Bathtub Dynamics:

Initial Results of a Systems Thinking Inventory

Linda Booth Sweeney

Linda_Booth_Sweeney "at"


John D. Sterman

MIT Sloan School of Management

jsterman "at"


Booth Sweeney, L. and J. D. Sterman (2000). Bathtub Dynamics: Initial Results of a Systems Thinking Inventory.
System Dynamics Review 16(4): 249-294.


In a world of accelerating change, educators, business leaders, environmentalists and scholars are calling for the development of systems thinking to improve our ability to take effective actions. Through courses in the K-12 grades, universities, business schools, and corporations, advocates seek to teach people to think systemically. These courses range from one-day workshops with no mathematics to graduate level courses stressing formal modeling. But how do people learn to think systemically? What skills are required? Does a particular type of academic background improve one’s ability to think systemically? What systems concepts are most readily understood? Which tend to be most difficult to grasp? We describe initial results from an assessment tool or systems thinking inventory. The inventory consists of brief tasks designed to assess particular systems thinking concepts such as feedback, delays, and stocks and flows. Initial findings indicate that subjects from an elite business school with essentially no prior exposure to system dynamics concepts have a poor level of understanding of stock and flow relationships and time delays. Performance did not vary systematically with prior education, age, national origin, or other demographic variables. We hope the inventory will eventually provide a means for testing the effectiveness of training and decision aids used to improve systems thinking skills. We discuss the implications of these initial results and explore steps for future research.

The full paper is available here.


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