Beware arch problems

July 13, 2019 by Joshua
in Visualization

“Arch problems” is my name for problems where their would-be solutions exacerbate the problem. Their cure is the disease.

parts of an arch

Why “arch”?

Arches in architecture are strong under pressure, supporting something. If you think an arch is weak and try to help it by supporting it, you weaken it, which may lead you to support it more.

This cycle of weakening it by supporting it more can lead to either the arch collapsing or you doing all the support for the arch.

They can be insidious because the more you try to help, the more they require your help.

You strengthen an arch by putting it under stress. Not too much.

There are lots of problems that show this pattern. I’ll list a few.

Helicopter parenting: thinking children are fragile leads some parents to protect their children from risk. That protection keeps them from developing resilience, grit, and other social and emotional skills, making them fragile. Parents take care of them more.

Running shoes: you may have had a different experience, but running shoes caused me back pain that went away when I switched to minimal shoes. I read that feet need to build their muscles to hold their arches’ shapes and to work effectively. Supporting your feet’s arches atrophies their muscles, which leads people to get more supportive shoes, exacerbating the problem.

Immune systems and allergies: if your immune system doesn’t face attacks, it doesn’t learn to fight them. Protect yourself too much from disease and your body doesn’t learn to protect itself, requiring more care, which keeps it from facing attacks.

Some would say welfare: helping people may lead them to become dependent on your help.

Some would say foreign aid: helping nations may lead them to become dependent on your help.

Traffic: You sit in traffic thinking if they widened the road traffic could flow. Maybe for a few days or months. Over the past century we learned that increasing traffic capacity leads to more traffic in the long run. What people think cures the problem exacerbates it and the resulting extra roads and congestion plague us for centuries.

Energy security: First, I recommend reading this article on energy security Keeping Some of the Lights On: Redefining Energy Security from one of my favorite sites. Creating a goal of nearly perfect availability of energy leads people to depend on energy always being available, which increases demand for energy, which makes energy security harder. The intended cure for security reduces security. Relying less on energy increases security and lowers demand, saving money.

I’ll list more as I think of them. If you think of others, let me know.

A common element seems resilient systems, though maybe not universal. Hypothesis: if a system is resilient, stressing it may increase its resilience. Some stress may be necessary.


EDIT: A reader wrote:


Homelessness is caused by the lack of a large (some would say outsized) profit motive in building affordable homes, thus exacerbating the affordability of homes for all classes of people — which in turn exacerbates the lack of affordable homes at the bottom — you can see the vicious circle.

Convincing home builders to build more affordably would be the keystone in the arch. In the 50s and 60s, the US government gave builders subsidies for building affordable housing for vets returning from war. Builders chose to build homes that were poorly constructed without much attention to architectural design in the suburbs of the US. These homes are now falling apart. Is there a solution to this problem of large profit motives?

There are two problems to be untangled here. They both have to do with the profit motive in construction and the lack of monitoring of the use of government funds for building projects. For example, the city of Kingston spent a lot of money on a much-needed parking garage that collapsed (no one was hurt) a few years later. Perhaps we all need to become builders again.


I emailed her to clarify the difference between vicious cycles in general and arch problems — a specific type of vicious cycle. The problem she describes looks like the former.

Regarding becoming a nation of builders again, I agree and recommend my podcast episode 138: A National Civilian Service Academy.

EDIT 2: By chance I found this quote from Victor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning:

“If architects want to strengthen a decrepit arch, they increase the load which is laid upon it, for thereby the parts are joined more firmly together. So if therapists wish to foster their patients’ mental health, they should not be afraid to increase that load through a reorientation toward the meaning of one’s life.”

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