• kathy

Schools of Fish and Human Behavior

On April 21 and 22, Dr. Iain Couzin from the Max Planck Institute joined the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family at the Spring Conference. His stimulating presentation has made a difference in how I think about systems.

Shortly after listening to Dr. Couzin talk about his research with schools of Shiner fish, I began thinking about my own family as a collective and how anxiety can flow through a human system. The family group can move in a direction that I do not agree with, tension in the system increases, and I find myself having to swim alone for some time. I could also see how understanding collective behavior can provide a new lens through which to understand leading or having a different position from the group, in business organizations.

Dr. Couzin researches the collective behavior of individuals as a part of a group, from cellular structures to insect swarms, fish schools to bird flocks, and from animal herds to human groups. His studies are rich with illustrations regarding collective behavior and how complex and coordinated behaviors emerge from social interactions. For me, as a consultant to family enterprises, the most meaningful finding was that the actions of the individual both influence and are influenced by the group. Most significantly for my work, his studies demonstrate that one individual has the potential of changing the behavior of the group. These research findings have significance for the work that I do with leadership, family decision-making, and organizational change.

Dr. Couzin was invited to the Spring Meeting to help address three goals:

  1. To link Bowen family systems theory to the work of organizational effectiveness, family enterprise, and leadership, with a focus on Bowen's theory of differentiation of self.

  2. To explore the connection between science of animal and human behavior and Bowen Family Systems Theory.

  3. To relate the experiences of businessmen and businesswomen in "being a self" in a social system and explore the impact of these efforts on the system

The meeting was an opportunity to promote new and expansive thinking about systems by connecting differing areas of systems study. Dr. Bowen stayed focus on his observations that the family is rooted in evolution and governed by the automatic patterns found in the natural world, and that the human is part of the same processes that are found in non-human species.

Since 1965, the Bowen Center has invited dozens of scientists to present their work to clinicians in order to broaden and deepen their understanding of families as systems. This list includes prominent scientists such as: Calhoun, Suomi, De Waal, Gordon, Gould, and MacLean.

This meeting continued the tradition of connecting Bowen family systems theory with science. Dr. Couzin's engaging presentations provided many more avenues for studying the family as a system.

For this attendee, the ideas presented have the potential of changing the way I approach consulting and in living and sometimes having to swim alone in my family and in the consulting world.

My thoughts one week after the conference:

  1. It is helpful to see evidence from the natural world that the family is a social system and that the individuals are part of a collective with responsiveness occurring out of one's awareness.

  2. I am reminded of the fact that Bowen family systems theory is clear about the importance of relationships in related and non-related social systems and how functionally interdependent we all are. As hard as it is to believe this fact, symptoms in one person reflect the condition of the system, not just the characteristics of the individual. Considering how interdependent we all are, anxiety, a response to a real or perceived threat, travels through families and non-related social systems in predictable ways. Upset in one relationship impacts another.

  3. One cannot remake what nature has created, but learning how the organism operates , understanding non-human social systems, and controlling anxiety in one's self when confronting stressors, can give "nature" a better chance.

  4. Social systems tend to seek help only when they are "at their wits end", or in a potential state of collapse. Most 'help' supports the collapsing state. Some individuals thoughtfully engage in the challenge and some delay their response. There are consequences for delaying a response.

  5. Maintaining a systems viewpoint can address challenges with creativity and vigor.

The most rewarding part of attending the Bowen Center's Spring Conference is my reignited curiosity concerning research about collective behavior. A colleague, Jim Edd Jones, in Colorado has written about his application of Dr. Couzin's research with the Golden Shiner fish to human behavior.

He writes:

The movement of anxiety in human families and networks might be like the transmission of anxiety observed in schools of prey fish. Fish are our ancient ancestors, over 400 million years old. We might still have some of their genetic behavioral programs. Grossly observe schools of prey fish in the wild and you see the apparently coordinated schooling movements of the group. A predator goes for them and the groups appears to split in two, each side quickly moving away from the predator attack. How do they do it? Like the schooling movement of the group, it is probably produced by the cumulative effect of reactions of individual fish.

The Princeton research group of Iain Couzin has studied the golden shiner escape behavior in detail. Golden shiners are a small prey fish found in eastern North America. They school in groups. Their evolutionary strategy appears to be to accept large losses from predators, reproduce in large numbers, and get some small protection from schooling.

I look forward to hearing how others received Dr. Couzin's ideas and how these ideas are impacting their personal and professional lives.


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