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2. What is a Feedback Loop?

‘Feedback’ has two meanings

In everyday speech 'feedback' has come to mean: A piece of information received from the environment or another person (as in "we responded to feedback").  While this kind of feedback may be a sensory observation, mostly it is what people like or dislike about our behaviour.

In cybernetics, feedback means: A series of interacting processes which together result in a system adapting to the effect of its previous behaviour. Technically feedback is a pattern of organisation that operates only as long as the part ‘originating’ action is influenced such that its behaviour changes.

It is clear that these two definitions relate to different levels — the everyday linear definition being a subset of the systemic meaning. In other words, feedback is either a part of a process or the whole circular process itself.

In order to distinguish between these two meanings, we will use the metaphor of a  'feedback loop' when we want to refer to the systemic definition.

From an individual’s viewpoint, a feedback loop exists when my system notices how the world responds to my behaviour and I adjust my behaviour in response that response, and so on. At any point my options are to do more or less of what I am already doing, or change to a different kind of behaviour. Either way, my aim will be keep things as they are or to change things to get more of what I want and less of what I don't want. However, you cannot get a systemic perspective from an individual's point of view. In a healthy system I take into account that other people are doing the same, that we are all part of a wider system that no one part can control.

It is interesting to note that the use of the word ‘feedback’ in everyday language has been accompanied by a shift of attention.  In a feedback loop the emphasis is on all parts of the system changing to meet a value or goal.  Each part is considered to be a contributor to the overall effect and therefore can influence whether this effect continues or not.  In the everyday sense of feedback, the attention has shifted to the information supplied by an outside person.  We do not think this shift from internal dynamic to external thing is accidental.

Let’s take another example to illustrate our point:

Originally zero-tolerance meant: we will not tolerate our failing to meet some standard (e.g. “We will not let this subway car leave the depot unless it is clean and free of graffiti.”). Zero-tolerance has come to mean we will not tolerate other people’s rule-breaking behaviour (e.g. “We will punish them every time they do not wear school uniform.”). The key to understanding the difference between the original and the everyday meaning is to ask “zero-tolerance of what?” The focus of attention in the former is on us meeting some criteria, in the latter it is on others failing to meet a criteria.

We do not believe that the shift in emphasis in the way feedback and zero-tolerance is defined —from more to less complex, from us to them, and in its most distorted form from personal responsibility to blame — is a coincidence. We believe it reflects the level of development of people’s emotional intelligence.

Diagram 1: A simple feedback loop

How to read a feedback loop diagram:

You can start anywhere because a feedback loop exists as a whole and a ‘start’ or ‘end’ is just wherever we choose to punctuate the loop for convenience.  However we have described the loop as if it starts from an action.

Each arrow involves an interaction and therefore an influence.

Each process involves a re-encoding or transformation of information.

What is cause and what is effect depends on how you punctuate the loop.  Systemically speaking every event is  both a cause and an effect.  A feedback loop is, minimally, the effect of the effect of the effect.

Wherever you start, you need to cycle round a feedback loop a couple of times to get a sense of the story behind the diagram.

Another name for the ‘external reaction’ of a feedback loop is ‘evidence’.

Whenever complex adaptive systems are involved, linear cause-effect explanations only account for “an arc” of a feedback loop, e.g. “We will be tough on the causes of crime” does not acknowledge that ‘crime’ is equally influencing the government’s behaviour.

Diagram 2: Ways feedback loops are not established or maintained (ie. no learning)

Given that the world always reacts — even if only at the level of physics and chemistry — there will always be an interaction between 1 and 2.  (Hence the NLP maxim “You cannot not influence.”)  It also follows that something has to happen to prevent the chain of influence from returning to its source.  As the diagram shows, this can happen in three places:

 a Between 2 & 3  - Failure to notice the reaction to own behaviour.
 b Between 3 & 4
  - Failure to notice what was noticed
 - Failure to adequately process what was noticed.
 c Between 4 & new 1  - Failure to act on what was processed.

See our Self-Deception, Self-Delusion, Self-Denial article for more on how individuals keep certain feedback loops from operating.

Systemically speaking, the system will maintain ‘no change’ through a dampening feedback loop.  (See Principle 8 below.)

Diagram 3 - Part 1: The interior/exterior perspective

The line down the middle of Diagram 3 bisects process 1, ‘Action’ and process 3, ‘Notice Reaction’.  This line represents a physical boundary between the internal behaviour of system X on the left-hand side, and external behaviour of it and another system, Y, on the right-hand side.

  • A true observer can only see the external behaviour of system X and it’s interaction with system Y.
  • However, the diagram is drawn from the viewpoint of an external perceiver with the ability to see ‘inside’ system X (left hand half of the diagram).  
  • When the observer is X, this is known as 3rd Position in NLP (Robert Dilts).
  • In Symbolic Modelling ‘self-modelling’ mostly involves the client modelling the left-hand half of the diagram except where the modelling involves feedback from an external source:
- another person in the moment
- a verbatim written or spoken description
- a measurement from a machine e.g. weight as measured by scales.

An interior cannot be observed directly from the exterior. But, as Humberto Maturana and Fransisco Varela say in The Tree of knowledge, “all behaviour is the external dance of internal relations”. Therefore, the pattern of actions and reactions represents the relationship between the maps of X and Y. A relationship will continue to exist as long as the two systems are compatible, i.e. the people involved dance together. There is no value judgement here — compatible simply means the two systems have ongoing responses to each other. In the same way, Eric Burne, the originaotor of Transactional Analysis, noted that "complementary" transaction continue a conversation until a "crossed" transaction stops it.

 Diagram 3 - Part 2: The interior/exterior perspective

Diagram’s 1-3 are drawn from the perspective of a perceiver perceiving the system taking action (called X).  If we add in the internal process of the system that reacts (called Y) the resulting action by X is available as a ‘reaction’ to Y’s behaviour.  Now there are two interacting feedback loops.   We can map the information pathway across the two physical boundaries (marked by the vertical lines) thus:

Note that a large part of any ‘reaction’ may have little to do with the ‘action’ because it will be specified by the organisation of the system reacting.  However as long as the two systems maintain a relationship, then the action-reaction cycle must be complementary. Given this, every reaction in an ongoing relationship tells us something about our self. This means that a key part of learning from a reaction is to decide what is to be noticed, considered and acted upon, and what is to be ignored. This is not always a simple decision because we are all liable to "cognitive bias." And, how do we know whether self-deception is involved when we ignore a reaction? One way is to look for what we call the “boulder of truth” in all feedback (everyday meaning). Knowing the desired outcomes of both systems help to decide what to pay attention to.

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