Feedback Power

Organizations around the country are harnessing feedback loops to retrain human behavior.

Without feedback loops, some drivers will accelerate as close to the speed of light as possible.

As this feature from Wired reports, providing people with real-time feedback about their actions, then rewarding them for changing those actions – even by just acknowledging that a positive change has been made – often leads to measurable behavioral changes.

Feedback loops exist throughout the universe in all sorts of systems, from chemical reactions to audio hardware to computer software to connectomes. The basic principle is pretty much the same in all these contexts: one occurrence of a phenomenon influences all future occurrences of the same phenomenon, creating a self-perpetuating circuit of cause and effect. The influence can be positive, which amplifies future instances of the occurrence, or it can be negative, which dampens future instances.

One easy-to-understand example of a positive feedback loop is how audio feedback involving a microphone creates that awful high-pitched screeching sound:

Feedback occurs when the sound from the speakers makes it back into the microphone, and is re-amplified and sent through the speakers again. This loop happens so quickly that it creates its own frequency, which we hear as a howling sound.

In a sense, even organisms like bacteria depend on feedback loops to guide their behavior. Though they lack even the most basic nervous system, bacteria can “smell” chemicals that are delicious or harmful, and move toward potential food sources by sensing when the positive chemical signal becomes stronger.

Simple enough so far – but things get really interesting when we throw brains into the mix. Brains are essentially pattern-recognition devices, constantly running feedback loops within feedback loops to evaluate and act not only signals from the outside world, but on thoughts and feelings generated by other feedback loops within the connectome.

In the 1960s, scientists like Stanford University’s Albert Bandura began experimenting with feedback loops to alter human behavior:

Bandura observed that giving individuals a clear goal and a means to evaluate their progress toward that goal greatly increased the likelihood that they would achieve it. He later expanded this notion into the concept of self-efficacy, which holds that the more we believe we can meet a goal, the more likely we will do so.

Today, similar human feedback loop strategies are used in fields as diverse as job performance evaluation and athletic training. But for decades, personalized feedback loop hacking was impractical because of the sheer amount of real-time data needed to create an effective feedback training system. Thanks to a few recent innovations, though, that’s all changing – and the age of self-motivation through tailored feedback is just about here.

Speed-sensing devices on roads (those signs that compare the speed limit with your car’s speed) have proven effective in training drivers to obey speeding laws – statistically more effective, in fact, than cops with radar guns. (It seems that when it comes to human behavior, rewards motivate improvement far more quickly and effectively than punishments do.) Accelerometers have gotten so cheap, they can be built into everything from watches to shoes. A wide range of services, from XBox Live to Khan Academy, use systems of badges and achievements to keep users addicted to improving. The Wired article lists a bunch of other ingenious applications, in fields such as medicine and energy conservation.

We’ve come a long way from the comparatively clunky “high score” lists on old video games, but the guiding principle isn’t all that different. We humans seem to get a real kick out of seeing data on our own progress – even if the progress is only meaningful to us. Anyone who’s played a role-playing game (RPG) understands the satisfaction of “leveling up” a character, though such a reward has no significance outside the confines of the game’s world. Or to use a more mundane example, who hasn’t felt the thrill of stepping on the bathroom scale and seeing a lower number than yesterday’s?

But the implications run even deeper – in a very real sense, we’re dependent on feedback loops not just for motivation, but to understand ourselves:

Feedback loops are how we learn, whether we call it trial and error or course correction. In so many areas of life, we succeed when we have some sense of where we stand and some evaluation of our progress. Indeed, we tend to crave this sort of information; it’s something we viscerally want to know, good or bad. As Stanford’s Bandura put it, “People are proactive, aspiring organisms.” Feedback taps into those aspirations.

If technology keeps developing in this direction, it may not be long before feedback systems are built into many of the products we use on a daily basis. Daily life itself may become a bit like an RPG. And if that motivates more people to actively “level themselves up” in the real world, those sorts of feedback loops might be positive – so to speak – in more ways than one.

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2 Responses to “Feedback Power”

  1. […] research suggests that fast-paced feedback loops can help us improve our intuitive accuracy about logical reasoning. In this photo from the New York […]

  2. […] The caudate nucleus is packed with dopaminergic neurons, and is heavily involved in processes like feedback-based learning, perception of reward, addiction, and romantic love. That’s something worth […]

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