It is important to distinguish between the distinct yet related notions of attractors as they are precisely understood in mathematical models and the conceptual application of similar ideas human beings and their organizing systems.
Attractors that are discussed in mathematics capture the mid twentieth century discovery that even deterministic models, most often iterative models, but also in some cases continuous models, with multiple variables or dimensions exhibit a surprising property: as the values of the dimensions unfold over many time periods, they can sometimes converge to a single value along some dimensions and at the same time continue to diverge along others.
An example of this phenomenon are the hexagonal cells which emerge in Rayleigh-Bénard convection cells. Although the hexagonal shape can be recognized and persists, the details are continuously changing and forever evolving. These are called “dissipative structures” since the dissipate excess energy more quickly.
This means that although the behavior of these systems have a recognizable “form” in some ways, the values of the system of variables never really repeats itself. The system as a whole has emergent order that cannot be reduced to its constituent parts.
The system is never really the same. The behavior of some dimensions of the “system of variables” can be recognized even though taken together, the underlying values of all of the variables are always combined differently.
This realization shows how order can emerge at a higher level of scale even though the details never settle into the same form. One can recognize a form, a “road” for example, but the details are always and forever different.
One way to interpret this in everyday language is that for a given phenomenon, some dimensions might become simple and predictable while at the same time others remain unpredictable, even infinite. One can make use of these predictable dimensions even though they do not reflect the details of the system. This is why a road is perceived as flat, even though it really isn’t which becomes very clear when you scrape your knee. Those dimensions that are predictable form a recognizable pattern within which one can be reasonable comfortable that the multi-dimensional variable can be found.
The challenge for individuals is to determine when it is reasonable to ignore the details and focus only on the pattern.
Attractors Can Be Used as a Framing Device
In social systems this general idea of the “attractor” is used to make sense of organizing. There are two reasonably rigorous conceptual models.
The first we call ecosystem attractors like the comfortable shaded area in the accompanying image. These are presented in organizational contexts as opportunities that “attract” individual agents.
The second are called structural attractors which, by there very presence, influence agent interactions during organizing. An example, of this might be a warehouse which becomes a center of organized human activity.