an ecological systems psychology. He presents a framework for systematically addressing the health needs of children by integrating health, mental health, and educational systems of care. According to Powers ecological system psychology has emerged since the 1960s and has further developed within multiple contexts and created effective connections among the major systems in which children function. This approach has been applied in school and healthcare networks and has been used to analyze relationship patterns among systems and social-ecological models of child development.[8]

Types of systems psychology

In the scientific literature different kind of systems psychology have been mentioned:

Applied systems psychology
De Greene in 1970 described applied systems psychology as being connected with engineering psychology and human factor.
Cognitive systems theory
Cognitive systems psychology is a part of cognitive psychology and like existential psychology, attempts to dissolve the barrier between conscious and the unconscious mind.[9]
Contract-systems psychology
Contract-systems psychology is about the human systems actualization through participative organizations.[10]
Family systems psychology
Family systems psychology is a more general name for the subfield of family thearpists. E.g. Murray Bowen, Michael E. Kerr, and Baard[11] and researchers have begun to theoretize a psychology of the family as a system.[12]
Organismic-systems psychology
Through the application of organismic-systems biology to human behavior Ludwig von Bertalanffy conceived and developed the organismic-systems psychology, as the theoretical prospect needed for the gradual comprehension of the various ways human personalities may evolve and how they could evolve properly, being supported by a holistic interpretation of human behavior.[13]

Related fields

Ecological Systems Theory

Main article: Ecological Systems Theory

Ecological Systems Theory, also called "Development in Context" or "Human Ecology" theory, specifies four types of nested environmental systems, with bi-directional influences within and between the systems. The theory was developed by Urie Bronfenbrenner, generally regarded as one of the world's leading scholars in the field of developmental psychology. Later a fifth system (Chronosystem) was added:

  • Microsystem: Immediate environments (family, school, peer group, neighborhood, and childcare environments)
  • Mesosystem: A system comprised of connections between immediate environments (i.e., a child’s home and school)
  • Exosystem: External environmental settings which only indirectly affect development (such as parent's workplace)
  • Macrosystem: The larger cultural context (Eastern vs. Western culture, national economy, political culture, subculture)
  • Chronosystem: The patterning of environmental events and transitions over the course of life.

The person's own biology may be considered part of the microsystem; thus the theory has recently sometimes been called "Bio-Ecological Systems Theory". Each system contains roles, norms, and rules that can powerfully shape development.


Main article: Ergonomics

Ergonomics, also called "Engineering psychology" or "human factors", is the application of scientific information concerning objects, systems and environment for human use (definition adopted by the International Ergonomics Association in 2007). Ergonomics is commonly thought of as how companies design tasks and work areas to maximize the efficiency and quality of their employees’ work. However, ergonomics comes into everything which involves people. Work systems, sports and leisure, health and safety should all embody ergonomics principles if well designed.

It is the applied science of equipment design intended to maximize productivity by reducing operator fatigue and discomfort. The field is also called biotechnology, human engineering, and human factors engineering. Ergonomic research is primarily performed by ergonomists who study human capabilities in relationship to their work demands. Information derived from ergonomists contributes to the design and evaluation of tasks, jobs, products, environments and systems in order to make them compatible with the needs, abilities and limitations of people.

Family systems therapy

Main article: Family therapy

Family systems therapy, also referred to as "family therapy" and "couple and family therapy", is a branch of psychotherapy related to relationship counseling that works with families and couples in intimate relationships to nurture change and development. It tends to view these in terms of the systems of interaction between family members.

It emphasizes family relationships as an important factor in psychological health. As such, family problems have been seen to arise as an emergent property of systemic interactions, rather than to be blamed on individual members. Marriage and Family Therapists (MFTs) are the most specifically trained in this type of psychotherapy.

Organizational psychology

Main article: Industrial and organizational psychology

Industrial and organizational psychology also known as "work psychology", "occupational psychology" or "personnel psychology" concerns the application of psychological theories, research methods, and intervention strategies to workplace issues. Industrial and organizational psychologists are interested in making organizations more productive while ensuring workers are able to lead physically and psychologically healthy lives. Relevant topics include personnel psychology, motivation and leadership, employee selection, training and development, organization development and guided change, organizational behavior, and work and family issues.

Perceptual control theory

Main article: Perceptual control theory

Perceptual control theory (PCT) is a psychological theory of animal and human behavior originated by maverick scientist William T. Powers. In contrast with other theories of psychology and behavior, which assume that behavior is a function of perception — that perceptual inputs determine or cause behavior — PCT postulates that an organism's behavior is a means of controlling its perceptions. In contrast with engineering control theory, the reference variable for each negative feedback control loop in a control hierarchy is set from within the system (the organism), rather than by an external agent changing the setpoint of the controller.[14] PCT also applies to nonliving autonomic systems.[15]

Process psychology

Main article: Process philosophy

Process psychology exists to integrate process thought with the field of psychology broadly construed.[16] It is a new field which emerges from the application of Alfred North Whitehead's process philosophy to psychology. It holds the promise of integrating mind-body-spirit in a rigorous and coherent framework.

A pioneering work in this field is Toward a Process Psychology: A Model of Integration from David E. Roy published in 2000. Drawing from the depths of gestalt psychology and process metaphysics, David Roy sheds light on perplexing psychological questions regarding symbolism, mind-body relationship, and spiritual dimensions of human life. The meta-theory that emerges sheds light on psychology and psychotherapy alike. Such a rethinking of psychological questions and categories is invaluable for continued exploration of the human psyche and quest for health.[17]


Main article: Psychosynthesis

Psychosynthesis is an original approach to psychology that was developed by Roberto Assagioli. Psychosynthesis was not intended to be a school of thought or an exclusive method but many conferences and publications had it as central theme and centers were formed in Italy and the USA in the 1960s.

Psychosynthesis departed from the empirical foundations of psychology in that it studied a person as a personality and a soul but Assagioli continued to insist that it was scientific. Assagioli developed therapeutic methods other than what was found in psychoanalysis. Although the unconscious is an important part of the theory, Assagioli was careful to maintain a balance with rational, conscious therapeutical work.

Systemic therapy

Main article: Systemic therapy

Systemic therapy is a school of psychology which seeks to address people not on individual level, as had been the focus of earlier forms of therapy, but as people in relationship, dealing with the interactions of groups and their interactional patterns and dynamics.

Systemic therapy has its roots in family therapy, or more precisely family systems therapy as it later came to be known. In particular, systemic therapy traces its roots to the Milan school of Mara Selvini Palazzoli, but also derives from the work of Salvador Minuchin, Murray Bowen, Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, as well as Virginia Satir and Jay Haley from MRI in Palo Alto.

See also


  • Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1968), Organismic Psychology and System Theory, Worcester, Clark University Press.
  • Brennan (1994), History and Systems Psychology, Prentice Hall, ISBN 0131826689
  • Kenyon B. De Greene, Earl A. Alluisi (1970), Systems Psychology, McGraw-Hill.
  • W. Huitt (2003), "A systems model of human behavior", in: Educational Psychology Interactive, Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University.
  • Linda E. Olds (1992), Metaphors of Interrelatedness: Toward a Systems Theory of Psychology, SUNY Press, ISBN 0791410110
  • Jeanne M. Plas (1986), Systems Psychology in the Schools, Pergamon Press ISBN 0080331440
  • David E. Roy (2000), Toward a Process Psychology: A Model of Integration. Fresno, CA, Adobe Creations Press, 2000
  • Wolfgang Tschacher and Jean-Pierre Dauwalder (2003) (eds.), The Dynamical Systems Approach to Cognition: Concepts and Empirical Paradigims Based on Self-Organization, Embodiment, and Coordination Dynamics, World Scientific. ISBN 9812386106.
  • W. T. Singleton (1989), The Mind at Work: Psychological Ergonomics, Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521265797.


  1. Lester R. Bittel and Muriel Albers Bittel (1978), Encyclopedia of Professional Management, McGraw-Hill, ISBN 0070054789, p.498.
  2. Michael M. Behrmann (1984), Handbook of Microcomputers in Special Education. College Hill Press. ISBN 093301435X. Page 212.
  3. Ludwig von Bertalanffy wrote:
    • 1951, “Theoretical models in biology and psychology”, Journal of Personality, 20, 24–38.
    • 1956, “A biologist looks at human nature”, Scientific Monthly, 82, 33–41
    • 1966, “Mind and body re-examined”, Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 6, 113–138.
    • 1967, “General Theory of Systems : Application to psychology”, Social Science Information, vol. 6, 125–136 (reprinted in The Social Sciences : Problems and Orientation, Paris, La Haye, Mouton UNESCO, 309–319, 1968).
    • 1967, “General Systems Theory and psychiatry - an overview”, American Psychiatric Association 176, Annual Meeting (published in Psychiatric Spectator, 4, 6–8, 1967 ; and in Gray W., Rizzo N.D. & Dahl F.J., General Systems Theory and Psychiatry, Boston, Little, Brown & Company, 33-46, 1969).
    • 1968, Organismic Psychology and System Theory, Worcester, Clark University Press.
    • 1970 “General System Theory and psychology”, in Royce J.R. (ed.), Toward Unification of Psychology, Toronto, University Press, 220–223.
  4. John B. Parry, Sipke Dirk Fokkema (1958), Aviation Psychology in Western-Europe and a Report on Studies of Pilot, University of Michigan, p.4.
  5. Bruce Christie (1985), Human Factors of Information Technology in the Office, Wiley, ISBN 047190631X.
  6. Thomas J. Power (2003), Promoting Children's Health: Integrating School, Family, and Community. Page 11.
  7. Linda E. Olds (1992), Metaphors of Interrelatedness: Toward a Systems Theory of Psychology, SUNY Press, ISBN 0791410110.
  8. Thomas J. Power (2003), "Promoting Children's Health: Integrating School, Family, and Community". Guilford Press. ISBN 1572308559. p.11.
  9. David Parrish (2006), "Nothing I See Means Anything: Quantum Questions, Quantum Answers", p.29
  10. Marcia Guttentag and Elmer L Struening (1975), Handbook of Evaluation Research. Sage. ISBN 0803904290. page 200.
  11. Michael B. Goodman (1998), Corporate Communications for Executives, SUNY Press. ISBN 0791437612. Page 72.
  12. Sara E. Cooper (2004), The Ties That Bind: Questioning Family Dynamics and Family Discourse, University Press of America. ISBN 0761826491. Page 13.
  13. Organsmic Systems Psychology, Bertalanffy Center for the Study of Systems Science, Vienna. Retrieved 21 March 2008.
  14. Engineering control theory also makes use of feedforward, predictive control, and other functions that are not required to model the behavior of living organisms.
  15. For an introduction, see the Byte articles on robotics and the article on the origins of purpose in this collection.
  16. Association for Process Psychology website, retrieved 20 March 2008.
  17. Review of Toward a Process Psychology: A Model of Integration. by Mary Elizabeth Moore, retrieved 20 March 2008.

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