What is Catataxis?

What is Catataxis? It is the confusion between levels and comes from two greek words. The first “kata” meaning down or through as in catastrophe or cataclysm. The second “taxis” meaning rank or level as in taxonomy (yes, a taxi rank literally means rank rank). So catataxis is a confusion or breakdown between hierarchical levels. Catataxis is the noun, catataxic the adjective, and catataxia the plural noun, implying a general condition.

When things get bigger, they change in nature. Another way to put this is “more of the same is different”. If you can’t see the wood for the trees, then you are unable to make the conceptual shift up one level. You are suffering from catataxia. By looking at the detail you miss the big picture. If you try to use your level one analysis at level two, that is catataxis:  the misuse of a rule in its wrong hierarchical context.

If that all sounds a bit abstract, here are some other examples:

You are not stuck in traffic. You are traffic. This popular bumper sticker is a good illustration of catataxis. In your car, you see things from a personal perspective, but if you go up one level and see it from a general perspective then you realise that your car is causing as much of a problem as everyone else’s. That perspective shift from the personal to the communal is a change in levels. So complaining about traffic while being it  is a catataxic fallacy; you have been unable to make that shift.

The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of a million is a mere statistic. This was reputedly Stalin’s favourite motto.  His point was that beyond a certain scale it is not really possible to feel human emotions any more. As the number of people involved in a tragedy gets bigger, our emotions shift from empathy (feeling the pain of a single, poor victim) to sympathy (feeling sorry for them all in general) to indifference.

Food aid causes famine. This is a more contentious one. On a human level, if I have a full plate and your are staving then I will of course share my food with you. That is obviously the right thing to do. But at a national or economic level, then it is the wrong thing to do. If you dump free grain into a market you remove any incentive for the local farmers to grow any crops. That means that there will be no food next year.  You make them dependent on charity. So the right thing at level 1 ( human level) is the wrong  thing at level 2  (economic level). That is an example of catataxis.

Economic slump? Start saving ! In an economic downturn it makes sense for individuals (level 1) to stop spending and start saving money. After all, its quite likely they might lose their jobs. But the state (level 2) should start spending money to boost the economy. That’s the basis of Keynesian economics.  Again,  the right thing at level 1  is the wrong  thing at level 2 . So it is another example of catataxis.

Britain wants Brexit. Scotland wants independence. This is a political example of catataxis.  The hierarchy here is Scotland (level 1 with 5 m citizens), which is part of the United Kingdom (level 2 with 60 m citizens), which in turn is part of the European Union (level 3 with 750m ). Britain wants to leave the EU but keep Scotland subordinate. But there is a certain degree of hypocrisy here as the arguments that Britain use against being part of a larger union are the same as those that Scotland uses against the United Kingdom. We can extend the example further down the ladder by looking at London which voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU. So the idea was floated that London should exit Britain to become an independent City State like Singapore,  but part of a larger regional EU structure.

You can divide many things up into hierarchical levels. Each one is made up of the one below. But even though it consists of the same stuff, it is different. Or at least it needs to be approached with a different  analytical toolbox.  Consider the following:

subatomic particle > atom > molecule > molehill > mountain > planet > galaxy > universe

city state> nation state> EU > UN

pn junction > transistor > microchip > motherboard > PC > operating system > word processor > this sentence

facts > story > spin doctor

organ > organism > population

stock price > Dow Jones Index > index futures

transaction > company > economy

The rules and assumptions that apply at one level should not be used at another level. Quantum Physics is great for understanding sub atomic particles but Newton’s Laws are more useful when considering billiard balls. Microeconomics and macroeconomics are very separate disciplines which often come to conflicting conclusions.

Consider this chain of disciplines: physics > chemistry > biology > psychology.

Physics studies atoms.
Chemistry studies the molecules made from atoms.
Biology examines creatures made from molecules.
Psychology probes the mind of creatures.

Does that mean that chemistry is just a subset of physics ? Or that psychology is just applied biology? I don’t think so. Each discipline has its own rules and analytical techniques which are appropriate only to its own field. So despite the fact that the human brain is made up of sub atomic particles, your shrink is unlikely to be consulting a physics textbook when listening to your problems. If you ever catch him doing it, you can tell him that he has committed a catataxic error.

Things change when they get bigger. A small company is very different from a big company as anyone who has worked for one knows. In a big company different values become important and different skills are required to succeed. Its not just a difference in scale, it’s a different creature altogether. In a small company, relations are informal and human. In a big company, they are much more impersonal and bureaucratic.


Disorders of Magnitude – the 5 Maxims of Catataxis

Disorders of Magnitude – The Five Maxims of Catataxis 

Catataxis is another way of saying “disorders of magnitude” and they can be summed up in these five maxims:


The first of the disorders of magnitude is that when things get bigger they suffer a reversal in virtue. Another way of saying this is that what is good for the individual may be bad for the collective (and vice versa). So, for example, individual thrift is a virtue but ( according to Keynes, anyway) government thrift is a vice. Governments need to spend money to stimulate the economy. Another example would be a democracy – individuals need to sacrifice their rights to the wishes of the majority. The government can legitmately act against the interest of some people when they are in the minority. In biology, predators kill weak members of the herd, thereby strengthening the overall group both cumulatively and genetically. In economics, this phenomenon is known as the  tragedy of the commons


The second of the disorders of magnitude is a reversal in randomness. This is sometimes called the law of large numbers. Random events at the micro level create predictable patterns at the macro level. Most of statistical theory is based on this principle. The bell curve arises from seeming chaos.

The more disagreement there is on one level, the more likely there is to be calm and stability on the level above. This is best summed up in the saying “still waters run deep“. A calm surface often masks a roiling torrent underneath. A stock market is a good example of this. Large trading volumes indicate that there is plenty of disagreement between buyers and sellers – that’s why so many transactions are taking place. But the net result is that  all the buying and selling cancels itself out and the overall market  only moves a little. Conversely, when everyone is of the same opinion (no disagreement on level one) you tend to get big lurches and market crashes. Politically speaking, this maxim is summed up in the motto “divide and rule“.


This is a more sophisticated way of saying more of the same is different, or “two’s company, three’s a crowd“. Think of how hopelessly inefficient government IT initiatives can be, or the ridiculous outcomes of defence procurement processes. When things get bigger, it’s not just the scale that changes.  Many other characteristics change dramatically too. If you have ever worked in both a small company and a big company, you will know what this means.


Over time, things tend to get bigger and clump together. The river of history is a grouping vector. Multicellular creatures arise from single cell organisms. City states band together to become countries, tribes become nations. Individuals with grievances band together to form lobby groups.  Flocking and clumping arise over time as a natural phenomenon. A loose grouping today often moves up a level to form a single, focussed unit tomorrow.


Once the scale increases, the only way a human brain can function is by categorising things. The documents in your computer (or office) are organised into files. Individuals get ethnically stereotyped. Living things are classified into species. Junk Bonds and CDOs are certified as investment grade by ratings agencies.  When you file something, it ceases to be anything other than the name you filed it under. All other distinguishing information is lost. This can be the source of a lot of errors, especially if you put it in the wrong file…

John Brodie Donald

John Brodie DonaldJohn Brodie Donald spent 20 years as an investment banker in the Far East and Europe. He ran his own Scotch Whisky company for a number of years and now works as a consultant with Quadrant Four Risk .

He is currently working on a book about the theory risk management that aims to summarise the key principles of that discipline across all risk arenas: physical, cyber, geopolitical and financial.

His first book – Catataxis – was published in October 2011 by Quartet Books. His second book – Bolt from the Blue – was published by Elliott and Thompson in 2013. He lives in Sevenoaks, Kent


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