Article Categories
[ Show ] All [ Hide ]
Clean Language
Article Selections
[ Show ] All [ Hide ]
3. Ten Principles of Feedback Loops

1. Feedback loops are what make complex-adaptive systems adaptive.

"All decentralised systems rely extensively on feedback, for both growth and self-regulation."   Steven Johnson, Emergence (2001), p. 133

Without the operation of feedback loops a system has no way of adapting to changing circumstances and hence will eventually not fit its environment and will not survive.

Because a complex adaptive system is continually changing, so must all the other systems that interact with it — if the relationship is to continue to exit.  This ‘need’ to maintain communion in order to preserve the self is the wellspring of co-evolution.

2. Feedback loops involve “circular or more complex chains of causation”.

Gregory Bateson’s now famous saying sums up the systemic nature of feedback loops.

As a result, a pattern of organisation that exhibits "operational closure" emerges. That is it forms a unity which has a measure of autonomy and the means to activate self-preserving changes (Maturana and Varela).

3. Feedback loops are a pattern of organisation.

A feedback loop is not a thing, it is not a process, and it is not information.  It is a pattern of organisation that exists only as long as the interactions between the parts continue to form an unbroken circuit. A feedback loop emerges when the effects of the behaviour of one part of a system are available to modify that part’s own behaviour. i.e. it is self-adaptive.  And because they are circular, feedback loops can be considered ‘iterative information pathways’.

The basic ‘unit of operation’ of a feedback loop is change, that is difference. And difference is a non-substantial phenomenon. It cannot be located in space or time, and it cannot be easily measured unless the salient attributes of the two events can be counted.

4. Feedback loops involve the ‘originator’ adapting to the effects of its own behaviour.

The meaning of your communication is the response you get” is a recognition of the systemic nature of feedback.  This may be why it is one of the toughest NLP presuppositions to internalise.  Many people say it, but few of us live it, especially when the ‘meaning’ of our communication is being ‘misinterpreted’.  To live this presupposition requires a radical shift in thinking.

We can use the feedback loop of Diagram 3-Part 2 to deconstruct this presupposition:

 Intended meaning = X’s 4
 Action to convey meaning = X’s 1
 Received meaning = Y’s 3 & 4
 Action to convey meaning = Y’s 1 = X’s 2
 Compare intended & received meaning = X’s 3 & 4
 ... and so on. 
A complicating factor in this presupposition relates to the skill of each person being able to convey what they mean, i.e. how ‘clean’ is the link between 4 and 1?  Other meanings can ‘intrude’ here to ‘contaminate’ the message, (e.g. unconscious voice tone, nonverbals and slips of the tongue) which represent implicit intentions, values, etc.

Simultaneous incompatible intentions are a challenge to respond to because they tend to trigger incompatible internal responses which require a meta-level of awareness to resolve.

5. Feedback loops involve attempting to satisfy a value or achieve a purpose.

The above definition begs a question: Adaptive for what?  For the purpose of achieving or maintaining a state, value, criterion or preference.  The effects of our action are compared with the goal or value:  Does my behaviour achieve or move me towards or away from my purpose?  Purpose can be as specific as ‘an internal body temperature of close to 98.4 degrees F’ or as general as ‘my survival’.

It is important to recognise that most goals and values are implicit, even when explicit goals are stated. The 'mission statement' may eb the publicly stated goal of an organisation, but the fact that corporation spend so much money trying to get  'buy-in' to the mission shows there are plenty of other goals being pursued.

At process 4 the comparison with a desired outcome or value helps the system decide whether to:
  • increase or decrease the previous action
  • change to a different but equivalent behaviour
  • change to a different kind of behaviour
  • change the reference point

This is often not a simple calculation because as Edward DeBono says “Sometimes you have to journey south for a while in order to journey north,” and the purpose or value itself can change.  In other words, it is what we call 'a dynamic reference point'.

Gregory Bateson repeatedly stressed that if the goal is to maximise the criteria of a part of a system without consideration of the effects on other parts the result will eventually become pathological for the system as a whole.

6. Feedback loops cross physical boundaries.

Information pathways are no respecter of physical boundaries. Gregory Bateson pointed out that feedback loops are both interesting and a challenge to work with is because they cross what we traditionally consider to be external boundaries.

Thinking systemically means considering the unity of the information pathways as the principal unit of analysis and not to be restricted by physical boundaries. From this perspective, intelligence and mind are properties of the system; not of an individual. One could say that ‘intellectual property is theft'!

7. Feedback loops involve cycle time and delay.

The cycle time (also known as ‘delay’) is how long it takes for all the parts of the loop to interact and the ‘message’ to complete its journey round the loop.

The cycle time when riding a bike is not how long you stay in the saddle but how long before you know the effect of tilting — a fraction of a second. Whereas the cycle time in GCSE school examinations is several months. In the former learning can take place several times a second, in the later the delay is so great that learning rarely happens.

As a general principle, the longer the cycle time and the more transforms the information undergoes, the more difficult it is to see the systemic relationships.

8.  Two types of Feedback Loop.

Feedback loops can be divided into two types by examining what happens to a system over time as a result of the loop operating.  Either a change in the system is reinforced (i.e. more of more, or less of less) or a change in the system is dampened (i.e. less of more, or more of less). These two types are technically known as positive and negative feedback respectively. However this metaphor is open to confusion due the the value-laden meaning of those words in other contexts. There are plenty of other metaphors which we believe better distinguish between the two types of feedback:

Positive: self-reinforcing, self-amplifying, escalating, runaway, compounding, snowballing


Negative: self-sustaining, self-maintaining, dampening, stabilising, balancing

"Negative feedback, then, is a way of reaching an equilibrium point despite unpredictable — and changing — external conditions. The 'negativity' keeps the system in check, just as 'positive feedback' propels [the] system onward.  [They are] a way of indirectly pushing a fluid, changeable system toward a goal. Negative feedback comes in many shapes and sizes. You can build it into ballistic missiles or circuit boards, neurones, or blood vessels.  It is, in today’s terms, ‘platform agnostic’.  At its most schematic, negative feedback entails comparing the current state of a system to the desired state, and pushing the system in a direction that minimises the difference between the two states.”  Steven Johnson, Emergence (2001) pp. 138-140.

The continued survival of a system requires that the interplay between reinforcing and stabilising feedback loops creates a dynamic equilibrium (see Developing Group notes of 1 December, 2002).

What is a ‘dampening feedback loop’ dampening?

The simple answer is ‘change’. At the next level up, it is balancing a reinforcing feedback loop — or the possibility of one developing.

What is a ‘reinforcing feedback loop’ reinforcing?

The answer is again ‘change’.  At the next level up, it is countering a stabilising feedback loop.

One reason why feedback loops require some thinking about is because they operate at two levels above what we usually attend to (i.e. what happens):

Feedback Loop
(a consistent pattern of change)


(a difference between two events)



9. Feedback loops involve thresholds.

Reinforcing and balancing feedback loops have to be understood in terms of limits and thresholds.  Reinforcing feedback loops tend to move the system toward and eventually over a threshold.  Balancing feedback loops keep the system within bounds and close to midpoints.

For example:

Take heroin —> experience a high and an increased tolerance to the drug —> take more heroin ... until a threshold is crossed (the amount of heroin the body can accommodate) and. an overdose occurs.

Note the reinforcing feedback loop works the other way around: when the intake of heroin is reduced, the tolerance threshold is reduced at the same time. This is why it is common for addicts to overdose immediately after a detox process because they haven’t allowed for how their body has adapted to the lack of heroin — it now can’t accommodate the amount of heroin they took before they started detoxing.

The effect of an escalating feedback loop depends on:

The steepness of the rate of change
(the steeper the less time/opportunity for balancing feedback to operate).

The degree of tolerance or width of limits
(the less tolerance the less time/opportunity for balancing feedback to operate).

The closeness of the system to a threshold
(the closer to a threshold, the less time/opportunity for balancing feedback to operate).

10. Feedback loops operate at multiple levels simultaneously.

In a real sense, our personalities are partially the sum of all these invisible feedback mechanisms; but to begin to understand those mechanisms, you need additional levels of feedback." Steven Johnson in "Emergence" (2001), p. 142.

Feedback in Relation to Gregory Bateson’s Levels of Learning:

 Learning to
 learn to  learn
A feedback loop using the effects of learning II is established
 II Learning to
A feedback loop using the effects of Learning I is established
 I Rote
A feedback loop is established until the learning is complete
 0 No learningNo feedback loop is established





 »  Home  »  The Developing Group  »  Feedback loops
Article Options

Metaphor and

Clean Language


James Lawley
Penny Tompkins


(in English)

November 29-30

view all featured events