Complex adaptive systems: A new approach for understanding health practices

Timothy Gomersall

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

25 Citations (Scopus)


This article explores the potential of complex adaptive systems (CAS) theory to inform behaviour change research. A CAS describes a collection of heterogeneous agents interacting within a particular context, adapting to each other’s actions. In practical terms, this implies that behaviour change is (1) socially and culturally situated; (2) highly sensitive to small baseline differences in individuals, groups, and intervention components; and (3) determined by multiple components interacting ‘chaotically’. Two approaches to studying CAS are briefly reviewed. Agent-based modelling is a computer simulation technique that allows researchers to investigate ‘what if’ questions in a virtual environment. Applied qualitative research techniques, on the other hand, offer a way to examine what happens when an intervention is pursued in real-time, and to identify the sorts of rules and assumptions governing social action. Although these represent very different approaches to complexity, there may be scope for mixing these methods–for example, by grounding models in insights derived from qualitative fieldwork. Finally, I will argue that the concept of CAS offers one opportunity to gain a deepened understanding of health-related practices, and to examine the social psychological processes that produce health-promoting or damaging actions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)405-418
Number of pages14
JournalHealth Psychology Review
Issue number4
Early online date22 Jun 2018
Publication statusPublished - 2 Oct 2018


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