Charles S. Carver

Dynamic Systems and Catastrophe Theory

For some time I've been observing attempts to apply the ideas of chaos, or dynamic systems theory, to subject matter of interest to personality and social psychlogists.  My attitude during this period has mostly been one of wait-and-see.  However, in working several years ago on a book concerning general principles of self-regulation, I've found myself seeing more utility in these ideas than I had previously seen.  I'm not currently conducting research that uses the ideas, but I am reading and thinking (and sometimes writing) about the ideas and their applicability.  The book mentioned above has a chapter on dynamic systems, and also a chapter on catastrophe theory.  Catastrophe theory is a body of thought which has very different origins than does dynamic systems theory, but which rests on some strikingly similar principles.  One such principle is the notion of nonlinearity; another is the idea that small initial differences can have a big impact later on; another is the idea that processes of self-organization play an important role in both experiences and actions.

There's some local synergy that helps to encourage me in thinking about these concepts:  My former colleague Adele Hayes (now at the University of Delaware) is using these ideas in very different ways in her work on what happens inside the therapy process.  Robin Vallacher, one of the proponents of dynamic systems ideas in social psychology, works just an hour up the road at Florida Atlantic University.

Relevant articles:

Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F.  (2002).  Control processes and self-organization as complementary principles underlying behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 6, 304-315.   [abstract]

Carver, C. S. (1997).  Dynamical social psychology:  Chaos and catastrophe for all.  Psychological Inquiry, 8, 110-119.

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