Agency Bias vs Systems Bias

The two modes of reasoning that determine people’s world views

I’ve often noticed that there seem to be two distinct styles of reasoning about the world. I suspect it has something to do with why people come to develop very different worldviews. And it leads people to interpret cause and effect in the world differently.

Image courtesy of Gap Minder

Some people seem to have a more paranoid bent, seeing human agency, personal desires, and planning often with malicious intent) as the cause of various outcomes. People like this are prone to believing in conspiracy theories, too.

I’m calling this “ agency “ bias because people on the far side of this spectrum see personal agency and intent behind everything.

Other people look at the world through the lens of chance and circumstances. Incentives and systems cause people to behave in certain ways. People aren’t acting out of their own agency to conspire against the world but rather as a result of their personal proclivities, the immediate environmental context, and systemic incentives. People don’t have free will.

I’m calling this “ systems “ bias because people on this side of the spectrum will interpret everything as being caused by a deterministic system, where human agency plays no role.

I suspect that there’s both a psychological and an educational component to it. Maybe it’s related to someone’s personality, specifically where they end up along either of the Big 5 personality traits?

Some people are just more prone to have a sort of agency bias, and some people will naturally gravitate towards seeing the world through a systems lens. Your personal level of paranoia/neuroticism will play into this, as will your degree of belief in things like people’s ability for agency vs how much of their lives are determined by circumstances.

Another way of viewing this as a matter of reasoning styles or decision making, e.g. “intuitive” vs “analytical”.

People who are intuitive are more likely to think in emotive terms and will judge other people by the same standards. People who are analytical will take a more logical approach and will expect other people to behave in the same way.

Some of these beliefs will be created as a result of formal education and how much you’ve learned about how people think (i.e. learning about critical thinking and learning facts about the world probably changes your disposition). But I believe some people can be incredibly well educated and still be prone to “agency” bias, so education and personal experience can’t explain the differences.

Everyone ends up somewhere on this spectrum, some people are very far along towards the agency side, and some much further along on the systems side.

The fact that I’m even writing an article like this suggests I’m probably further along on the “systems”-side of the spectrum. However, I’m not claiming either of these perspectives is fundamentally better or worse. Rather, I think they can blind you to obvious truths about the world if you’re not aware of where your thinking is coming from.

I’ve noticed this more and more in my own life, both as a result of how I act and view the world (in opposition to others) and as a result of how other people act and make decisions. Just the fact that I’m writing something like this will probably tip you off that I’m more on the systems/analytical side of things. But I have friends who have a more emotional/paranoid bent. Both ways of viewing the world can be useful.

What I’ve found is that in some circumstances it’s useful to frame an event as a result of someone’s agency. Something happens in the world and it’s a result of a bad actor; the best way to approximate the cause of the event is to understand it as a matter of there being a “bad guy”. If you can stop him you can make the world better. This could be a bully at work, a dictator or anything in between. Perhaps people with a systems bias will be overly naïve in such circumstances, unable to see the forest for the trees (or perhaps more fittingly, unable to see the trees for the forest).

In other times the better way to think is in terms of systems and incentives. People are mostly affected by their internal and external environments and incentives, social or economic. People operate within systems. These systems will determine people’s behavior much more then they can themselves. Understanding this should allow you to appreciate how little control people have over what happens to them or even what they themselves do. This can lead to more empathy, but also to a different approach towards making people do what you want them to do (see Nudging).

I think this way of understanding people’s perspectives applies as much to personal relationships as it does to world affairs. For example, one difference is how you think politics works, or should work. Is it just a matter of electing the right people or is it a matter of having the right systems and incentives in place?

What’s your mode of thinking?

Originally published at



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store