System Trap: Addiction

Addiction in this sense is different from chemical dependence, though parallels are obvious. The idea here is that the system operates in a deteriorating baseline state for periods of time. After that state has created obvious problems, some external factor saves the day and fixes everything.

The original problem is never addressed, so it resurfaces later.

From “Thinking in Systems” by Donella H. Meadows, which I a few weeks ago.


Shifting the burden, dependence, and addiction arise when a solution to a systemic problem reduces (or disguises) the symptoms, but does nothing to solve the underlying problem. Whether it is a substance that dulls one’s perception or a policy that hides the underlying trouble, the drug of choice interferes with the actions that could solve the real problem.

If the intervention designed to correct the problem causes the self-maintaining capacity of the original system to atrophy or erode, then a destructive reinforcing feedback loop is set in motion. The system deteriorates; more and more of the solution is then required. The system will become more and more dependent on the intervention and less and less able to maintain its own desired state.


Again, the best way out of this trap is to avoid getting in. Beware of symptom-relieving or signal-denying policies or practices that don’t really address the problem. Take the focus off short-term relief and put it on long-term restructuring.