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Systems Thinking: Positive Feedback Loops

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One of the most important tools of thought that anyone can learn: “Systems Thinking.” I touched on this in yesterday’s post “And Then What.” I pointed out that when you take an action that impacts a system such as a human being, a family, or a country, it does not react in a mechanical way. 

Here are some examples. For many years, the United States and the USSR were involved in a cold war arms race. Every time the USSR added more nuclear missiles to their arsenal, the people in America felt less safe. Since they felt less safe, they increased their armaments. When the USA increased nuclear weapons, this made the Soviet Union feel less safe so they increased their arms again and so on. This is what is known in Systems Thinking as a “Positive Feedback Loop.” It is also popularly known as a “Vicious Circle” or “Vicious Cycle.” 

Let’s say that you are in pretty good shape physically and regularly run, play tennis, or work out. The more you exercise (up to a point), the better you feel. Feeling better makes you feel more like exercise and more exercise makes you feel better. People call this a “Virtuous Cycle” or “Virtuous Circle” because we think the outcome is good. But formally, it is the same kind of cycle. 

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The most important thing to recognize about a Positive Feedback Loop is that it can be run in either direction. At some point, the US reduced their nuclear arsenal and this decreased the perceived threat to folks in the Soviet Union so the soviets felt that they could also reduce their nuclear arsenal which in turn, made people in the US feel safer and led to further reductions and so on. 

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Similarly, if you stop exercising for a month, you will tend to feel pretty crappy. Feeling crappy makes you feel less like exercising and this in turn makes you exercise less which in turn makes you even more out of shape, feel worse and be even less likely to exercise. You can break such a “vicious circle” by starting to exercise – even it it’s just a little to start moving the circle in the “virtuous” direction. (Incidentally, that’s why I wrote “Fit in Bits” which describes many easy exercises to get you started). 

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“Vicious circles” also often cause disagreements to escalate into arguments and arguments into fights. Each person feels “obligated” not to “give in” and the nastier their opponent becomes, the nastier they become. 

“Fawlty Towers” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fawlty_Towers), a British sit-com uses “Positive Feedback Loops” in the escalating action of the comedy plots. John Cleese plays the co-owner Basil (with his wife, Sybil) of a small hotel. Typically, John Cleese makes some rather trivial but somewhat embarrassing mistake which he wants to hide from his wife. In the course of trying to cover up this rather small mistake, he has to lie, avoid, or obfuscate. This causes an even more egregious mistake which makes him even more embarrassed so he must result to still more outlandish lies and trickery in order to cover up the second mistake which in turn causes an even bigger mistake, and so on. 

That pattern of behavior reminds me of the current POTUS who is famously unable to admit to an error or lie and uses a second and bigger error or lie to try to cover up the first lie and so on. He seems, in fact, completely incapable of “systems thinking.” 


For example, he may see (and exaggerate) a real, but containable threat such as a trade deficit. He sees the US send more money out of the country than the US takes in from trade. That’s a legitimate issue. But the approach he takes is to ZAP the other parties by slapping on tariffs without any real appreciation of the fact that our trading partners are extremely unlikely to react to tariffs on their products by simply doing nothing. One could use logic, empathy, or a look at history to determine that what is much more likely is that the other countries will put tariffs on our goods (which, of course, is precisely what happened). 

Similarly, he demands absolute loyalty. He repeatedly puts himself and his own interests above the law, the Constitution, the good of the country and the good of his party. He expects everyone loyal to him to do the same. But he betrays these loyal appointees, friends, and wives whenever it suits him. He thinks he is being “smart” by doing what seems to be in his best interest at that moment. But what he fails to see is that by being disloyal to so many people who have been mainly loyal to him, he encourages his allies to only be loyal to him while it suits their interests.  

In the Pattern “Reality Check,” I point out that such behavior is an occupational hazard for dictators. Apparently, it can even be such a hazard for would-be dictators as well. By surrounding himself with those who always lie, cover for him, laud him, cater to his insane whims, etc., such a dictator (or would-be dictator) loses touch with what is really going on. He becomes more and more disconnected from sensible action yet those who remain loyal must say and do more and more outrageous things to keep the dictator from finding out just how bad things really are. Eventually, the Emperor with no clothes may die of hypothermia because no-one has the courage to tell him that he’s actually wearing no protection against the elements! 


Positive feedback loops exist in purely natural systems as well as biological and social systems. For example, increased global mean temperatures mean less arctic ice which means more solar radiation will be absorbed by the earth’s dark oceans rather than reflected back into space by the white ice and snow. This, of course, makes the earth hotter still. In addition, the thawing of tracts of arctic tundra also releases more methane gas into the atmosphere which is even more effective at trapping the earth’s heat than is carbon dioxide. Global climate change also makes forest fires more prevalent which directly spews more carbon dioxide into the air and reduces the number of trees that help mitigate the emissions of carbon dioxide by turning it into oxygen through photosynthesis.

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A concept closely related to “Vicious Cycles” is that of “Cognitive Dissonance.” Basically, people like to believe that they are honest and competent. Much like John Cleese (Basil) in Falwty Towers, once they do something dishonest or incompetent, their first reaction is not to believe that they did something dishonest or incompetent. They will now try to distort reality by misperceiving, mis-remembering, or distracting. 

For example, at the height of the Vietnam War, I was horrified at the beatings perpetrated by the police on peaceful protestors at the Democratic National Convention. I was also disturbed at the techniques the Democrats used at their convention to silence the voices of dissension within the convention. Candidate Nixon claimed he had a “secret plan” to end the War in Vietnam. I voted for Nixon. As it became clear that Nixon was a crook, I decided that I had made a mistake voting for the man. But I could have taken another path which would be to “double down” on the original mistake by continuing to support Nixon and dismiss all the growing evidence of his misdeeds. As his malfeasance became more and more egregious, it made the egregiousness of my original mistake of voting for him grow as well. So, it would be possible to become ever more invested in not believing the overwhelming evidence of his treachery. (Now, it turns out, it was even worse than we knew at the time. He actively thwarted the peace efforts of Johnson!). Perhaps because I’ve been trained as a scientist and science values the truth very highly, I did not fall prey to that particular instance of “Cognitive Dissonance.” I readily admitted it was a stupid mistake to vote for Nixon. 

Of course, today, we see many people not just backed into a corner to support the current POTUS but backed into a corner of a corner. Instead of believing that a liar is lying, they protect their “integrity” by insisting that everything and everyone else is lying: the newspapers, the reporters, his opposition, people in other countries, his former business partners, his former customers, the CIA, the FBI, the NSA. Ironically, for some people, it would be easier to admit that voting for a slightly inferior candidate was a mistake than to admit that voting for a hugely inferior candidate was a mistake. Voting for a slightly inferior candidate is easily understood but if they voted for a candidate that bad and bad in so many ways it was a huge error. And now, as each new revelation comes to light, it is more and more and more embarrassing to admit what a huge mistake it was.  

Another common example of a “Vicious Circle” is addiction. A small amount of alcohol, nicotine or heroine makes you feel better. But taking the drug increases your tolerance for it. So, next time, to feel better, you need to take a little more. Taking a little more increases your tolerance still further so now you need to take a still higher dosage in order to feel better. When you do, however, your tolerance increases still more. Whether it is drugs, gambling, addictive sex, or unbridled greed, the mechanism is the same. You need more and more and more over time due to the nature of the “Positive Feedback Loop.” 


A similar mechanism may be at work in the minds of apologists for the NRA (National Rifle Association). As more and more innocent people are killed partly because of easy access to guns, the mistake of supporting the NRA in their refusal to support mandatory vetting, training, and competency demonstrations for gun owners becomes an ever-more obviously egregious error. But, rather than making this more likely for supporters to admit to such an error and therefore change their position, every new slew of innocent children killed for no reason makes them actually less likely to change their position. According to Cognitive Dissonance, every such death makes their earlier decision worse – unless there is some counter-balancing argument. As the number of innocent deaths arises, and indeed, as more and more evidence of the perfidy of the NRA becomes clear, many who previously supported the NRA become ever more entrenched because they “buy into” the great value of unlimited access to guns ever more. Why? They continue their support because not to do so makes them complicit in more and more horrendous crimes.  

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If you can see such patterns in your own behavior and in others, you can better choose the correct course of action for yourself and be more thoughtful in how you communicate with others about their errors. Hint: Trying to make people feel more guilty for their stupid decisions will likely backfire. 

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