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@Clues 2024

The Ecological Systems Model of the Mind

"Development never takes place in a vacuum; it is always embedded and expressed through behavior in a particular environment." -- Urie Bronfenbrenner

The ecological systems theory in psychology, developed by Urie Bronfenbrenner in the 1970s, is essentially a way to look at how a person's environment affects their development and life. Picture it like a series of concentric circles, each representing a different layer of environment, and you're in the center.

The innermost circle is the 'microsystem', your immediate environment like family, school, or work. The next layer is the 'mesosystem', which is how these immediate environments interact with each other - for instance, how your parents interact with your teachers.

The 'exosystem' is the next circle and it includes things you're not directly part of, but that still impact you - like your parent's workplace. The 'macrosystem' is the broad societal context - culture, politics, economy etc. Finally, the 'chronosystem' encompasses changes over time, including personal and societal events.

Bronfenbrenner’s theory has been very influential, especially in understanding child development. It emphasizes that it's not just personal qualities, but also their environment that shapes a person's development.

A real-life example would be a kid who's struggling in school. If you look only at the kid (microsystem), you might think it's just because they're lazy. But the ecological systems theory would urge us to consider other factors - perhaps their parents are divorcing (mesosystem), or their mom lost her job (exosystem), or they've recently moved to a new city (macrosystem/chronosystem).

So, the ecological systems theory is like a reminder to see the bigger picture in understanding human behavior. It's not just about the person, but also their ever-changing interaction with the world around them.


We can use hypothetical example to demonstrate the 5 different layers of the ecological system in action. Let's call him John.


  • Family: John's parents are supportive and encourage his interests, which boosts his self-esteem.
  • School: John's teacher doesn't understand his learning style, which leads to him struggling with his grades.
  • Peers: John's friends are sports enthusiasts, which motivates him to stay physically active.

Mesosystem: This is about connections between different microsystems.

  • John's parents meet his teacher to discuss his learning difficulties, leading to an improvement in his grades.
  • John's friends' influence makes him more interested in joining a school sports team.


  • John's father's workplace: The company is going through layoffs, which causes stress at home, indirectly affecting John.
  • Community health services: A local mental health initiative provides counseling that helps John manage stress from school.


  • Cultural values: John lives in a society that values academic achievement, causing him to feel pressured to get good grades.
  • Economic conditions: A recession might lead to reduced funding for John's school, affecting the quality of education he receives.


  • Personal changes: John's transition from childhood to adolescence brings new psychological and physical changes.
  • Societal changes: The COVID-19 pandemic leads to John's school shifting to online learning, which affects his education and social life.

These examples are just a drop in the ocean of possible influences on John's development. The ecological systems theory helps us remember that development is complex and influenced by many interconnected factors.

Important People in the Ecological Systems Model

These figures recognize that a person's development is not just about their individual traits, but also their environment and the interaction between the two. They have each contributed to our understanding of this complex interplay in their unique ways.

  1. Urie Bronfenbrenner: Bronfenbrenner is the founder of the Ecological Systems Theory. He proposed that human development is shaped by five interconnected environmental systems: microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, macrosystem, and chronosystem.
  2. Stephen J. Ceci: A student of Bronfenbrenner, Ceci expanded on the ecological systems theory with his "Bioecological Model of Intelligence," which considers both environmental and biological factors in shaping cognitive development.
  3. Roger Barker: Although not directly linked to Bronfenbrenner's theory, Barker's work in environmental psychology laid the groundwork for the ecological systems theory. He proposed that behavior is greatly influenced by 'behavior settings' - the immediate social and physical environment.
  4. James Garbarino: Garbarino's work on child abuse and youth violence aligns with the ecological systems theory as he emphasizes the role of societal, community, and familial influences on children's well-being.
  5. Richard Lerner: Lerner's work on positive youth development fits with the ecological systems theory's perspective that development is influenced by interactions between individuals and their environments. He focuses on how supportive, engaging environments promote positive development in youth.

Questions for Self-Inquiry

  1. Microsystem: What are the immediate relationships or environments that most influence my daily life? (Family, friends, work, school, etc.)
  2. Mesosystem: How do these environments interact with each other? For example, how does my relationship with my family influence my performance at work or school?
  3. Exosystem: Are there any environments that I'm not directly part of, but still impact me? For instance, how does my partner's work environment affect my life?
  4. Macrosystem: How do broader societal constructs like culture, politics, or economic conditions influence my behavior or attitudes?
  5. Chronosystem: How have major life events or societal changes over time affected my development?
  6. In which of these systems do I feel the most comfortable and why?
  7. Are there any conflicts between these systems? For instance, do my cultural values conflict with my personal beliefs or desires?
  8. How have the influences of these systems changed as I've grown older?
  9. How have my reactions to these systems (resilience, adaptation, resistance) shaped who I am today?
  10. Are there changes I can make in any of these systems to better support my wellbeing or personal growth?