Understanding the Science: What Is Systems Psychology?

Updated September 11, 2023by Regain Editorial Team

Systems Psychology, a little-known yet increasingly influential branch of psychology, offers a unique approach to understanding human behavior. But what exactly is it? And how does it differ from more traditional fields of psychology?

Systems Psychology is rarely discussed in psychology, often flying under the radar of mainstream understanding. Yet, despite its low profile, it's quietly revolutionized how we comprehend and interact with the world. So let's dive deeper to see what this field is all about.

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History Of Systems Psychology

The origins of systems psychology are intertwined with the rise of systems theory in the mid-20th century. As scientists from various disciplines began to see the value of studying systems rather than isolated components, psychologists also adopted this perspective.

Prominent figures in the development of systems psychology include Ludwig von Bertalanffy, who first proposed general systems theory, and Gregory Bateson, who applied systems concepts to the field of psychology.

The Emergence Of Systems Psychology

Born out of the post-World War II scientific revolution, Systems Psychology emerged from a desire to understand the complex relationships and interactions that define human behavior. You might ask, "Why was such a shift necessary?" 

Traditional psychology often focuses on the individual, examining thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in isolation. However, Systems Psychology takes a different approach, considering the individual as part of a more extensive, interconnected system.

The Key Concepts Of Systems Psychology

Two crucial concepts are at the heart of Systems Psychology: Systems Theory and Cybernetics.

Systems Theory

First, let's dive into Systems Theory. This idea posits that behavior cannot be understood in isolation but must be viewed within the context of the system in which it occurs. For example, picture a set of gears in a clock.

Each gear is crucial; they all work together to keep the clock ticking. Similarly, every element of a system interacts with and influences the others. When applied to psychology, this theory suggests that our behaviors are shaped by our relationships and interactions within our various "systems," such as families, workplaces, or communities.


Next up, Cybernetics. Stemming from the Greek word for "steersman," it refers to the study of systems and processes in mechanical, biological, and social systems. For example, ever wondered how a thermostat maintains a room's temperature?

That's a simple example of a cybernetic system. It's all about feedback loops and regulation. In Systems Psychology, cybernetics helps explain how people respond to feedback from their environment and adjust their behaviors accordingly.

The Application Of Systems Psychology

Now that we have a basic understanding of the key concepts let's see how Systems Psychology is applied in the real world.

In Therapy and Counseling

In a therapeutic setting, Systems Psychology might be used to understand and address issues within a family or a couple. The psychologist considers not just the individual's behaviors but how those behaviors are influenced by—and influence—the dynamics of the entire system.

In Organizational Settings

In the world of business, Systems Psychology can help optimize team performance and improve workplace dynamics. It allows us to understand how team members influence each other and how their interactions can shape the overall team's performance. So, it's like a football team, where each player's action affects the team's overall performance.

In Social Systems

Systems Psychology also plays a crucial role in understanding societal dynamics. It helps us understand how individual behaviors and societal structures influence each other. For example, imagine a city as an extensive, complex system. The actions of its inhabitants and the city's infrastructure continually interact and influence each other, shaping the city's overall character and functionality.


Systems Psychology Vs. Traditional Psychology

At this point, you might be wondering, "How does Systems Psychology differ from traditional psychology?" Let's break it down:


Traditional psychology focuses on the individual, often emphasizing internal mental processes. In contrast, Systems Psychology focuses on the interconnectedness of individuals within their environments. Think of it like looking at a painting. Traditional psychology might focus on one color or brush stroke, while Systems Psychology would consider the entire canvas and how each stroke contributes to the overall picture.


While both approaches aim to understand and enhance human behavior, Systems Psychology often has a broader goal of improving the overall system's functioning. For example, picture a garden: while a traditional approach might focus on helping one plant thrive, a Systems Psychology approach would aim to create a flourishing ecosystem.

The Impact of Systems Psychology

So, what's the impact of this approach? Why should we care?

On Individual Behavior

Systems Psychology allows us to see how our behavior is influenced by and influences the various systems we are part of. It's like realizing that you're not just a single fish but part of a larger school, moving and flowing with the currents of your environment.

On Social Dynamics

At a larger scale, Systems Psychology can help us understand and address societal issues. For example, it can provide insights into how different societal systems—like education, healthcare, or government—interact and influence individual and collective behavior.

Criticisms Of Systems Psychology

First and foremost, critics have questioned the specificity of systems psychology. The field strives to understand human behavior in terms of intricate, interconnected systems, familial, societal, or ecological. While providing a holistic perspective, this broad focus can often lead to a degree of vagueness or indeterminacy.

It is argued that the approach can sometimes oversimplify or overlook the distinctiveness of individual experiences and behaviors. Critics argue that systems psychology risks losing sight of the individual's unique experiences and the specific factors that influence their behavior by focusing on the collective or system as a whole.

This lack of specificity can also translate into challenges in diagnosing and treating psychological issues. In clinical psychology, for instance, it is crucial to pinpoint specific symptoms, causes, and appropriate interventions for each individual. Critics contend that systems psychology, emphasizing broad systems and networks of influence, might not provide the granular level of detail necessary for effective diagnosis and treatment.

Broad and Interconnected Focus

Furthermore, the system's broad and interconnected focus can make it challenging to derive concrete solutions to psychological problems. Unlike more focused psychological approaches, which might provide specific therapeutic interventions or treatments for particular issues, systems psychology tends to offer more generalized solutions that address the system as a whole. Critics argue that this might not always be helpful, as it may not provide immediate or direct solutions to pressing individual psychological problems.

Implementing systemic interventions can be challenging due to the intricate nature of the systems themselves. Changes to one part of the system can lead to unforeseen consequences in other parts, making it difficult to predict and manage the outcomes of systemic interventions. This can lead to a level of uncertainty that is often discomforting in the clinical context, where predictability and control over outcomes are highly valued.

This approach's systemic focus often requires a higher level of systemic awareness and understanding from both the clinician and the client. This can create a barrier to entry for those unfamiliar with the systems psychology approach and may limit its accessibility and usefulness for some individuals.

How Systems Psychology Enhances Online Counseling

In online counseling, systems psychology focuses on the individual client as part of a network of systems. This includes their interpersonal relationships, families, communities, workplaces, cultural norms, and the digital landscape. These systems constantly interact and influence each other, shaping individuals' mental health and well-being.

Understanding the ecosystemic perspective allows therapists to deliver more comprehensive and effective interventions. For example, online counseling can address an individual's mental health symptoms and the systemic influences contributing to them. This could include interpersonal conflicts, workplace stressors, or cultural stigma around mental health.

Individual And Systemic Assessment

Systems psychology facilitates a holistic understanding of clients. Therapists assess the individual's psychological health and the systemic factors influencing it. This includes social relationships, cultural norms, and environmental factors. This comprehensive assessment can inform more tailored and effective treatment plans.

Systemic Interventions

Leveraging systems psychology, therapists can design interventions that address systemic issues. For instance, in addition to individual cognitive-behavioral strategies, a therapist might recommend family therapy to address relational dynamics contributing to the client's concerns.

Cultural Competence

Systems psychology highlights the importance of understanding clients within their cultural context. This includes considering cultural norms, beliefs, and values influencing mental health. In online counseling, therapists can use this perspective to create a safe and inclusive therapeutic environment, regardless of the client's location.

Interdisciplinary Collaboration

Systems psychology underscores the interconnectedness of different life domains. This perspective encourages collaboration with other professionals, such as medical doctors, social workers, or educators, to address multiple aspects of a client's well-being. In online therapy, interdisciplinary collaboration can be conveniently facilitated through digital communication.

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Effectiveness Of Online Therapy And Systems Psychology

Regarding the use of systems psychology in online therapy, research is still relatively limited. However, some studies have shown promising results. For example, a recent study found that family therapy delivered via videoconferencing was as effective as in-person therapy for various issues, including depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.

Another study looked specifically at systems-oriented therapy in online treatment for couples experiencing relationship distress. The researchers found that online therapy was effective in improving relationship satisfaction and reducing depressive symptoms and that these improvements were maintained at a follow-up assessment several months later.

Final Thoughts

Essentially, systems psychology provides a distinctive perspective to observe human behavior. It extends beyond the individual to scrutinize the intricate, interlinked systems that mold our actions and experiences. Analogous to a tree existing as part of a forest, we belong to several interconnected systems, each affecting us and, in turn, being affected by us.

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