Friday, July 20, 2012

Eliminating Feedback Loops at Our Peril

by Miki Kashtan

Long as my recent entry about interdependence was, at one point it was even longer, because it included an entire additional section I had written about the role of feedback loops in supporting the interdependent web of life that we are part of, and about how modern life has been eliminating and masking feedback loops. The irony of cutting out a piece that was about eliminating feedback loops is only now becoming apparent to me.

The word feedback, which originated in 1920 in the field of electronics, has expanded its meaning widely to refer to almost any mechanism by which information about the effect of an activity or process is returned and thereby can affect the activity or process. Such feedback loops are built into the way that natural systems work, and they affect all life forms at all levels. Natural selection, as one example, is based on continual feedback in the form of which individual organisms make it long enough to reproduce. Whole populations of species grow and diminish based on such feedback loops. As food sources dwindle, a population dies out and as predators are removed from an ecosystem, a population of animals can increase. In places where predators don’t exist, a species can literally take over, as has happened with several introductions of non-local species that are destroying previously existing balances.

Our own human species, in relation to nature, has systematically endeavored to control nature with the desired effect of exactly those two outcomes: eliminating all of our predators, from large mammals to microbes, and expanding our food supply through the practice of agriculture and factory farming of animals. The result has, indeed, been a massive explosion of the human population to the point of threatening the continued existence of our civilization as we know it.

We have not only tinkered with nature at great risk to our survival. We have exacerbated this potential risk by interfering with or eliminating feedback loops in our human systems as well.

Economic Feedback: Externalizing Costs

Economic theory as we currently know it is based on the premise that supply and demand are the key drivers of economic activity. As a result, businesses of any kind use demand for their products and services as a basic feedback loop. They all universally attempt to reduce their costs as much as possible so that what they offer can be sold to more people and so that they can have the profits they seek to have. This system works only partially, however, because many of the costs associated with manufacturing products are not included in the accounting system and are instead externalized, so that the price of the product is in actuality far cheaper than it costs to produce it if all the effects of producing it were counted.

Costs which are usually externalized are the effects on the environment and on communities. Those who have dedicated their learning lives to studying this issue claim that many of our basic consumer goods would be beyond the reach of most people if all the costs were internalized. To begin to grasp what it means to externalize costs, and make it more concrete, think of this example. When any of us calls a customer service line and are put on hold for indefinite amounts of time, the company in question is externalizing its costs to us. However much we are told that “your call is very important”, the only reason we are on hold is that the company is hiring fewer people than it would take to staff the lines for all the incoming calls to be answered immediately. They effectively depend on our willingness to be their volunteer employee, if you will, supporting them in doing their business by waiting. If none of us were willing to wait, they would have to hire more people, and their service or product might well be beyond our means.

Similarly, if someone had to pay for the loss of oxygen and the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere, for the erosion of topsoil, for the effect on communities of having pollution in their midst, and for the many other negative consequences which right now do not register on the profit and loss sheets of most companies, the recorded cost of production would increase. This is what internalizing costs would mean.

Because the costs are externalized, we can, collectively, continue to delude ourselves into believing that we can continue with business as usual, without anything that would compel us to look at the true cost, beyond the price tag on the product we purchase. 

Social Feedback: Depression

For some years now, I have been concerned, even alarmed, about the rise in use of anti-depressants. On an individual level, I have tremendous compassion for people who experience depression. I have never myself been depressed beyond a certain amount, and yet I’ve had enough to know the excruciating suffering, the debilitating effect of significant depression, the risk of death, in particular, and the loss of vitality, meaning, and even the capacity to engage in any activity at times. I can appreciate that any form of relief would be welcome.

Face In The Crowd, by Evelyn Williams
Being trained in sociology, however, I tend to see things more in terms of their social context and implications than many people I meet. Instead of focusing only on how to alleviate the suffering of individuals, I begin to ask questions. Why is it that we have more and more people who are depressed? Isn’t the growing rate of depression a form of social feedback? Aren’t we, perhaps, creating a way of life that is simply not working to attend to people’s core human needs? Why is it that our modern, industrialized societies are producing more depression, more addictions, and more suicides? Are the erosion of our communities, the intensified division of labor, the growing isolation within which we live responsible? Or is it the change to our physical environment? None of these questions can be asked and answered if we continue to medicate ourselves on a massive scale. The strong message that something is not working cannot be heard.  

In a strikingly similar manner we now have pills for stomach upset, for pain related to degenerative diseases, and for other ailments that have come to be seen as inevitable “side effects” of reaching a certain age instead of being seen as the diseases of the modern diet.

Human Feedback: Holding back from Each Other

My last example is in the area of my biggest expertise: human relationships and human organizations. Both our capacity to grow as individuals and our capacity to create and maintain relationships and organizations that thrive are dependent on giving and receiving feedback. We learn best when we can see the effect we have on others and the environment without shame or blame. We rarely experience these gifts in their sweet form. I work with enough individuals and organizations to know the extraordinary human waste that results from people holding back vital information for fear -- of reprisal, of hurting another person, of losing connection, of losing a job -- and instead keeping it to themselves or letting it out in the form of gossip, sabotage, withdrawal, or explosive anger when we are unable to contain it any longer.

Unlike the other areas I named, learning to give and receive feedback is a human endeavor we can learn and master. This is change any of us can create. We can learn to receive feedback, even solicit it, and encourage others to give it to us. This is far from easy. It requires working with whatever sensitivities we carry, so that we can hear what may sound like a criticism and still see it as a vital gift. I have written about transforming our defensive habits, and I imagine I will return to this topic at some future time. Opening up to our own humanity strengthens us to the degree that would allow us to remain pliable and flexible in the face of even strong criticism from others.

We can also learn to offer others the gift of what we see about them that we believe can help them become the person they want to be, bring their fullest potential to themselves and others, and know, with as much gentleness as is possible, what effect they have on others so they can choose their actions with clarity. We have this power, this capacity to offer this precious gift to others, and to do with care and awareness of their sensitivities, which are no different from ours. I have written before about the challenge of offering feedback, which everyone needs in order to learn, without criticism, which none of us like.

Perhaps if we start with introducing feedback loops in those areas where we have full say, in our own lives, within our families and organizations, we can begin to turn the tide and restore the central role for feedback in all its forms. Then we can acquire, again, the taste and the desire for knowing our place in the larger web of life. We lost it for far too long.


  1. An inspiring read,thanks.

    I offered feed back to my boss the other day regarding a volatile situation. I knew I could give the feedback without shame or guilt, but my boss, I don't think knew this and just the request itself was hard for him to receive. I accepted the rejection I received.. But I am noticing since hearing the "no thanks"that I am nervous of being seen as having an "agenda" with him and others within the organization..any suggestions on how to wrestle with the nervousness I am experiencing and continue to be open to offering and asking for feedback ?

    1. Dear anonymous,

      I am really appreciating your question. These kinds of situations challenge everyone in contexts where the free sharing of feedback is not a common experience, especially when there are power differences and expectations.

      Not knowing your boss or the norms of the workplace, what follows may not work, so please take it with a grain of salt. I can imagine your using the situation to model asking for and receiving feedback. How about asking your boss to give you feedback about how you approached him? If this works, you end up modeling something, and also, if you are lucky, this can be an opening for the earlier conversation to happen. Again, depending on how things are in your organization, I can imagine saying something like: "I am totally OK with your not wanting to hear my feedback, and yet I feel nervous that I might be seen as having an 'agenda'. I would love to hear from you how my question came across so I can learn for the future."

      One other thought, not exactly what you asked, and still related, is that most people, most of the time, relax by hearing appreciation. If you have feedback to give someone, you can start by saying something like: "Hi boss, I wanted to tell you that I really appreciated something about how you handled this situation. I saw you do X, and I was very appreciative of it because of Y." Then you say what was important: is it that you learned something for yourself about how to handle situations? Or is it that you appreciate the respect with which some other person was handled? If you can truly find at least one thing that you genuinely appreciated, then you can lead with that thing, and strike up a conversation about the situation in question. If the boss has an experience of being seen, he may very well open up, share more about the situation, and create an opportunity for you to offer more. Again, I would need to know more about you and him to be able to have true confidence that you could establish this kind of trust and flow with him.

      I hope this helps.


    2. Sorry for my delay in reading this......

      I really like your suggestion of asking my boss for feedback on how I approached him.I like it because it gives me an opening to keep the dialogue going in a way that is very respectful to him and I think would have his interest and lessen any fear he might have of receiving guilt and blame. I think it is too late to do it regarding the situation I wrote to you about, as the "moment" has passed, but there will be a next time. I like reading "next time"that I have written this because I am noticing my willingness to give feedback is back which is why I wrote in the first place. Thanks much


  2. Here is a good article from Deepak Chopra, in which he employs the term, "feedback loops."

    A portion from the article:
    What makes it vital is the brain and nervous system. They send a constant stream of messages to the rest of the body, creating a feedback loop of information. One side of the feedback loop runs automatically. The other side supports free will and choice, which means that what you decide to do with your life enters the body's feedback loop, gets communicated to every cell, and has repercussions. If you ran your body entirely on its automatic processes, you'd be in a coma. As long as you are awake and alive, making choices, you are adding to the feedback loop.

  3. Hi Miki,
    I'm glad you pointed out again how the practice of externalizing costs prevents crucial feedback about the true costs of so many products and services, thus keeping us ignorant of the effects on the environment. It is so easy to forget this as I go about daily life and value the convenience of going along with status quo in more ways than I like to admit.

    When I read the part about how our feedback can be such a gift to each other, I immediately thought of the feedback I've received from you. Your encouragement has been a great gift to me; I return to it repeatedly as a source of support.

    At the same time, I think what you're getting at in your piece is the kind of feedback that is indeed support but may be experienced in a different way if we interpret it as criticism. I've been thinking about this and what some of the dynamics are. It takes me to this paradoxical place this quote points to: "You're fine just the way you are, and you need a little work." (Can't remember in this moment who first said that.) It seems difficult, and yet essential, to hold some kind of both/and about it, both when we are giving and receiving feedback. To accept ourselves and others just as we are, and also to see the potential for growth and change. Maybe accepting ourselves just as we are includes seeing that potential. What "is" includes potential. Heading myself into specific opportunities to receive feedback this month, I really appreciate the reminder to see it as a gift. That will help me receive it in the spirit of learning and growth. Thank you!

    1. Hi Jean,

      I am fundamentally aligned with you, and only up to a point. I am thinking of someone whose actions are creating significant harm, and the idea that they are "fine just the way they are" and just "need a little work" when others are seriously harmed by their actions doesn't resonate with me. Feedback is often painful, and I still welcome it and see it as an essential tool for realigning the world with human needs.

      For those who have done immense harm, we would need to offer them both immense love and acceptance so they can have a sense of their own humanity, as well as courageous feedback so they can truly grieve their actions. I am hard pressed to imagine how they can be restored to the human fabric without opening up to the anguish of what they did. And that level is so different from what you wrote above.

      In short, I wanted to broaden the context beyond the personal growth version of feedback.

      I imagine you would be aligned with my perspective here, and open to hear otherwise.


  4. Yes, yes, absolutely. Important to have the dimensions of opening up to anguish, responsibility, mourning. Much love and acceptance necessary, b/c otherwise facing into the harm can lead to shame, which can actually lead to the desire to do more harm as a strategy to avoid the pain. I am most familiar with the kind of severe harm you're talking about with regard to people who have committed sexual violence. There are even professional journal articles on whether such people are seen as "monsters or human." Such articles invite us to look at how we can hold the monstrosity of what was done with the humanity of the person who did it. I really appreciate the importance of the feedback look in all this. I have witnessed this when I facilitated a group for people who had committed such acts, people who had been sexually abused, and people who were family members of these two groups. (The group members weren't related to each other but had had these experiences.) It was incredibly powerful to see the effect of feedback in the group. I also see that "feedback" is one of the aspects of Restorative Circles that can be incredibly powerful, as people come to understand the effects of what took place. Thank you for deepening the discussion this way.