Defined Words: feedback loop, positive feedback loop, negative feedback loop
We’ll start out by defining both words of the term. “Feedback” is any stimulus as the result of an action. If the action is letting go of a ball, the feedback is watching it fall; if the action is touching a hot stove, the feedback is pain. A “loop” is a continuous cycle, but you probably already knew that if you eat cereal for breakfast. Putting the words together, a feedback loop is a continuous cycle of action, result, action… result, action, result, action.
There are two types of feedback loops; we call one positive and the other negative. Feedback loops are so common that we can explain both within a single example: eating cake. When you take the first bite of cake, the action, you realize that it’s delicious, the result. Because it was so delicious, you’ll want to take another bite of cake. This describes a positive feedback loop: the result encourages another action to occur.
You now know that the cake is delicious and the new goal is to transfer it to your senses as much as possible. You’ll keep eating that cake until the piece has been fully eaten. That is a negative feedback loop: an action that continues until a specific result is attained. In this example, you attained the result of eating the whole piece.
We find these feedback loops throughout nature and society. Let’s look at a few more examples to solidify the idea. Let’s say you have two dogs, Lily and Spike. Spike thinks he heard something outside so he starts to bark. Spike’s barking makes Lily think there is something to bark at so she starts barking. Spike now realizes that Lily is barking too so he is reassured in his barking and continues doing it. Positive feedback loop.
Let’s say that the dogs stop barking and come to you to beg for a treat. You think they’re cute and give them each a cookie. Their expressed happiness at receiving a cookie might make you want to give them another. Positive feedback loop.
Let’s say you come inside your house on a cold day and your thermostat reads 60 ºF. You decide to switch on the heat and set it to 70 ºF. The heater will begin pumping out warm air until the temperature has reached 70 ºF. If the temperature drops back down to 69 ºF, the heater will turn on again. Negative feedback loop.
On this cold day, you decide to make some hot chocolate. You pour a little milk in it to smooth it out but it’s not smooth enough for you. You decide to pour more milk until you are satisfied with the smoothness. Negative feedback loop.
“Tundra” is the word we give to dirt that has frozen water in it; it exists in some of the coldest parts of our planet. The tundra contains some carbon dioxide that is trapped inside. We know that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas as it traps in some of the energy from the sun. As temperatures on the planet rise, more tundra melts which releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The extra carbon dioxide will help to increase the temperature even more which will melt even more tundra, releasing even more carbon dioxide. Positive feedback loop.
Let’s say you’re down on your luck, bad stuff keeps on happening to you and it has really affected your confidence. You go out on a date to boost your confidence but because you’re so down on yourself, your date doesn’t want you to walk them home; this doesn’t make the next date easier. Positive feedback loop. The term “sabotaging yourself” is just another way to describe a feedback loop. They are everywhere! The better able you are at recognizing them, the better chance you have to stop harmful loops and start beneficial ones.