Positive (Loop) vs Negative (Loop): A True WTF Story

Listen to Kate read: Positive (Loop) vs Negative (Loop): A True WTF Story

I need a name for that moment when you are shown a new way to look at something, a different angle, a changed perspective, a flip of how you’ve understood not just the definition of a word but a whole new meaning of that thing that now causes you to react – and then continue to act – and be moving in a completely opposite direction of attitude and intention than you did for, oh, the entire (let’s make this personal and say 52) years of your life when you’d heard or used that particular word before.

It’s not as dramatic as having an epiphany nor would I call it a revelation, necessarily, but dang – it’s definitely an eye-opening moment when you’re reminded that you actually don’t know all the things, or even close to half of all the things, and isn’t it nice to be an explorer and learn new stuff all the time?

Anyway – here’s what I’m yammering about: Apparently, positive is negative and negative is positive – at least where mathematical loops are concerned.

Or, a more accurate way to phrase this is: A positive feedback loop gives information that a detrimental situation is at hand, and a negative feedback loop gives information that a beneficial situation is at hand.

Let’s reset the stage with my (not award-winning) illustration of a mathematical loop.

As I explained in that other loop essay, there’s information traveling back and forth on a feedback loop. But this time, instead of thinking of the initial input as a response to the initial output, what if we think of it merely as a return? So, it’s not really taking the pause in action where there’s some determination of how the input will respond to the output, but rather there’s just simply a u-turn happening; I picture it like a swimmer when they reach the end of a lap in their whatever-multiple-meters race. It’s a bounce back that has nothing necessarily thoughtfully newly added to it – nor anything taken away – but, the information is now moving in the opposite direction it had just come from, and something happened in this return so that the movement has become so frenetic that its energy is basically overlapping unto itself.

All right, let me bring it back around to my core loop question: what is UP with this whole flip of positive is negative / negative is positive feedback? Like, up until a couple of weeks ago (which is when I first innocently came upon this info) if, say, there’s a horrific ear-bleeding sound that erupts from a speaker when a microphone is too close to it, and then I’m asked about it with a multiple choice question like:

“What type of feedback is this torturous sound?”
A) Positive
B) Negative
C) Obnoxious

I most certainly would have gone with B, with a nod towards C.
But, dammit, the correct answer is A.

In James Gleick’s book, The Information, he talks about two mathematicians – Claude Shannon and Norbert Wiener – who each have their own analyses of the distribution of information, be it by man or machine or some combo of the two.

Norbert Wiener was the founder of the science of cybernetics, the study of the relationship between computers and the human nervous system. He interwove his work in mathematics with his philosophical mindset, and he saw behavior as something that could be possessed by both beings and machines. When explaining how behavior in informational communication showed up, he too used that microphone / speaker example:

To analyze it properly he borrowed an obscure term from electrical engineering: “feed-back,” the return of energy from a circuit’s output back to its input. When feedback is positive, as when the sound from loudspeakers is re-amplified through a microphone, it grows wildly out of control. But when feedback is negative … it can guide a system toward equilibrium; it serves as an agent of stability.

“The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood” by James Gleick
(pg. 238)

OK okokokok, so positive feedback is wild energy. I’m picturing it and it’s taking up a lot of space. It wants to bust out of the seams that are holding it back. It’s expansive and its reverberations are bangin’ frenetically.

And, as I continue to visualize what this positive feedback might look like, I’m also realizing that when the output (speaker) and input (microphone) locations are so close together, there’s no time – there’s no space allotted – for a (visual version of a) breath to be able to think before responding. This is why I had suggested we use the word return here, rather than respond.

It just seems like the ‘input’ energy that’s the return of the output is actually overlapping on itself. It might be unintentional, it seems passive, and it’s like the ripple of the water when the swimmer makes that kick-turn at the end of their lap.

Though, you know, there’s peeps out there that like it when everything is ramped up.

Positive feedback, as the term is ordinarily used in systems theory, carries no normative implication; it is neither good or bad. Rather, it is positive because it is deviation-amplifying… it represents a process that feeds on itself and breaks out of old bounds, creating either precipitous breakdown or seemingly sudden leaps to higher levels of functioning or creativity. Whereas negative feedback helps us understand stability, positive feedback is a key means for understanding change and growth.

“Complex Systems and Human Behavior” by Christopher G. Hudson
(pg. 14)

Which then all means that, if given a choice, I’d prefer negative feedback, especially with the words equilibrium and stability used in those explanations. You know I’m all about the quest for equilibrium. So, how do I – how do you – how do we get to that equilibrium, that stability if we’re in the space of positive feedback?

At this point, my friend, ✨Math✨, has entered the room. Oh hello please come right in, you arrived at just the perfect time, may I take your coat, would you like a glass of water? No? Then please have a seat over here and shine your mathyness on this human behavioral thang. I know you’ve got what we’re looking for to make sense of this positive/negative Freaky Friday swap-a-rama. Do tell us if it’s possible to alter a loop from a positive state to a negative state. Is it?

Yes, says ✨Math✨.
For a feedback loop to reach stability and be deemed efficient, there is a need for speed proportional feedback. And the road to managing proportional feedback is in a control synthesis, which is actioned by a process called loop shaping. The goal here is that:

“…disturbances cannot be rejected unless measurements can be trusted.”

“The Princeton Companion to Applied Mathematics”
(pg. 526)

Right right right, measurements that can be trusted as well as proportional. So basically, when you are at that critical point where the obnoxious noise occurs, since you want that point to be “farther” away, that’s where this whole loop shaping comes into play. It’s about determining a mathematical solution that will bend that arc of the loop so it is, measurably, allowing more space and length…to pause and breathe. 😊

You know, I gotta say that I do have an inclination to look at the term “negative feedback” within the constructs of ye ol’ “constructive criticism.” In real-life human-to-human relationships, negative feedback can absolutely bring about a beneficial result, right?

Expect discomfort, and don’t let it hold you back. Look at it as the price of admission to making progress. Use it as a signal to push you to learn more.

“The Manager’s Guide to Inclusive Leadership”
First Round Review

I mean, that’s the very heart of the term ‘turning a negative into a positive.’ Discomfort, you say? I’m gonna visualize that discomfort as those looonnnggg pauses in that feedback loop, where it’s looking to regain stability and equilibrium. Lonnnng moments of letting it all sink in order to make some real progress.

The truth is that we co-create each other. Relationships are feedback loops. And a person isn’t just who they are. That same person paired up with somebody else may act entirely different.

“How To Fix The Co-Finder Fights You’re Sick of Having”
Lessons From Couples Therapist Esther Perel
First Round Review

Feedback loops, and the behavior that they display in human communications, tends to find grounding and even a rhythm in the familiar, especially in established relationships. What I find to be so interesting is how information, some of it in the form of knowledge and some of it in the form of baggage, can get attached to not just specific people in your life, but it can get transferred from and attached to specific identities or roles.

This is how biases form. If you always had a particular type of relationship with the people in the Human Resources department at the company you worked at for 5 years – a relationship based on honest experiences and via information feedback loops – it’s likely that when you go on to another company, you’ll start your relationship with the people in that Human Resources department using conclusions you logged in your brain based on those prior feedback loops of convos. Which isn’t fair. But it’s very definitely humans being human.

Learning, like more primitive forms of feedback, is a process which reads differently forward and backward in time. The whole conception of the apparently purposive organism, whether it is mechanical, biological , or social, is that of an arrow with a particular direction in the stream of time rather than that of a line segment facing both ways which we may regard as going in either direction. The creature that learns is not the mythical amphisbaena of the ancients, with a head at each end and no concern with where it is going. It moves ahead from a known past into an unknown future and this future is not interchangeable with that past.

“The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society” by Norbert Wiener
(pg. 48)

I really love that last sentence.

Positive is neither good nor bad, it’s just a lot. And negative puts you on the path to equilibrium. Got it.

Thanks math, you’re the best.


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  • Ages ago I enjoyed Norbert Weiner’s autobiography in two volumes, “Ex-Prodigy: My Childhood and Youth” and “I am a Mathematician”. They showed how we was different in some ways and the same in other ways. Funny that by a circuitous path my work lead me to some of his.

    • Ooh, a circuitous path, you say 😉😄
      In my reading queue I have that second volume, but not the first, of his autobiography; I don’t think I realized it was a two-parter, so I best pick that up. Thx for the tip!

      • My pun was intentional! The first volume gives some insights into your earlier distinction between being good at math and being a mathematician.

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