Design Principle

Complex Causality

Explore the many causes and consequences of human behaviors, as well as complex systems interactions across levels of organization in biology and society

  • Make the theme of complex systems and causality explicit
  • Engage students in reflecting on the complex causality of everyday experience and the aspects of human behavior relevant to sustainability challenges
  • Use a diversity of teaching tools to make complex causality accessible and relevant to our everyday experiences
  • Compare diverse examples of complex systems across biology and society to make explicit the dynamics that are and aren't transferable across systems

Teaching tools for complex systems thinking

Systems thinking is one key competency in Education for Sustainable Development. This is because sustainability issues are about the consequences of complex relationships in social-ecological systems. If we want to change those outcomes towards more desirable ones, we need to understand these causal relationships, so that we know how changing one factor might lead to changes in other factors. We can use a wide diversity of teaching tools to help students engage the complex causes of the human behaviors relevant to sustainability and everyday well-being.

Causal mapping techniques can be used in the classroom to represent and visualize complex causal interactions between different factors.

Tinbergen's questions can help organize complex causality of behaviors and other phenomena across time.

Payoff matrices can help students reflect on the possible causes of behaviors in term of conscious or unconscious motivations (thoughts, feelings, senstations, beliefs, goals, constraints,...) and the possible outcomes of behaviors.

Tinbergen's Questions

A behavior has just occurred. Why did it happen? Your first category of explanation is going to be a neurological one. What went on in that person’s brain a second before the behavior happened? Now pull out to a slightly larger field of vision, your next category of explanation, a little earlier in time. What sight, sound, or smell in the previous seconds to minutes triggered the nervous system to produce that behavior? On to the next explanatory category. What hormones acted hours to days earlier to change how responsive that individual was to the sensory stimuli that trigger the nervous system to produce the behavior? And by now you’ve increased your field of vision to be thinking about neurobiology and the sensory world of our environment and short-term endocrinology in trying to explain what happened.

And you just keep expanding. What features of the environment in the prior weeks to years changed the structure and function of that person’s brain and thus changed how it responded to those hormones and environmental stimuli? Then you go further back to the childhood of the individual, their fetal environment, then their genetic makeup. And then you increase the view to encompass factors larger than that one individual - how has culture shaped the behavior of people living in that individual’s group? - what ecological factors helped shape that culture - expanding and expanding until considering events umpteen millenia ago and the evolution of that behavior.”

Robert Sapolsky (2018), p. 6, 7

Tinbergen's Questions can help organize complex causality of behaviors and other phenomena across time.

In 1963, Ethologist Niko Tinbergen described how four questions in the biological sciences can be used to develop integrated or well-rounded explanations of the behavioral traits of any organism, including humans.

Since then, these questions of proximate mechanisms, development, phylogenetic history, and consequences based on adaptive significance have been influential in broad ranging discussions about how to conceptualize the complex causality of human behavior.

Our take on the organization of questions of causality, pictured on the left, is thus a synthesis of these discussions.

Tinbergen's questions synthesis

References and Links

Medicus, G. (2005). Mapping Transdisciplinarity in Human Sciences. In J. W. Lee (Ed.), Focus on Gender Identity (pp. 95–114). New York, NY, USA: Nova Science Publishers. Retrieved from

Tinbergen, N. (1963). On aims and methods of Ethology. Zeitschrift Für Tierpsychologie, 20(4), 410–433.

O’Brien, D. T., & Gallup, A. C. (2011). Using Tinbergen’s four questions (plus one) to facilitate evolution education for human-oriented disciplines. Evolution: Education and Outreach, 4(1), 107-113.

Sapolsky, R. M.. (2018). Behave. The biology of humans at our best and worst. Vintage.