The article’s message is, essentially, we’re in a time of pain — but it’s not time to die.
Umm… I’m in agony!
Yes, the headline of this morning’s The New York Times feature piece on “Feedback Loops” (like brain surgeons, “we want all the data we can get” says Nicholas Christakis) was supposed to make clear that when humans express stress, and we say so, we’re not talking about depression or PTSD or that old chestnut, “depression” but are instead “conscientious rule-breakers.” It’s a little thing that we can do to make life a little more bearable and helps to prevent the kind of gruesome world that Anonymous retweeted last night. And it has profound implications for how we behave in relationships — and good things that will come out of it.
As previously mentioned, anyone who’s been personally engaged in a high-stakes game — say, a CEO of a Fortune 100 company — is familiar with the rarefied environment in which feedback loops are rarely discussed. No one talks about whether you, personally, managed to blow your company into the ground, or whether you did okay in light of a down market. But many of the most important things we do as adults — setting our work standards high, enforcing fairness, being guided by an ethos of “pleasure-factor” — these are concepts that, given the right motivation, develop naturally, and that in itself carries with it the promise of being more happiness-laden.
But how much do we know about the mechanics of how this happens in a real human interaction? The feedback loop is famously studied in design and engineering, and several theories make for tempting reading. Energetic children who want approval, for example, use props like toys to induce laughter. When that becomes habit, however, the child forgets to seek an endgame for that gesture. (One oft-cited theory says that emotional distance can prevent children from asking for feedback, but there is evidence to the contrary.) A more disturbing or experimental theory suggests that children who are hungry for praise are more likely to keep score. (This one, however, has not been treated with the level of skepticism that other theories have been.)
Or, consider the possibility that when we use feedback loops in children and adulthood, we are unconsciously using them to express our appreciation for certain skills. If the person you are praising says yes to the compliment, it might seem like a show of gratitude for a valuable skill. But maybe the feedback loop means saying thanks because you are already a fan, but you could just say “I really appreciate that you recommended that!”
The fact that feedback loops are hard to study in humans largely accounts for why they’re so few and far between. We don’t seem to have a sense of the mysterious moments when feedback loops “can be very powerful and really positive” and “can be really bad and really negative.” So when we get feedback loops and do not want to acknowledge them — we end up doing the very thing we think we are doing to help, self-control, and happiness:
…people who have overcome depression will feel as if they have an extra half a day and an extra five minutes to be sensitive. … They want the other person to know how you feel. But you do not want to use your precious time to run the fastest 100 meters. If you’re a good citizen — to use a term used by somebody about a time I admire — you might actually ask the other person for a compliment.
That’s the thing about feedback loops. You’re not looking for a snappy response. You don’t want it to be a story. You want it to be, let’s say, an unbridled super-gladiator.
Vulnerability, generosity, graciousness — these things, it turns out, are also products of good feedback loops.
And that’s the thing with feedback loops: they don’t just aid our attempts to be better people. They can also benefit our efforts to help others.
Read the rest here.