Feedback Loops

A feedback loop is system where the output is fed back into the system as an input. They exist everywhere in nature, and they typically come in two flavours: positive feedback loops, which move things away from a state of equilibrium, and negative feedback loops, which work to preserve balance.

Positive feedback loops amplify a reaction. It’s apple-picking season in the northeast because of positive feedback loops. When an apple ripens, it emits ethylene gas. When an unripened apple is exposed to ethylene, it starts to ripen, and so it starts to emit ethylene, which makes other nearby apples start to ripen, and so on.

Negative feedback acts to minimize the effect of some stimulus. Your body reacts to changes in ambient conditions to maintain a remarkably stable 37°C body temperature: when you’re warm, you sweat, and the evaporation of sweat on your skin cools you down; if you’re cold, you shiver, and this rapid expansion and contraction of the muscles warms you up.

Such feedback loops also affect your outlook and your behaviour. We’re more likely to go on a shopping spree if we’ve already overspent on our budget. We’re less likely to succeed at a goal simply by being told often enough that we’re going to fail. Witnessing a random act of kindness encourages others to be thoughtful.

So maybe we can apply the principle of positive and negative feedback to feedback loops themselves.

Can we identify other positive and negative feedback loops in our lives?

Do we understand why they have a given effect on us?

Can we use feedback loops selectively, to amplify the behaviours you want to cultivate, and control those you want to quash?