Is Society caught up in a Death Spiral? Modeling Societal Demise and its Reversal
Just like an army of ants caught in an ant mill, individuals, groups and even whole societies are sometimes caught up in a death spiral, a vicious cycle of self-reinforcing dysfunctional behavior characterized by continuous flawed decision making, myopic single- minded focus on one (set of) solution(s), denial, distrust, micromanagement, dogmatic thinking and learned helplessness. We propose the term Death Spiral Effect to describe this difficult to break downward spiral of societal decline. Specifically, in the current theory-building review we aim to: (1) more clearly define and describe the death spiral effect; (2) model the downward spiral of societal decline as well as an upward spiral; (3) describe how and why individuals, groups and even society at large might be caught up in a death spiral; and (4) offer a positive way forward in terms of evidence-based solutions to escape the death spiral effect. Management theory hints on the occurrence of this phenomenon and offers turn-around leadership as solution. On a societal level strengthening of democracy may be important. Prior research indicates that historically, two key factors trigger this type of societal decline: (1) rising inequalities creating an upper layer of elites and a lower layer of masses, and (2) dwindling (access to) resources. Historical key markers of societal decline are government overreach, overintegration (interdependencies in networks) and a rapidly decreasing trust in institutions and resulting collapse of legitimacy. Important issues that we aim to shed light on are the behavioral underpinnings of decline, as well as the question if and how societal decline can be reversed. We explore the extension of these theories from the company/organization level to the society level, and make use of insights from both micro-, meso-, and macro-level theories (e.g., collapsology, the study of the risks of collapse of industrial civilization) to explain this process of societal demise. Our review draws on theories such as Social Safety Theory, Conservation of Resources Theory, and management theories that describe the decline and fall of groups, companies and societies, as well as offer ways to reverse this trend.