Behavioral feedback loops

We’ve all heard that horrible screech from a PA system that results when you get the microphone too close to the speakers. It’s called a feedback loop, and it happens when the current output of an event can impact the future iteration of that event. On a PA system, a sound from the speaker is picked up on the microphone, amplified by the system and output by the speaker, now louder. And the microphone picks it up again, sends to the system for amplification before being output by the speaker, and so on. The result is that horrible screech.

Audio feedback loops are perhaps the ones we’re most familiar with, but I was thinking the other day about how a number of things can be considered behavioral feedback loops. Basically, anything that each time you do it, it becomes easier (or harder) to do in the future.

Whether a feedback loop is a good thing or a bad thing is usually dependent on which side of the loop you’re on.

For example, compound interest can be thought of as a good feedback loop: each payout of interest adds to your balance and increases the amount of interest you’ll earn in the successive period. On the flipside, if you’re paying a loan and you don’t pay at least the interest each period (such as a negative amortization loan), then compound interest is definitely NOT your friend.

I think fitness is a feedback loop too: the more fit you are, the more enjoyable and rewarding working out is, and the easier it is to stay fit. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true: the more out of shape you are, the harder it is to work out and keep at it until you reach your desired fitness level.

A final example: confidence. The more confidence you exhibit in general, the greater your likelihood of success. And the more you succeed, the more your confidence will grow. On the flipside, a lack of confidence (aka desperation) will inhibit your success at every turn, only making it harder for you to build confidence.

Addictions are an example of feedback loops: you become more and more dependent on something each time you do it, which makes it harder and harder to resist doing in the future.

Feedback loops are powerful because they build on themselves, growing stronger and more powerful with each step, usually until you reach a plateau of some kind. If it’s a good plateau, we call it “maxing out”. If it’s a bad one, we call it “bottoming out”.

If you’re in a good feedback loop, then you have it easy: just keep going. But what if you’re caught in a bad feedback loop?

You have three choices:

1. Wait until you hit rock bottom – generally a bad option, because it’s often further down than you realize, and the damage can be permanent.

2. Mount a herculean effort – sometimes possible, but it depends on where you are in the feedback loop. Almost never a sustainable form of change.

3. Change the context – To stop an audio feedback loop, you have to change the system in some way: kill the power, cut the levels, etc. Often you have to do the same with a behavioral feedback loop: throw out all the junkfood in your house, cut up the credit cards, etc.

4. Get help – This might come in concert with the first three. In many cases, escaping a feedback loop will be difficult or impossible without external support, motivation, and encouragement.

What feedback loops have you noticed in your own life, and how have you used or defeated them?