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Feedback loops for control

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Feedback loops for control

Scott Miker

Systems thinking uses feedback loops to describe many structures in life. We experience feedback loops when we make good decisions and bad decisions.

Feedback loops are structures where the output of a system is fed back into the input. This, then, goes through the system again to be converted to an output. This output will then likely be put back into the system as an input. This can continue on and on and magnify the output.

Sometimes this is used to balance the system. In a balancing feedback loop, the output is used to limit the input to adjust the system. If we haven’t eaten in a while our body starts to prompt us to eat. Our empty stomach starts to generate a specific pain that we all know means we are hungry. It balances our eating to make sure we don’t starve ourselves unintentionally.

But there is another type of feedback loop also. According to Donella Meadows in her book, Thinking in Systems, A Primer, “The second type of feedback loop is amplifying, reinforcing, self-multiplying, snowballing – a vicious circle that can cause healthy growth or runaway destruction. It is called a reinforcing feedback loop.”

We tend to notice these when things start to get out of control. We might look back and see a series of incidents that drive us backwards. We may call it a downward spiral.

Many times we don’t see our own part in the system. We see that we had an assignment for work that we stayed up late to complete. Then we went to bed late. This caused us to oversleep. Then we had to rush to get to work. The rushing meant we drove faster and less cautiously so when the car in front of us slammed on their brakes for a squirrel we didn’t stop in time, causing an accident.

We can certainly point to aspects of the feedback loop that weren’t under our control. Most people, in an attempt to save face, only look at those external factors. They don’t see how they were the ones reacting from each of those external factors.

They were the reason the assignment was completed late and they went to bed late. They were the reason they had to rush. Yet there are enough external factors at play, that we can completely ignore our own fault and instead focus on what happened to us.

Feedback loops are a great example of this thinking. The more we tend to think externally for excuses the unhappier we will likely be. We will constantly feel as though we are the victims not the one in control.

But we need to be able to break out of this feedback loop in order to gain control of our lives. We have to start seeing these feedback structures to see that a decision we make impacts other areas. Combined with a few bad external factors and we could create a very negative situation.

But if we can identify the feedback loop, we can break ourselves from feeding into it and change our behavior. If we are running late for work we have other options. Even if we go through this whole ordeal, we can then look to institute better practices in the future that won’t create this situation, such as getting the assignment done earlier and not waiting until the night before.

But most people don’t associate their decision to delay working on the project until the night before with the car accident. In their world those are completely different, not related at all.

But that is exactly why they gave up control. They don’t realize that their decisions create these structures that are more likely to produce negative outcomes. If we adjust our perspective to see these, then we can change how we interact with the world and gain the control that we are missing.