Feedback loops are a self regulating process of change. They involve a behavioral change, consequence of change, and adjustment or continuance of new behavior based on the consequence. Ideally, this is a perfect pattern for successful change. Operationally, change isn’t so easy.
Several elements contribute to the success and failure of feedback loops. Many of our internal feedback loops operate beneath consciousness, measuring success of an action against different criteria for success than our most treasured intentions. Biases, justifications, and a host of other contaminates interfere with the successful operation of psychological feedback loops and we endorse and sustain behaviors that sabotage long term objectives.
We often operate on auto pilot. Behaviors, feeling affects, and environments intermingle, spitting out unconscious evaluations and behavior reactions. We respond to our environment without conscious effort. The results, well, are not perfect. A lot depends on past learning and biological set points. However, conscious change, while not immune to contaminates, may greatly benefit from feedback loops.
When we can identify an end goal, purposely enact a new behavior to achieve that goal, and objectively evaluate the success of that new behavior, we greatly enhance our chance of success. For example, if our goal is to improve our grades in school, we decide to study everyday from 8 to 11 (new behavior), at the end of the semester we achieve higher marks than previous semesters (objective evaluation), we continue our designated study time for the following semester (sustaining new behavior). If the new behavior does not improve grades, we can adjust by increasing study time, or study methods, or changing which hours we study, and again reevaluating at the end of the semester.
A healthy feedback system works together with appropriate behaviors to obtain our hopes and dreams.
Feedback Loops and Emotions
A common measurement of a new behavior is our emotional reaction. We evaluate success by how we feel. We ask, “how do I feel now?” However, the behavior-emotional response feedback loop is instantaneous. Following an action, we act almost immediately experience an emotion. Emotions may reinforce or deter further action depending on the valence and intensity of the emotion.
Emotions may serve as the reward and punishment of operant conditioning, enticing either repeating or abandoning a behavior or set of behaviors. The emotion serves as an unconscious feedback loop. A source of conditioning or learning that occurs beneath conscious awareness.
The problem is that not all feedback encourages healthy behaviors. Some feedback may lead to addictions and habits that hurt and destroy. Feedback loops are responsible for employing defense mechanisms to service the ego, by protecting from external hurts and rejections. Not all these protective mechanisms are helpful—some prevent growth.
Substance addiction is often attributed to feedback loops. “Alcohol-use disorders can be seen as a self-perpetuating feedback loop” (Dorrian, 2012). Many addictive drugs stimulate “the reward centers of the brain, heavily influencing dopamine, as well as other neurotransmitters…Alcohol induces relaxation and euphoria…” (2012).
The biological feedback that our body is giving is that consuming alcohol is good. Unfortunately, dependence further strengthens the feedback by continually strengthening the feedback as consumption begins to relieve the discomfort of withdrawal once dependence takes hold.
One of the problems with the instantaneous feedback of emotion is the shortsighted feedback. When we respond by ceasing the discomforting behavior, we feel relieved and thus strengthening the feedback loop. Many substantial changes require a period of learning before mastery. New behaviors feel uncomfortable before we glory in the rewards. The feedback from our emotions is “this is uncomfortable—stop!” Yet, it is only by ignoring the negative feedback, persisting in the new behavior that we achieve our difficult goals.
Feedback Loops and Decision Making
Decisions are far from a simple feedback loop. Designing life plans, reacting to environmental stimuli, and simple choices of what to do next all require the integration of multiple systems, and multiple feedback loops that don’t always work together. Some feedback may suggest continuing, while other sources of feedback may signal stopping or even retreating.
Joseph LeDoux, a Professor of Science at New York University’s Center for Neural Sciences, wrote that “decision-making compresses trial-and-error learning experiences into an instantaneous mental evaluation about what the consequence of a particular action will be for a given situation. It requires the on-line integration of information from diverse sources: perceptual information about the stimulus and situation, relevant facts and experiences stored in memory, feedback from emotional systems and the physiological consequences of emotional arousal, expectations about the consequences of different courses of action, and the like” (2003, Kindle location 4709).
Many micro behaviors combine to make the ultimate feedback loop. Unless we are aware of the behaviors constructively (or destructively) working together to create the consequence, we may not benefit from the knowledge and make the necessary adjustments or value the behaviors creating amicable environment.
In regards to feedback loops in relationships, Harvard psychologist Susan David wrote “micro-moments of intimacy or neglect create a culture in which the relationship either thrives or withers.” She continues, “the tiny behaviors feed back on themselves and compound with time, as every interaction builds on the previous interaction, no matter how seemingly trivial. Each person’s moments of pettiness and anger, or generosity and lovingness, create a feedback loop that makes the overall relationship either more toxic or happier going forward” (2016, Kindle location 1730).
A Few Final Thoughts on Feedback Loops
Feedback loops are essential to growth. As I have noted in this article, feedback is always conveying a message even though sometimes we prefer not to listen. The message, however, may be based on different criteria. Ignoring the feedback is not the goal. We can (and should) listen to the emotional feedback from our bodies. However, sometimes the feedback of discomfort doesn’t mean quit the behavior. the body is simply sounding an alarm that change is occurring, and we need to proceed carefully. If we simply ignore, repressing feeling, we may just disconnect from emotions all together losing their great wisdom from other aspects of our lives.
Buckley, R. (2018). Aging Adventure Athletes Assess Achievements and Alter Aspirations to Maintain Self-Esteem. Frontiers in Psychology, 9,
David, Susan (2016). Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. Avery.
Dorrian, Jillian (2012). Alcoholism: The Self-Reinforcing Feedback Loop. Psychology – Selected Papers,
LeDoux, Joseph (2003). Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. Penguin Books