We're not so Crazy After All: The Chaos Theory Applied to Family Dynamics

What does chaos systems and theory have in common with family dynamics and family systems? 

It’s seems quite a bit.  According to research and family advisor, Gunther Weil “Family culture is constituted by energetic fields. These are generative controls - people’s values, beliefs and ideas are creating self-organizing “implicate order,” not hierarchical authority.  The strongest energy fields emanate from shared meaning – the shared values or values system which is the Strange Attractor creating and sustaining the family culture.” – The Quantum – Chaos Family Advisor World View

For those who are not familiar with chaos theory here’s a brief primer:

It is a complex system of how things are connected together in a non-linear fashion with seemingly unpredictable connections.  These connections are dependent upon what the initial condition was that started the ball in motion.  An example of this is the “Butterfly Effect” – when a butterfly flaps its wings the ripple effect can cause a hurricane in another part of the world.

“Butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.”

The goal of any system is to achieve stasis. 

The goal of a chaos system is to, “achieve some level of predictive understanding without relying on established causal and deterministic expectations and models.”  Because chaos is just that – unpredictably chaotic that triggers reactions that are seemingly not connected to the original event, aiming towards a level of predictive understanding is as close to stasis as one might get within this system.

So what does this have to do with families?

A family is a grouping of individuals with a shared culture and mores built upon shared values.  Those values, according to Mr. Weil are classified as Control, Relational and Developmental.  The qualities of these types of values are:

  • Control – Organizing, planning, managing risk
  • Relational – Harmony among people, intergenerational
  • Developmental – Learning, changing, evolution, transformation

“Basic beliefs and values that form its organisational culture are the parameters that will lead the company to its success (or not) in long term. Values will guide people’s behaviour and work conduct into achieving the desired results, just as do the attractors. There's a strong analogy between organisation values and strange attractors; both lead a system to its aimed status. The key question is how to build values within an organisation” Weil, Organizational Values as Attractors of Chaos

How these three value sets fit together is described in the graphic below.  Where values around control and the developmental values form what are identified as the relational values.  These three sets lead to creating the culture of the family or the family business.  So when there is conflict or inconsistencies between members in their values there is pressure put on the system to adjust the culture or to reinforce the culture of the family or the family business.


Why values act as a strange attractor with the family chaos system is because the values within each unique family or family business are so different AND because individuals are attracted to certain values at a greater level than other values within the same system YET when push comes to shove, at the end of the day, when critical decisions need to be made within the system the collective values are what people hang their hats on.

When I work with families I have the individuals articulate their personal values (what they fall back on when they have to make an important decision).  Then I have the family or the family business leaders walk around and see the values that the individuals have identified.  From this we pull out the overlapping values and those that may be in conflict with each other.  By doing this exercise we are able to see how values influence key decisions and what the default will be for the system.  For many who go through this exercise it is an ‘a-ha’ moment as it sheds light on the behaviour and the reaction that they see their family members and peers have when faced with some critical decisions.

Working from a starting point of values through to an end point of articulating security (financial, social, business, etc.) creates a stronger foundation, in my opinion, than when you start with an end point in mind (i.e. focusing on the financial stability).  I believe this because if you don’t know what your default values are, or what the default values are for the others in your sphere of influence you likely won’t be satisfied when external pressures come into play and challenge the values of the group or of yourself.

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Values Mentors
Gunther Weil
Purposeful Planning Institute
chaos theory