Application of chaos theory to family interaction

Matthijs Koopmans

Reference: Koopmans, M. (1996). Proceedings of the Winter 1995-6 ChaoGathering in Vermont.

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The applicability of chaos and complexity models to learning and development has been discussed recently by van der Maas and Molenaar (1992) who use the CUSP model to conceptualize developmental transitions, and by Lewis (1995) who discusses how Prigogine's basic principles of stability and change apply to child development.

One area in which there has been surprisingly little activity with respect to chaos and complexity theory is the area of family systems and their effects on the development of individuals. This lack of attention is surprising because in the area of family studies, the insights of the general systems model, which preceded chaos theory historically and conceptually, has been favored to a much greater extent than in other areas of study in psychology and education. Considering the long tradition of using recursive models to understand the effects of family interaction on individuals, one would expect a keen appreciation of the potential of chaos models to account for structural change. The present paper intends to evaluate this potential.

Traditonal Conceptions of Change and Stability in Families

Consistent with the insights of general systems models, it is generally assumed by family scientists and practitioners that families should be seen as equilibrium seeking systems, and that interaction between family members tends to conform to stable repetitive patterns; through those predictable patterns, the system maintains its stability (see e.g. Minuchin, 1974).

The conceptualization of change has been an ongoing area of concern in the family systems literature. Watzlawick, Weakland and Fish (1974) make a distinction between first and second order change which allows one to distinguish those changes that reinforce existing constellations from those changes which involve structural transitions. This distinction is considered especially useful in the field of family therapy in which producing change is often a critical part of the formulated therapeutic objectives.

There is very little discussion in the literature on families, however, about the question where changes in families, other than those induced in family therapy settings, actually come from. It is especially important to address this question as it would enable us to understand the origins of dysfunctional patterns of interaction in the family. Knowing those origins is important because of the ramifications of such dysfunction for the psychosocial development of individual family members, children and adolescents in particular.

Plan of Analysis

Applicability of Prigogine and Stengers' (1984) basic principles of feedback, fluctuation, stability, bifurcation and disequilibrium to interacting family systems will be discussed, and the origins of dysfunctional patterns of communication will be discussed from that perspective. I will focus the discussion on one particular aspect of family dysfunction, discussed in greater detail by Koopmans (1995; 1993), namely dysfunctional communication in which conflicting information is exchanged between family members about the nature of their relationship, especially patterns of communication in which relations of reproduction are confounded with relations of caretaking and dependence. Family process literature has traditionally been interested in the nature of contradictory patterns of communication (see e.g. Bateson, 1972; Trepper & Barrett, 1986), but has typically been ineffective in addressing its origins.

A Chaos Account of Family Interaction

Consistent with traditional family systems conceptions, stability can be defined in terms of repetitive, unchanging patterns of interaction which reinforce the existing family constellation in its interactive activities. Feedback can be defined as the repeated confirmation, in the course of interaction, of the nature of the relationship between the participants. For example, the interaction between mother and child confirms the caretaking nature of that relationship through caretaking behaviors. Although such repeated confirmations produce a stable and interactive pattern, there are continuous variations, i.e. fluctuations, in how such feedback takes place. Mother and child, or husband and wife do not say or do exactly the same things to each other each time they confirm their relationship. In times of stability, or near equilibrium conditions, such fluctuations do not affect the existing relational constellation. In far from equilibrium conditions, however, fluctuations in one part of the system, may reverberate throughout the family system as a whole (nucleation). For instance, in a de-stabilized family system, fluctuations in mother - child interactions may produce a change in their interactive mode, which in turn, produces changes elsewhere in the system. However, far from equilibrium conditions do not necessarily produce change. In many instances, far from equilibrium family systems will return to a steady state without structural changes; in other instances, the structural development of the family will take a different trajectory (i.e. bifurcation). Finally, it is necessary to recognize families as living and open systems which interact on a more or less continuous basis in order to maintain their structural integrity. As in any other living system, there will never be a state of full equilibrium rendering further interaction between components unnecessary. Prigogine and Stengers (1984) refer to this feature of living systems as disequilibrium.

The Origins of Family Dysfunction

Prigogine's model postulates that change is more likely to occur when systems are far from equilibrium, i.e. when small fluctuations have large reverberations. In the applications discussed above, such fluctuations can be defined as fluctuations in the nature of the information exchanged about the relationships between family members. In other words, rather than a stable pattern of repetitive exchanges, there is a great variety of different types of exchange that is inconsistent with the existing pattern of expectations with respect to the relationships between family members. In far from equilibrium conditions, occasional dysfunctional fluctuations (e.g. a father turns to his daughter for reassurance), which in near equilibrium conditions would have relatively little effect on the extant constellation, can turn into stabilized patterns of interaction (e.g. an interaction as if they are spouses) if the family system is in a state of perturbation. The potential of (apparent) random fluctuations to produce large effects is one of the main sources of change in Prigogine's model. It would be consistent with that account that there is a random component to whether or not families become dysfunctional when in a state of far from equilibrium.

Accounting for the mechanisms through which change is produced facilitates the development of viable and testable hypotheses about where dysfunctional patterns of communication come from in the first place. A chaos conception would propose that life events such as death of a family members, loss of job by head of household, moving to a new neighborhood, produce far from equilibrium conditions which, in turn, lead to a greater likelihood that occasional spasms of dysfunctional behavior settle into more or less permanent patterns of interaction.


The analysis presented here has several limitations. The model is concerned with the origins of family dysfunction, but says very little about its consequences. Moreover, the model proposed here assumes a very specific definition of family dysfunction; its applicability to possible other forms of family dysfunction needs to be separately assessed. However, the model of family interaction presented here has several advantages over traditional models. First, it is capable of specifying the conditions in which structural changes are likely to occur (far from equilibrium). Second, it specifies the mechanisms through which changes take place (nucleation, bifurcation), and third, it specifically connects dysfunctional patterns of interaction in the family to disruptive life events.

A more detailed assessment of the applicability of chaos and complexity models to social interaction in general, family interaction in particular is a fruitful area of research because it makes accessible abstract principles of change in an area of knowledge where the study of change has been a persistent problem.


Bateson. G. (1972). Form and pathology in relationships. In G. Bateson, Steps toward an ecology of the mind. New York: Ballantine.

Koopmans, M. (1993, April). Family relations and adolescence adjustment: Importance of distinguishing the parental role from other family roles. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association, Atlanta, GA. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 363 555)

Koopmans, M. (1995). A case of family dysfunction and teenage suicide attempt: Exploration of the applicability of the family systems paradigm. Adolescence, 30, 87-94.

Lewis, M. D. (1995). Cognition emotion feedback and the self organization of developmental paths. Human Development, 38, 71-102.

Maas, H. L. J. van der & Molenaar, P. C. M. (1992). Stagewise cognitive development: An application of catastrophe theory. Psychological Review, 99, 395-417.

Minuchin, S. (1974). Families and family therapy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Prigogine, I. & Stengers, I. (1984). Order out of chaos: Man's new dialogue with nature. New York: Bantam.

Trepper, T. & Barrett, M. (1986). Treating incest: A multimodal systems perspective. New York: Haworth.

Watzlawick, P., Weakland, J. & Fish, R. (1974). Change: Principles of problem formation and problem resolution. New York: Norton.

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