I love to get feedback: it’s evidence that whatever I have said or done has been noticed and that someone cares enough to share their reactions with me. In that way, it’s a chance to learn – a fact supported by studies that conclude feedback, be it positive or negative, can be motivational. But feedback is not always direct, which is why we might start by looking at some definitions.
A ‘feedback loop’ is part of a system whereby some – or all – of the information received is input into future operations. There are four stages to such a process: input is created; input is captured and stored; input is analysed; and insight is made and considered when running the process next time. Some feedback loops are obvious because they are short and direct, while others are less so because they are convoluted.
We are instinctively good at noticing short loops – I’m tired, I drink coffee, I become more alert – because the feedback information is immediate, obvious and positive. But the loop may not be that simple because it doesn’t exist in isolation and may be intertwined with others. Suppose the coffee drinking becomes a habit that masks a real problem of lack of sleep due to anxiety. When the coffee no longer keeps me alert, I drink even more and blame insufficient caffeine intake rather than address the root cause of my sleep problem, which is becoming worse because of too much caffeine.
Long feedback loops can be hard to recognise. Your first session at a gym might make you ache and put you off going again, but the cumulative benefit of regular sessions only becomes apparent if you persist. On the other hand, if smoking just one cigarette made you poorly, you would be unlikely to develop the habit knowing that it will lead to permanent ill-health.
Immediate gratification is a short feedback loop and a seductive route towards developing habits that may damage us in the long term. Sacrificing immediate pleasures or conveniences for long-term gain takes thought, self-awareness and discipline.
Which brings me to the climate and ecological emergency that a lot of people have been slow to recognise. Either the short feedback loop didn’t highlight the damage, or it didn’t affect them directly. And the thing about climate change is the worse it gets the worse it gets. Feedback loops accelerate the warming process. There are many examples, but I will outline the one I first heard about which was one of the major things that prompted me into environmental activism.
A melting sunshield. Dazzling white ice keeps the planet cool by reflecting the sun’s rays back to space. But as the ice melts there is less reflective surface and more dark mass, which absorbs the sun’s heat, leading to greater warming and, therefore, more ice melting – and so on. This scary process is called the ice-albedo feedback.
So, what to do? Look out for loops (by doing this you are creating another feedback loop). The short ones are easy but take time to seek out the long ones too and shout them out if they are negative, or else they will become runaway loops which means it is too late to intervene.
And you can learn more about feedback loops in nature by watching Anje-Margriet’s TED talk.