Applied Psychology

The Ecological Systems Theory and Human Behaviour

Nov 01, 2022 | By Jenna Van Schoor
The Ecological Systems Theory and Human Behaviour - Global SACAP

Psychology offers many different ways to understand human behaviour. One way is to use theoretical frameworks to make sense of things. This includes the Ecological Systems Theory that Urie Bronfenbrenner developed.

This framework emerged in the 1970s as a response to other theories of childhood development. Bronfenbrenner felt other theories were limited, so he developed a more holistic approach to understanding what factors influence childhood development.

In this post, we’ll discuss this theory, how it relates to human behaviour, and its relevance today. But firstly, we’ll discuss why understanding human behaviour is beneficial in the first place.

Why study human behaviour?

Human beings are incredibly complex, so understanding our behaviour requires a multifaceted approach. One theory alone might not fully explain how we tick, but holistic frameworks can provide us with helpful tools for understanding ourselves.

The Ecological Systems Theory looks at what range of influences might affect a child’s development. This is similar to how an ecologist would study the different elements in nature that affect the functioning of the environment.

Ecology is defined as the study of how organisms relate to one another and their physical surroundings; this process is equally applicable to human beings.

What is Ecological Systems Theory?

Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory responded to theories of childhood development that didn’t take into account all of the influential factors in a child’s environment. Bronfenbrenner argued that to understand development, you can’t study behaviour in isolation in a laboratory, separated from systemic influences in the real world. His approach was to study the bi-directional relationships within a living and evolving system.

For example, instead of only studying how a child reacts to a parent or stranger in a laboratory setting, you also study how the child influences the parent or stranger in this setting too. In this way the theory focuses on both mono and bi-directional influence when studying behaviour and when using theoretical models to better understand an individual’s development in the real world.

To get a better idea of how this theory works, it’s helpful to look at a diagram of the theory. In this diagram, there are concentric circles that represent influences on the child. These start with the child in the centre, surrounded by the microsystem. From there, the microsystem interacts with the mesosystem, and the following concentric circles after that include the exosystem, the macrosystem and the chronosystem.

The five ecological systems of Bronfenbrenner’s theory

Each one of these circles represents a “layer” of influence on childhood development.

  • Microsystem: this is the most influential layer, and includes family, school, church, peers and other environments where the child spends a lot of time.
  • Mesosystem: this layer represents the interaction between the microsystem and the exosystem.
  • Exosystem: this layer includes external influences such as the child’s family’s socio-economic situation, relationships with extended family and neighbours and the government.
  • Macrosystem: one of the outer concentric circles, this layer represents the attitudes and ideologies of the society or culture that the child is being raised in.
  • Chronosystem: finally, the last layer is concerned with environmental changes that occur throughout the child’s life, which could include life changes like divorce.

How does it affect human behaviour?

The Ecological Systems Theory doesn’t affect human behaviour per se, but it provides a helpful framework for understanding the different elements that can affect a child’s development.

For example, if a child experiences neglect, or is rejected by its peers, this can lead to a negative effect on self-esteem (from the microsystem). The opposite is true if a child experiences positive reinforcement. If we look at the macrosystem, a child brought up in a very strict religious culture will likely have a different experience than a child brought up in a secular and more liberal environment.

These concentric circles are not a blueprint for how a child should or shouldn’t develop, it just provides a framework for taking into account the various influences that can impact development. While this theory focuses on children, it could also be tweaked to understand adult behaviour.

This can be done by replacing elements within the diagram with those relevant to the individual at a given time. For example, the microsystem could include factors like work and a spouse, instead of school and a person’s family of origin (which may have less impact on an individual as they mature). The bi-directional relationship of elements in each of the concentric circles also needs to be considered.

Is the Ecological Systems Theory still relevant?

Bronfenbrenner later revised his original Ecological Systems Theory and renamed it the Bioecological Model. This revision focused on the role of the individual in their own development, instead of only on external influencing factors.

Therefore, Bronfenbrenner’s theory was a work in progress that was constantly updated as new research was done. Bronfenbrenner passed away in 2005, but this theory, in all its various forms, is still relevant today. This is because it has laid a foundation for understanding human behaviour in terms of the role an individual plays in their own growth, as well as the role of various external influences in shaping an individual’s development.

How is this approach relevant in the workplace?

As with many other theoretical frameworks, it’s possible to take the Ecological Systems Theory and apply it in the workplace. By studying foundational theories about developmental psychology, we can start to understand ourselves and our colleagues better. When we see how everyone is a result of many influencing factors, we can figure out how best to work with others. We can also gain a deeper appreciation for the skills we need to learn to function better in a work environment and be more productive or more compassionate towards others.

If we take inspiration from the ecological frameworks we’ve just discussed, we can also look at the broader influences that can impact the growth of a company as a whole. By taking the revised Bioecological Model into account, we can look at everyone in the company, and better understand how they can chart their own growth. To give a practical example, this could help to create constructive skills development plans that take an individual’s developmental history into account.

As you can see, there are many exciting possibilities when it comes to applying psychological concepts in professional and personal settings. If you are interested in learning more about why we think, feel and behave the way we do, take a look at our flexible short courses.

Register for a short course grounded in Applied Psychology

If the Ecological Systems Theory and the Bioecological Model have piqued your interest, there is much more to learn about human behaviour with SACAP Global.

We offer various specialised short courses that are embedded in Applied Psychology theory. To learn more about human behaviour and theoretical frameworks, we recommend the following:

Both specialised short courses will help you gain a better understanding of human behaviour. The courses are classified as micro-credentials which means that they can be completed as stand-alone credentials or stacked. To find out more about what else we offer, contact us at [email protected] or browse our full list of courses.

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