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Events, Behavior and Structure

Our lives are filled with events:  birthday parties, graduations, job starts, product launches, retirements, arguments, agreements and storms.  Because of their prevalence events tend to fill our discussions.  In terms of understanding our world, however, events turn out to have limited usefulness.  These limitations are well recognized in the physical sciences.  If  a teacher were to stand in front of a class and drop a piece of chalk and ask the class "why did the chalk hit the ground?"  the response, "because you let go of it" would generate a chuckle and quickly be dismissed.  If, however, you were to put the same student into a suit and ask of her "why did stock prices fall?" the response "because the Federal Reserve announced that it was increasing interest rates" would be considered serious and correct.  

One step back from events is the idea of behavior patterns.  A behavior pattern is something that connects together a long series of events over time.  The American revolution was an event.  The extent of suppression, resentment and taxation in the decades preceding the revolution were patterns of behavior.  Once you step away from events and begin considering patterns of behavior questions such as "what caused ..." are given a different and much deeper meaning.  We are no longer searching for an event that precedes or corresponded with another event.  Rather we are looking for sources of pressure and imbalance that cause things to change.

Structure is the set of physical and information interconnections that generate behavior.  Inventory is the accumulation of production less shipments.  Workforce changes with hires and attrition and hiring is based on the targeting of production to meet demand and correct inventory imbalances.  The result of this is that the inventory level moves up and down (behavior) and we now have so much inventory that we are not profitable and the CEO has been fired (an event).  Structure determines behavior and events are snapshots of that behavior.

The event—behavior—structure distinction is an important tool for understanding and working with problems.  Ultimately, successful policies and interventions need to be changes to structure, so that behavior is improved and bad events become less frequent.  System dynamics and Vensim, provide you with tools to represent structure, and understand how it determines behavior.