Human Synergetics

 N. Arthur Coulter, MD

A science of synergy has tremendous implications for mankind. From the standpoint of the individual, it will enable him to turn on the synergic mode whenever he chooses. More than this, it will enable him to stabilize in the synergic mode, so that he can be this way almost continuously. For himself, this will naturally lead to greater effectiveness and well-being.

From the standpoint of society, the implications of synergetics are even greater. Imagine a society in which everyone followed the Golden Rule, not because he was “trying to be good,” but because it was his nature to do so! The age-old dream of a true brotherhood of man would be a living reality.

But the implications of synergetics are even greater than this. We have thus far considered only the synergic mode as it manifests itself in individual human minds. But synergetics is potentially applicable to any complex system. In principle at least, it is possible for any such system to operate in the synergic mode.

This means, for example, that synergetics can be applied to small human groups. Even if some of the members of the group are not individually synergic, the group as a whole may operate in the synergic mode. Again, this sometimes happens naturally, for example in some athletic teams. But a science of synergy will enable any group that so chooses to achieve this state. This branch of synergetics may be called Group Synergetics.

Similarly, synergetics may be applied to larger groups, organizations, communities, even whole societies. Imagine a whole community operating in the synergic model The prospects are truly mind-boggling. Social Synergetics, although admittedly the most difficult, is probably the most important branch of synergetics.

Individual Synergetics, Group Synergetics and Social Synergetics, then, are three vitally important divisions of this field. Each can and necessarily will be developed separately. But the idea of synergy again applies. Each of these three branches can be applied in such a way that they mutually reinforce one another. Thus, for example, a group may more readily operate in the synergic mode if each member of the group is himself synergic. Conversely, being a member of a synergic group makes it easier for an individual to turn on the synergic mode. Similarly, synergic relations exist between Social Synergetics and Individual and Group Synergetics, respectively. The three together form a synergic whole.

Many other branches of synergetics are possible, of which one deserves special mention. It has often been noted that the increasing specialization in science (and other forms of human endeavor) creates problems of communication of growing severity. A need exists for generalists-people able to bridge the gap between fields. Synergetics, applied to the problem of integrating different fields of knowledge, may facilitate the work of generalists. We will not, however, consider this further here.

My original impetus for contributing to a science of synergy was the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which made it clear that war must be abolished. Some years later I was joined in this enterprise by a group of friends and colleagues-scientists, intellectuals, housewives, workers, persons from all walks of life. Together, we have tried to develop a science of synergy. A preliminary exposition of synergetics was published in 1955; but this book is a definitive presentation of what we and others have found thus far.

Techniques have been developed that enable a person of at least average intelligence and, self-honesty to turn on the synergic mode in himself. These techniques are relatively easy to learn and to use, requiring an effort comparable to that of learning to drive a car or to play simple pieces on a piano. Drugs or hypnosis are not used;, indeed, it is recommended that they not be combined with synergetics.

Techniques have also been developed for evoking the synergic mode in small human groups, and contributions have been made to the field of Social Synergetics.

It should be emphasized, however, that the importance of synergy has been recognized independently by other workers; indeed, in recent years there has been a burst of activity in this field. As already noted, the concept of synergy has long been used in medicine. An early pioneer in the application of the concept of synergy to sociology was the American sociologist Lester Ward. Ward used the term to denote the interaction of social forces that were in themselves destructive, but which through mutual checks and constraints had a constructive effect.

Another early pioneer in synergetics was Buckininster Fuller, whose concepts of anticipatory design for spaceship earth have inspired generations of students. Fuller emphasized the key role of synergy in producing a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Something new emerges-something that can exist only at the higher level of organization made possible by synergy. A musical chord, for example, is more than just several notes sounded together; it is an emergent whole, having a quality that is absent from the notes sounded separately. The pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, randomly arranged, are simply a collection of material objects. When they fit together, a new whole manifests itself in the painting—a whole that did not exist until the puzzle was “solved.” Similarly, when the synergic mode turns on in a human mind, a new, higher level of function comes into being. It is sometimes difficult to appreciate this later if the synergic mode turns off.

Another pioneer in synergetics was Ruth Benedict. In a series of unpublished lectures given at Bryn Mawr College in 1941, Benedict introduced the concepts of high synergy and low synergy. She defined these terms as follows: “I spoke of societies with high social synergy where their institutions insure mutual advantage from their undertakings, and societies with low social synergy where the advantage of one individual becomes a victory over another, and the majority who are not victorious must shift as they can.”

Benedict’s ideas were later rescued by Abraham Maslow, who preserved the only manuscript of her work. Maslow, one of the founders of humanistic psychology, did much to bring the concept of synergy to the attention of the literate public. His many other contributions are too well-known to need recounting here; but it is worth noting that such Maslowian ‘concepts as that of “selfactualization” and the “peak experience” aptly characterize major facets of what we here call the synergic mode.

Major progress in Social Synergetics has been made recently by several workers and groups. James and Marguerite Craig, social psychologists, have introduced the concept of synergic power as an alternative to coercive power and an antidote to the sense of powerlessness so many feel today. They show that power in itself is neither good nor bad; it depends on how it is used and what it is used for. More important, they show how it is possible for people who lack coercive-power or who dislike using it to create, develop and apply synergic power. They define synergic power as “the capacity of an individual or group to increase the satisfactions of all participants by intentionally generating increased energy and creativity, all of which is used to co-create a major rewarding present and future.” Some of their techniques are described later in this book.

Charles Hampden-Turner has applied the idea of synergy to the development of a strategy for poor Americans, which would enable them to bootstrap themselves out of their predicaments. Emphasizing that synergy is a complex idea with many facets, he selects three interdependent definitions that are mutually synergic:

(a) Synergy is the fusion between different aims and resources to create MORE between the interacting parties than they had prior to the interaction.

(b) Synergy is created by the resolution of apparent opposites and social contradictions.

(c) Synergy grows out of a dialectical and dialogical process of balance, justice, and equality, between persons or groups, and between the ideas and resources they represent; such synergy always exists on multiple levels.

He points out that the many facets of synergy are an advantage in a social situation, because each person or group can find at least one of these facets to relate to.

Among groups that emphasize synergy, there is first of all the Hawaiian Health Net, monitored by Walter and Nancy Strode. Formed in 1972, the net has grown rapidly, involving mainlanders

far away as the East Coast. Inspired by “the image of man-come-of age—man with knowledge of how his world works, man aware of his interdependence with the rest of life, man with a vision of becoming fully actualized, at-one, healthy, whole,” this evolving network has been trying to develop a new, positive concept of health-health as something more than the mere absence of disease. In conferences, workshops, and other modes of communication they are searching for synergies among various viewpoints as a means to this end.

Another group is the Committee for the Future, led by Barbara Marx Hubbard and John Whiteside. This group sponsors a new type of conference, called a SYNCON (standing for Synergistic Convergence). The basic idea is to eliminate the adversary mode of conflict resolution and replace it by a holistic approach that takes into due account the diverse interests and, as all participate in the decision-making process, creates a focus of hope. To facilitate the process, a large wheel is constructed, divided into segments within which participants having particular interests and skills may interact. Later, “the walls come down.” The first SYNCON was held at Southern Illinois University in 1972. Since then a growing number have been held in other cities.

Mention should also be made of the work of Donald Benson, Assistant Professor of Synergetics at Shaw University, on a synergetic approach to a learning society; Family Synergy, a California group pioneering in the development of synergic lifestyles, based on the idea of community rather than the “nuclear family”; and SYNERGY ACCESS, a newsletter/service monitored by Wes Thomas and devoted to facilitating communication and contact among people interested in synergy. The early 1970s have been marked by the independent discovery of the tremendous potential of synergy by a growing number of individuals and groups. If this trend continues, the 1970s may come to be known as the Synergic Decade, the beginning of a new Age of Synergy for humankind.

Indeed, synergy is of universal applicability. It can be applied not only to the human mind, but also to human groups, to organizations of all kinds, to industrial enterprises, to entire economic systems, to international relations, indeed, to any functioning system. Its basic characteristics of improving effectiveness by mutual aid, and of producing emergent wholes, can be brought about in every system to which it is applied.

From the standpoint of the original motivation of my research, it seems clear that think-feel synergy in the minds of the leaders of nations, and synergy among the interactions between nations, would lead to the abolition of war and the destruction of all nuclear weapons.


But the idea of synergy, itself, clearly is not enough. The leaders of nations pay lip service to international cooperation, but they still wage war. And in human organizations, groups, and the minds of individuals, synergy is a comparatively rare event.

What’s the problem? Why is synergy so difficult to achieve, and to maintain?

In basic terms, the reason for this is the existence of interactions that are the very opposite of synergy-interactions that promote one function but impede another. The system works against itself, tying up a great deal of energy with much spinning of wheels, grinding of gears, and gnashing of teeth. We refer to such a phenomenon as dysergy

The term “dysergy” is a coined word meaning “difficult working.” It is used in place of “conflict” because conflict is not necessarily dysergic. The conflict between athletes, for example, can at least sometimes challenge the competing athletes to peak performance. At other times, such conflict may be dysergic.

Dysergy is to be found everywhere in human activities. Few individuals are free of dysergy in their own minds. Some dysergy is present in even the most synergic human groups; and there is a lot of dysergy in almost every group. The organizations, institutions, economic systems, political entities, and other functional structures of mankind are all beset by dysergy in a variety of forms.

To achieve and maintain synergy, it is clearly necessary to eliminate dysergy-or at least to reduce it to manageable proportions. Accordingly, a considerable amount of research has been devoted to the development of ideas and techniques for the elimination of dysergy.

Synergetics may be defined as the art and science of producing synergy and reducing dysergy in complex systems. Applied to the minds of individuals, it enables people to live happier, more effective lives. Applied to groups, it promotes the development of a high degree of mutual understanding, trust, teamwork, and love. And while its application to larger institutions has been minimal to date, there is every reason to believe that highly rewarding results may be achieved.

Indeed, the combined process of producing synergy and reducing dysergy is itself synergic. For the more synergy is produced, the easier it is to reduce dysergy. Conversely, the more dysergy is reduced, the easier it is to produce synergy. A cycle can be set up which, if maintained, results in synergic growth and development.

The above passage is from Arthur Coulter’s Synergetics: An Adventure in Human Development. It will be published online early in 2002 by The Time-binding Trust.