How ‘feedback loops’ regulate human behaviour

This week, I’m typing in pain. A little mountain biking crash on the weekend has left me with some very bruised ribs. The last few days of responding to my pain has got me thinking about something that I’ve been thinking about for some time, and that I’d like to write about this week: feedback loops.

Let’s start with some basic behaviourism. Those of you who studied psychology at uni probably remember operant conditioning, the brainchild of B.F. Skinner. Without boring you, operant conditioning is a basic set of principles for conditioning behaviour in animals, using positive and negative reinforcement. By shaping behaviour (rewarding behaviour that approximates the desired outcome, and then narrowing the reward to shape behaviour to a specific outcome), Skinner and his colleagues were able to train animals to perform complex feats through pairing of particular types of reward with specific stimuli. Psychology has moved forward a long way since behaviourism, and yet, as humans, we’re still highly trainable, we can be shaped. It’s just that our reward systems respond to a wider range of reinforcement (more than, say, doggy treats).

So let’s introduce the notion of feedback loops in humans. Human beings are information gathering and processing devices – we rely on information gleaned from our senses in order to process our environment. Feedback loops are types of behavioural feedback that result in repetition (or avoidance) of a behaviour or set of behaviours. For example, currently, it hurts when I cough and I’ve learnt very quickly, ways of clearing my throat that allow me to avoid coughing. More generally, when we’re praised for something, we feel a sense of accomplishment or pride that increases the chance of us doing whatever it was again, and feelings of gratitude toward the person giving praise.

OK, those examples were pretty basic – and I’m not going to spend the rest of this blog suggesting that the 1950’s behaviourists got it right and that human cognition doesn’t count. Or am I?

Let’s reiterate, humans rely on feedback loops to reinforce actions and behaviours. Many of these events occur at a subconscious level (i.e., we’re not consciously aware of what we’re doing) but still evoke a distinct behavioural change. I’m going to suggest that a lot of what we think are actually our choices are, in fact, being decided at a much more basic level, leaving us with the illusion of choice and the requirement for rationalisation. I’ve touched on this before an I’m going to expand on this idea in a lot more depth next week, but for now, let’s play with this idea for a bit.

Why don’t we start with some of our fundamental decisions, the ones that helped shape us and directed us to where we are, currently, in our lives. Things like choice of partner, election of career, or having children. Undoubtedly, these are the big ones, they impact on our happiness, and influence our lives at a very deep level. But, to me, it’s fascinating that we describe these things as choices, when, for most of us, they were nothing of the sort. There’s a very good likelihood that each of these ‘decisions’ were actually made under the influence of a feedback loop. You got good marks in a particular subject at school, so you decided to continue in that field at uni, and then took a job in the area in which you qualified; your parents told you that you should do ‘X’ and then withdrew affection when you tried something else; you snogged someone at a party, and then hooked up the next day, and got married two years later. None of these things were big, conscious decisions, although no doubt you constructed complex backstories and rationalisations to convince yourself that they were; they were simply reactions to information in your environment, reinforced by biological imperatives or outmoded reinforcement centres in our brains.

We’re all victim to this sort of ‘hacking’ and on a daily basis. The other week I wrote about my surprise to find that I’d let my mind be hacked by a piece of innocuous technology, in itself the perfect example of how feedback loops influence and modify our behaviour. But it’s not the fact that most of our decisions are probably made without any actual thought, and because of simplistic reinforcement systems in our heads, that upsets me. The worst thing is the delusional stories we tell ourselves to make us believe that our decisions are because of something bigger or nobler, or that we’re doing something special, or philanthropic, or moral. To me, this is just sad – convincing ourselves that we’re doing something meaningful to hide the fact that we’ve been manipulated by our own heads into behaving in a way that was reinforced by our environment.

Am I getting a bit ranty? I suppose I am – but how often do we actually think about the motives for our behaviours, rather than making up self-delusional scripts? I’ve already written about why so many things can slip past our defences and I really believe that most of our problems (personally and as a society) stem from the fact that most people simply can’t tell the difference between self-serving delusions to explain how they’ve been manipulated, and actual, thought-out, conscious decisions.

I find this human predisposition to self-delusion especially interesting in situations where people get fanatical about things. I’ve already written about this idea extensively in my series of blogs on arrogance, but it seems that, with lots of reinforcing feedback and no alternate viewpoints, humans become extraordinarily good at convincing themselves that they are acting not only in a justifiable way, but in a way that is righteous. They also close up rapidly to competing viewpoints that might remove the ongoing feedback. It doesn’t take long before this extreme feedback loop can allow people to justify the most remarkable behaviours. Hey, I’m the first to support people’s rights to protest in a democratic society, but every time I see a protest, whether it’s a local campaign against big business, a religious group shouting at someone or something, or a trade union demanding whatever they’re demanding that day, I see a group of people who have been hacked by a feedback loop into behaving in a way that wasn’t their choice. Afterwards they’ll swear until they’re blue in the face that, of course, it was their decision. But it wasn’t, not originally, not consciously, and certainly not mindfully.

A quick caveat here: I can get a little generalist in my blogs – so don’t take it personally. And, yes, I’m sure that some protesters really did think it through beforehand, but I wonder if they can honestly claim to have been uncorrupted by the ongoing reinforcing feedback once in situ?

So, if we’re not really the authors of our own lives, are we doomed to a fateful existence of primitive biological reinforcement and self-deluded explanations? I don’t believe so… I’ve said this before (a lot) and, no doubt, I’ll keep saying it over and over again: the only way to live as an effective human being is to be aware of the influence of our external and internal environments, and to choose our actions based on this awareness. It’s probably not possible to keep on top of all of it, but it’s pretty important when it comes to the fundamentals. Am I behaving this way because I’ve truly chosen to do so, understanding the various influences of my limbic system in response to my environment, or am I just behaving the way I’ve been programmed to?

But how to be mindful of the various feedback loops in our lives and, more interestingly, to use them to our advantage? First and foremost, we need to start paying more attention to our lives. This is hard work because we’re also very effective filtering machines and habit engines; humans have evolved very effective ways of reducing the amount of information they need to attend to, so as not to be overwhelmed when trying to focus on a given task. One option is to use technology to help us: the Quantified Self movement is an interesting example of using technology to help pay attention to what’s going on and to use technology to supplement our, frankly, appalling memories. In my opinion, this is going a little too far. I simply suggest paying a bit more attention to what’s going on around us (by whatever means we have at our disposal, including technology), and then spending some time to determine the course of our actions (especially on the really important stuff – and we all need to figure out for ourselves what that is), mindfully and deliberately, instead of blundering along and assuming that we were driving (not asleep in the passenger seat).

Oh, one more thing. No doubt, it’s possible to construct (probably technological) feedback loops to ‘positively’ influence human behaviour. I don’t want to go there. Yeah, we’ve got a lot of problems, but influencing human beings to behave in a particular way (and to make them think that they chose to behave that way in the first place) is dodgy, even with the most noble of goals – I don’t know if any of us are equipped enough to make that call.


11 Replies to “How ‘feedback loops’ regulate human behaviour”

  1. The thing , to me, is that it is all delusional – even the feed back loops. Even the brain behavioral system is a delusion that creates a dependency for us to act as independent entities-that is until
    one starts to realize that they are not the sum total of their interactive and reactive experiences but rather they are an independent entity in spite of their interactive and reactive experiences. The brain is just a coordinator, the mind, however, is the facilitator.

  2. Very big brain article, one day if I take LSD maybe I’ll be able to get my head around it.

  3. Feels nice that this landed in my lap. I resonate with what you’re saying. This is a refreshing read and I look forward to another one!

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