Do you have a favorite animal, one that you keep unwrapping? For Chelsea it’s owls. Years ago, a coworker gave Chelsea a little owl to say thanks. It sat on her desk until everyone learned that she likes owls, and years later people are still giving her owls. She keeps them, because they’re gifts, not because they’re owls. She doesn’t know why anyone thought she liked owls.
Another friend wore a Pikachu shirt a little too often, and now he has a room full of Pikachus. He says, “Pikachu’s okay, I guess. I don’t know why people keep giving them to me. I’m kind of starting to hate them.”
Things are the way they are because they got that way.my mother-in-law, Linda Kerr
It goes like this: you own owls, so people figure you like owls; people want to buy you gifts you like, so they buy you owls. Therefore you own more owls, and then people see that you must really like owls.
This is a reinforcing feedback loop. People buying you owls causes people to buy you owls.
A reinforcing loop can grow beyond reason.
A reinforcing loop is a form of circular causality. In a reinforcing loop, something causes itself, directly or indirectly. More Pikachu lead to even more Pikachu.
This happens with feelings, too. A child’s tantrum is triggered by something external (they died in a video game), allowed by some existing conditions (low blood sugar); then it continues and amplifies itself. Their little world shrinks until only the doom remains. The child cries more because the child is crying.
To break the loop, distract them: “Look at that owl!”
Grown-up arguments can form a reinforcing loop between two people. Perhaps I’m angry generally, and my partner didn’t take out the garbage. I snap at them for it. Then they’re angry at me for snapping at them, and they snap back. Now I’m really mad… and so on. Feelings escalate – a sure sign of a reinforcing loop.
It takes serious adulting to recognize this loop, snap out of it, and apologize. “I’m not really mad at you, I’m just mad.” Then we can deal with those conditions that allowed the snapping.
This is a tiny example of a much, much larger pattern.
Companies can get into reinforcing loops, and grow big beyond reason.
A network effect is one kind of reinforcing loop. Facebook is a clear example: the more people who use it, the more useful it is, so the more people use it. Now it’s so useful (or, at least, used) that I can’t fully participate in my neighborhood until I join its Facebook group.
The iPhone did this too: the more apps in the App Store, the more useful the phone. The more useful the phone, the more people buy it. The more people buy it, the more incentive to put an app in the App Store. And so on.
This reinforcing loop has a side effect — something that doesn’t directly participate in the loop itself, but naturally results from the effects in the loop. When people buy iPhones, Apple makes profit. //picture
Piggybacking on a reinforcing loop can be a high-growth profit model. Reinforcing loops are disruptive.
Reinforcing loops can shift an ecosystem.
Someone introduced a few rabbits to Australia [find a LINK]. Rabbits have babies. The more rabbits, the more baby rabbits. The more baby rabbits, the more rabbits. Australia now has many, many rabbits.
Reinforcing loops in software can bring it down.
In a distributed system, a server responds with varying speeds to client requests. When it is too slow, the client retries its request. That increases the number of requests, which can slow down the server further. That leads to more retries, and so on, until the server crashes completely. //picture
Our code can suffer (or benefit) from reinforcing feedback loops that include the team.
The phenomenon of Broken Windows [find a link] says that when we let a piece of code be sloppy, then people get sloppy with the code. The sloppiness spreads until it’s everywhere.
Some crunch-time pressure can trigger a cycle: we skip writing tests once; now we can’t refactor; our code gets harder to work with, so we are slower; this triggers more pressure, and more skipping tests.
With strategic effort and organizational cooperation, we can run these loops the other way. Some collective work at linting automation can nudge us toward cleaning up code as we change it. If we work together at restoring tests, the team can get more responsive, leading to more trust and less pressure, and more time to keep tests solid.
Reinforcing loops shift culture.
What happens a lot, seems normal, and so it happens a lot. There’s a reinforcing loop in gender imbalances in technology[link].
Anything illegal seems abnormal, so we can change “normal” by making laws. Walking in the street was ordinary until it became illegal [find link about jaywalking]. When people do it less, it becomes abnormal, and then easier to outlaw. Maybe we don’t need to outlaw it anymore; crossing mid-block is now abnormal enough that insurance policies can define the pedestrian as “at fault.”
Reinforcing loops often don’t make sense, in the linear, rational way we like to pretend the world works.
It doesn’t make sense that Chelsea has so many owls, but it’s hilarious. Sometimes it’s a bit funny when a child has a silly tantrum, unless it’s my child. Maybe my partner and I can even laugh later about the senseless argument we had.
Once a reinforcing loop gets started, it doesn’t need any external, logical, “rational” reason to keep going or get stronger.
Our culture does accept exponential growth as a thing. It does make sense that Australia has so many rabbits, and that Facebook is so big. But the person who brought those rabbits didn’t expect such a problem. And twenty-years-ago-me would have found it ludicrous to converse with high school acquaintances, great aunts, and former coworkers in one giant mash of online “friends.” Reinforcing loops can surprise.
In biological and social systems, circular causality is the norm, not the exception. While we believe that most causality is linear, if-then, root-cause cascades from logic class or chemistry lab, we miss out on what happens around us.
Look for reinforcing loops, perceive them, and then use them consciously. Otherwise, it’s them using you.
And only the owls are watching.