Bread Pudding and Life: Thoughts for Designing Social Systems That Work

I promised to write about things that make social life work. One of them is recipe knowledge for locally stable, or ‘robust’ activities. Let me explain …

Every morning my partner Pamela and I make breakfast. Usually we share the tasks, pottering along next to each other and sometimes one or other does it all because they are up more quickly or feel more energetic. Despite the infinite variations in the process, the outcome is the same: breakfast is ready, coffee is poured, the word puzzle in the newspaper is ready to attack as we eat.

Surely, you say, this is no big deal? Isn’t this typical of social life? Well, yes … and no. Some years ago I attended a conference on alternative dispute resolution processes in Melbourne. The very good facilitator ran an effective process of collective brainstorming which generated a number of topics. Like-minded people then clustered to the topic that interested them and developed it. One of the topics was “what happens in the room” and come presentation time we were given an earnest talk about how incredibly complex the ADR processes could be and how the experts needed to be there, eternally vigilant, to ensure that the tiniest thing did not send the process spinning into the outer darkness.

Frankly, I found this a bit puzzling and disappointing. Why would we want to invest time and energy in something this flaky? Moreover, I had recently been in South Africa to evaluate a project for my friend and colleague Clifford Shearing and had been impressed by the simple and robust process that was running in some townships. Rather like our breakfasts, these were successfully managed by local folk without experts hovering anxiously over them. So I stood up and made this point (perhaps not diplomatically enough since it transpired that several doctoral theses were being lovingly written on this flaky topic and a few people were rather shaken by my argument.)

Simply put, my point was that complexity theory distinguishes between various contexts. When things are very unstable, the ‘butterfly’s wing’ effect is enough to cascade changes through the system in unpredictable ways. On the other hand, as John Casti pointed out, some contexts are locally stable or robust. He gave the example of a good bread pudding recipe: no matter the infinite variations of the bread, oven temperature, etc. if the recipe is a good one you always get bread pudding.

I went on to argue that what ADR needed was bread pudding recipes—robust systems that did not need hovering experts. I wrote this up in a rather obscure journal, which was sort of a pity because I think the argument is worth looking at. Well, now with SlideShare to help, I have made it available to a wider audience and if this interests you, you can read it in full at

The point of course, is not restricted to ADR. In social life generally, there is a myriad of routines that we execute almost without thought. Psychologically speaking, we do them through ‘System 1’ a set of cognitive processes that rely on tacit knowledge and implicit cognition which is ‘fast, feral and frugal’. Most of the time this works because the recipes are effective. Sometimes they fail. And usually we are not fully aware of how and why things work any more than we grasp the chemistry that underlies baking the pudding. But with a little effort, we can understand and we can design good recipes.

Let me close for the moment with a simple example. What is the right number of people to have for a dinner party?

Well, if you walk around furniture stores the answer seems to be eight. There has recently been a fashion for square tables with 2 per side, proving –as I will show in a moment—that designers know less than nothing about social dynamics. Eight is an AWFUL number for a dinner party and the only thing worse than a square table for eight is a round one. Who has not found themselves at some hotel dinner ( a conference) stuck at such a table condemned to a boring evening because one can only talk to the people each side and since one is completely uninteresting and the other is engrossed with the person next along, time drags and drags.

Why is eight so bad? Because it is too big for a single conversation and too small to simply break into a rolling series of sub-conversations. And this statement is not simply a common sense observation. As I have shown in another presentation (see group size is a crucial feature that underpins conversations. Six is the upper bound for a conversation—it allows numerous subdivisions of 2, 3 and 4 as time rolls along but when everyone is in the one conversation it is still comfortable. Eight, in contrast, lies in the awkward zone between dialogue and ‘serial monologue’ which is what routinely cuts in if one has a group of about 10 or more who are co-present (e.g. at a formal meeting).

And as the example makes clear, it is not only size but also local geography that matters. In contrast to a room full of circular tables, at a traditional formal dinner (e.g. in a military mess) long tables are laid out with people arrayed each side. A moment’s reflection shows that this can be seen as a series of overlapping sixes. A given person ‘X’ can talk to the person either side, the one opposite and the two ‘diagonally opposite’. Bingo—that is six. Of course, most of the time the groups are smaller, 2s, 3s and 4s in animated conversation. The people are the same, the setting is the same as the dreadful room full of circles of 8 but variations in number and layout make all the difference.

There is a serious message here, dinners aside. By not paying attention to micro-dynamics we fail to produce a reliable recipe—instead of good old bread pudding we have sadly sunken soufflés!

And there are lots of other recipes we can look at another time.


About stephenmugford

Once a sociologist (1970-1997) then a consultant who reads a lot in psychology, cognitive science, complexity, etc and wanders along paths from one topic to another.
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