What are feedback loops?
Feedback loops have been unknowingly dictating parts of my life – for years in fact! I only discovered the term and began to unearth my own feedback loops this year, and thought it would make for a good post for the site. Feedback loops happen when something we do, the action, creates the effect, and this effect feeds back into the original action in some way. The effect can either have a positive effect on the action – by making it more efficient, easier to achieve, a better starting point – or it can have a negative impact on the action by doing the opposite.
When did I notice them?
Earlier this year I went on a holiday with my partner and her family. I had recently bought my first film camera, the Pentax K1000, to start taking photos for my zine. Having been years removed from consistently taking photos I didn’t know what to expect, but was pleasantly surprised as I seemed to be finding so many great subjects to take photos of. The film process and my K1000 motivated me to get out there and shoot, and that motivation led me to look for more things to photograph – instilling this positive feedback loop. Those shots were always there – I just hadn’t been looking for them. Finding the shots becomes easier over time spent looking for them.
In a classic study that’s been cited more than 6000 times, Dr Seligman and other leading researchers described a simple technique: to write down three things that went well each day, every day, along with an explanation for why each good thing happened. It’s been shown that when human beings take time to look for and cogitate on the good things that happen to them every day, after one month our brains start scanning the world for positives rather than negatives.
Hugh Van Cuylenburg – The Resilience Project
In the week prior to the trip I had read The Resilience Project by Hugh Van Cuylenburg. The book explores themes of resilience and gratitude, is one that I relentlessly sticky tabbed to come back to important parts, and have lent to countless people already. This passage really stuck out to me – the idea that you can mold your brain to look for positives just through time and repetition. This was the kicker for me to start journalling, to start looking for three things I’m grateful for in each day, and to start this journey of seeing the world through a more positive lens.
Negative vs Positive Feedback Loops
While feedback loops can occur positively, they can also occur negatively. I first noticed this a few years ago with my own anxiety and living with ulcerative colitis. I was anxious because of my disease – my disease got worse because it’s impacted by stress and anxiety – I got more anxious. Rinse, repeat, spiral out of control. I wrote about facing that back in 2019, you can read it here.
The more you think of yourself as worthless, stupid, or ugly, the more you condition yourself to interpret life that way. You get trapped in a thought loop. The same is true for how you think about others. Once you fall into the habit of seeing people as angry, unjust, or selfish, you see those kind of people everywhere.
James Clear – Atomic Habits
Another great book that everyone has probably heard about by now, Atomic Habits by James Clear, explores the idea of feedback loops. In the book James shows this example of a negative feedback loop that we can fall prey to, and how we can frame our lives to minimise and avoid them.
I’ve struggled with my own self image my whole life, and I am not good at being kind to myself. This passage from the book really pinned me down as a human, and captured how I’ve been feeling about myself and others. Why am I so negative about myself, negative about future outcomes, negative about interactions with strangers before they’ve happened?
It’s because I’m looking for them – that negative mindset I’ve developed over time has led me to see myself and others in a negative light. It’s been a mammoth effort to try and turn this around – I have to consciously think about seeing the good in people, to find the positives in my own mistakes, to celebrate the success of others. This goes into some other stuff about the idea of an “abundance mindset”, which is something I will post about in the near future, but in short when I think the best of others I generally get better outcomes. When I think better of myself – I feel better and get better outcomes. This flips that negative feedback loop into a positive, to serve rather than hinder us.
How can we create positive feedback loops, and reduce negative ones?
I don’t have all the answers, but I know what has worked for me. The biggest hurdle for changing the way these feedback loops impact us is to be aware of them. The awareness that a feedback loop is there allows me to think about it. Journalling reinforces the change I’m trying to make – writing about what I’m grateful for has made me more grateful and think more positively about life. Writing about how great I’ve felt since working on my sleep routine has reinforced the intended behaviour and makes creating the routine far easier. Thinking, writing, reading – this is what helps me improve and allows me to grow as a person. Journalling and consciously thinking about gratitude are the two things that have created the biggest impact for me this year, maybe they can help you too.