What is a feedback loop?

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“My, yours is not to be understood… Not to be understood at all!” The problem of mutual misunderstanding arises not only when one of the interlocutors has problems with knowledge of the language. Much more often, misunderstanding happens because of the difference in the perception of the same things by different people.

You will learn to better understand others and communicate in a way that you are understood correctly in our Cognitive Science and Best Communication Techniques programs . And you can take the first step towards universal understanding today by understanding what a feedback loop is in psychology and communication.

What is a feedback loop?

Since we have decided to deal with feedback loops in communications, for a start it is worth deciding what we mean by feedback. This is the response of people to the information received or actions performed by other people.

As a rule, other people, having seen the reaction to their words or actions, also begin to “react to the reaction” and give out their feedback . Thus, the thread of communication, as it were, returns back, but from the other side, forming a kind of “loop”.

It is this kind of “reaction to reaction” or feedback in response to feedback that forms feedback loops in psychology. The scheme we have considered, which includes a stimulus (words, action, information), a reaction, and a “reaction to a reaction,” is a short feedback loop.

If the communication participants continue to communicate, giving out new reactions and new feedback in response to what they hear or see, as is often the case, for example, in disputes and discussions, then not just loops are formed, but a whole tangle of opinions and reactions.

So, a feedback loop is a set of interconnected logical cause-and-effect relationships that cause an increase or decrease in conditions or behavior within a system [ TOCpeople, 2013 ]. Different kinds of feedback loops have different consequences: reinforcing or weakening conditions or behaviors within a system.

What are feedback loops?

First of all, there are positive and negative feedback loops:

  • A positive feedback loop causes reinforcement of conditions or behaviors within the system. We can say that this is a reinforcing feedback loop.
  • A negative feedback loop causes a weakening of conditions or behaviors within the system. It is a kind of corrective or balancing feedback loop.

Let’s explain with real life examples. If a person receives positive feedback and approval of his actions, he, as they say, “keeps on” and even increases his efforts. For example, she studies better, earns more, takes more and more cool photos and videos, sews more and more beautiful dresses and suits, etc.

If a person receives negative feedback, he is forced to correct his behavior. Otherwise, certain sanctions await him in the form of spoiled relations with his other half, friends, boss. In the latter case, there is a possibility of being left without a bonus, or even without work at all. This is how the negative feedback loop works in psychology.

These patterns apply not only to individuals, but also to groups, teams , collectives, associations, as well as to legal entities. The company, having received positive feedback in the form of a surge in sales of its product, increases production and supply volumes, introduces new delivery services, etc.

If the company receives negative feedback in the form of customer complaints and a drop in sales, management is forced to take corrective measures aimed at improving quality, service, or searching for new opportunities to satisfy customer requests . Otherwise, a permanent drop in sales will lead to business problems and ruin.

In addition to positive and negative feedback loops, advanced and delayed feedback loops are possible in business and other areas of activity [ D. Kotenko, 2019 ]:

  • A proactive feedback loop is the so-called “work ahead of the curve”, when it is possible to identify and eliminate all weaknesses in advance, think over options for action in case “something goes wrong”, without waiting for the authorities to point it out to you, clients or your other half.
  • A delayed feedback loop is about focusing on the moment and solving problems as they come, without trying to consider all the possible consequences of certain actions.

Which option is better? For long-term projects, it is better to give preference to the first option, because a long term is always an additional risk factor that circumstances will change and any events will occur that affect the process or result of the actions taken.

For short-term projects, as well as situations where some deviations from the planned result are not critical, the second option will be optimal. Similarly, the second option is practically the only possible one if you have to act in a rapidly changing situation, when planning for more than a day or two is simply unrealistic. As the saying goes, “choose the right feedback loop option” and go for it.

Note that the concept of “feedback loop” is used not only in psychology and communications. In the literature on biology and physiology, you may come across phrases like “feedback loop somatotropin secretion is regulated in such a way that…” or “ACTH secretion through the feedback loop is inhibited if…” [ V. Lavrinenko, A. Babina, 2016 ]. Today we will not delve deeply into the topic of physiology, but for reference we will inform you that ACTH is an adrenocorticotropic hormone.

In addition, the term “feedback loop” may have a technical meaning. In IT technologies, such concepts as “loopback address”, “network feedback loop”, “sqa feedback loop” are used. Typically, these concepts are applied in the context of testing network equipment [ phys.bspu, 2018 ].

By the way, this term initially appeared in technology, and only then migrated to psychology. Thus, the American mathematician Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), one of the founders of cybernetics and the theory of artificial intelligence, was the first to speak about feedback loops in technologies [ G. Gerasimov, 2013 ]. For a better understanding of the topic, he gave the simplest examples of controlling a boat or bicycle: when we turn the steering wheel to the right, the boat or bicycle moves to the right, when we turn to the left, then the direction of movement shifts to the left.

This is a simple example of a feedback loop where the person driving the boat or bicycle receives visual information about the direction of travel and reacts to it by turning the steering wheel. Accordingly, further the vehicle reacts to the mechanical signal entering the control system after turning the steering wheel, and changes the direction of movement. There can be any number of such feedback loops throughout the entire route.

In cybernetics and more complex technical devices, the functioning of the feedback loop is more complicated, but for a general understanding of the principle of operation, simple examples are quite enough. It should be noted that the founders of cybernetics just suggested using the term “feedback loop” in other sciences to describe the mechanism of regulation and self-regulation of social and ecological systems.

For more information, see Behavior, Purpose, and Teleology [ N. Wiener, J. Bigelow, A. Rosenblueth, 1943 ]. For reference, let’s say that teleology is an ontological doctrine, according to which nature is arranged expediently, i.e. in such a way that in any development a predetermined goal is realized.

As you can see, the variety of aspects of the term “feedback loop” is truly inexhaustible. We will not consider all aspects, but will briefly summarize what we found out earlier about feedback loops in communication.

Main types of feedback loops:

  • Positive feedback loop.
  • Loop of negative feedback.
  • Forward feedback loop.
  • Delayed feedback loop.

How does it all work? Let’s talk about this in more detail.

How does a feedback loop work?

When we started talking about what a feedback loop is, we briefly explained what it consists of and how it functions. Now it is worth considering this process in more detail. With regard to the topic of communications, the cornerstone of the concept of “feedback loop” is a psychological attitude [ V. Putilina, 2018 ].

A psychological attitude is an unconscious internal state of a person, which is based on his previous experience and predisposition to act in a certain way in certain typical situations.

Thus, psychological attitudes can be considered, on the one hand, as an individual’s focus on certain objects, concepts and situations, and on the other hand, as a readiness to act in one of the usual ways.

We can say that this is a stable and habitual mood of each person in relation to certain phenomena. The mood towards something can be positive or negative. And the mood, ultimately, predetermines the behavior of a person in a given situation.

Such a concept as “perception filters” is closely interconnected with psychological attitudes. The filter of perception is a specific mechanism of thinking that sorts the processed information. The fact is that we are constantly receiving a huge amount of data, whether we like it or not.

We see clouds in the sky or the sun outside the window, we hear the rustle of leaves or the noise of passing cars, we perceive a news release or an order from the director, etc. And everything that we see, hear and feel, we involuntarily evaluate.

Thus, perception filters are a kind of “rapid response templates” that save our strength, time, energy and allow us not to re-evaluate similar situations of the same type every time [ I. Pirog, 2014 ].

For some, the clouds in the sky are again bad weather, and for some, the prospect of a break from the annoying July heat. Some people are annoyed by cars going back and forth, but some don’t care. The one who likes his work immediately delves into the director’s order and thinks how best to carry it out, and the one who is not very determined to work is irritated at the mere appearance of the authorities and from the mere thought that he is again now somehow “load”.

The same situation can evoke completely different emotions in different people. So, for some, dissatisfaction with the boss causes resentment and a feeling of unfairness of claims, for someone, anger , aggression and a desire to make claims in response, for someone, fear of being fired.

And even the fear of being fired, being passed through the filters of perception, can have its own shades. Someone is afraid that he will not be able to find another job and he will have nothing to live on, someone is afraid of the loss of status and what others will say. And someone is horrified by the realization that you will have to become a freelancer for a while and be at home all day with your wife, who is also a freelancer and at the same time has an absurd character.

In other words, the fact passed through the filters of perception receives its interpretation: negative, positive or neutral. Depending on this, emotions arise: positive, negative, neutral. This is followed by words, actions or inaction, which, as you know, is a kind of action. And now the director who has already given the order or the spouse who has applied with the request receives his portion of feedback.

Psychologists present the work of the feedback loop in this way – a fact passed through the filters of perception, interpretation, emotion, actions:


Further, the feedback loop “twists around again” and this can be any number of times as long as the interaction between the two subjects continues. What else should you know about perceptual filters and feedback loops? A person usually “cuts off” what does not fit into his personal “picture of the world”.

The most striking example of a perception filter is the so-called “pink glasses”, when a person wants to see everything only in a positive way and does not want to notice real threats and really possible negative consequences of certain actions [ I. Pirog, 2014 ].

A filter option such as “gray glasses” or “ apathy glasses” is also possible . In this case, a person passes only negative information and sees negativity everywhere, even in completely harmless events. All of the above clearly shows how many nuances a feedback loop can have and how important it is to take them into account and build them correctly in your life and work.

Where and how to use feedback loops?

As we have already understood, feedback loops permeate our entire lives. When we looked at what feedback loops are, we looked at how they work in business. Depending on whether the company receives positive or negative feedback in the form of an increase or decrease in sales, its further activity is determined.

However, company performance depends not only on external feedback loops with customers, but also on internal relationships in the team. The hierarchy of relationships between superiors and subordinates, horizontal connections between employees of the departments involved in the project – everything is riddled with feedback loops.

And the point is not only that someone loves their job and enthusiastically takes on a new project, but someone shirks from their assignments, someone sees everything in a “black color”, and someone because of their own frivolity and “pink glasses” is ready to “be led” to any adventure when there was every reason to suspect something was amiss.

Even among employees who are equally serious and motivated to work, there may be disagreements in the perception of the same fact, phenomenon, or order of the director. We have already said that a person usually “cuts off” what does not fit into his personal “picture of the world”.

Relatively speaking, an accountant who is far from the intricacies of Photoshop may sincerely not understand why the designer asks to quickly give the quarterly data necessary for preparing the presentation. And the designer will be angry, the preparation of the presentation is idle, because without the received data it is not clear how best to place them on the slides, how much space they will take up and how they will affect the overall volume of the presentation.

The orders of the authorities are a separate issue, and not only because of the difference in the perception of subordinates. Some bosses seriously believe that subordinates are obliged, if not to read their thoughts from a distance, then certainly to understand them perfectly. That is why so much attention is paid in the business literature to building communications, the ability to focus on the most important thing and correctly request feedback in order to find out how you were understood.

In the book “Seeing the Forest for the Trees. A systematic approach to improving the business model ”, a whole section is devoted to feedback loops and their importance for effective work [ D. Sherwood, 2012 ]. In particular, a vicious circle of claims is schematically presented on the example of office work if the interacting parties do not draw proper conclusions from their behavior. Then stresses due to mistakes, excessive loads and the inability to cope with the situation go in circles:

This is a simple example, but there are much more complex and intricate feedback loops that are not so easy to unravel. The author of the book demonstrated them using the example of the work of a commercial television company, where, in addition to the bosses and employees, the audience and advertisers are included in the process :


Just as important is taking into account the nuances of feedback in friendly and family communication. Relatively speaking, for a husband, the fact that he is tired at work automatically implies that today he is not in the mood to rearrange the closet at the request of his wife. In turn, for a woman, the correlation of these circumstances is not self-evident, and the husband’s refusal to rearrange the closet immediately can be perceived as a sign of a bad attitude towards her personally.

Even worse, if both spouses are equally tired at work, and both expect support and understanding from each other. The author of Seeing the Forest for the Trees demonstrated this situation through the eyes of her husband:


It is clear that if no one breaks this vicious circle, relations in such a pair can go wrong very soon.

Thus, feedback loops in communication perform many important functions. Depending on their variety, they can perform an amplifying, corrective or balancing function.

So, where and in what areas it is necessary to take into account the effect of feedback loops in the first place:

  • In business, for the most complete consideration of the interests of customers and, as a result, sales growth.
  • In any organization for the most effective teamwork and, as a result, the achievement of the best work results.
  • In personal life to build harmonious healthy relationships .
  • In the education system to control the assimilation of the material and effective learning.
  • In society to maintain the balance of the social system.

Feedback loops in society and social interaction are a separate issue. Let us briefly say that it is very extensive and multifaceted. These are feedback loops between the authorities and citizens, when the authorities make any decisions, the people react to them with some kind of action or opposition, and the authorities are forced to correct their decisions if they do not want to get a social explosion.

These are feedback loops in the social interaction of the citizens themselves and various social groups, when pensioners consider all young people “drug addicts and prostitutes”, forgetting that it is from the taxes of working citizens that the state budget is replenished, which allows them to provide medical assistance to those in need, build schools and hospitals, and pave roads, etc.

Feedback loops form intricate intricacies when a topic is on the agenda, and different categories of citizens show different attitudes towards it. Relatively speaking, the “greens”, give them free rein, are ready to close all plants, factories and power plants, except for solar and wind, in order to save the environment. And industrialists and entrepreneurs clearly understand that society has no future without production, and “green” energy is simply not able to cover the needs of industry for electricity.

There are many such examples. You can do it yourself if you take our Cognitive Science and Best Communication Techniques programs . We want you to always be understood and given constructive feedback to help you move forward. If you wish, you can answer one question on the topic of our today’s article:


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