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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Feedback loops - applications?

A recent Wired article "Harnessing the Power of Feedback Loops" tells the story of how such mechanisms can be used in a variety of ways to affect human behavior - to essentially get us to 'do the right thing'. Here's an explanation of how they work from the article:

A feedback loop involves four distinct stages. First comes the data: A behavior must be measured, captured, and stored. This is the evidence stage. Second, the information must be relayed to the individual, not in the raw-data form in which it was captured but in a context that makes it emotionally resonant. This is the relevance stage. But even compelling information is useless if we don’t know what to make of it, so we need a third stage: consequence. The information must illuminate one or more paths ahead. And finally, the fourth stage: action. There must be a clear moment when the individual can recalibrate a behavior, make a choice, and act. Then that action is measured, and the feedback loop can run once more, every action stimulating new behaviors that inch us closer to our goals.

A number of examples are provided, the most prominent being feedback loop signs that tell you how fast you're driving next to the posted speed limit. This reminds me of theories of athletic coaching that I've read about - how good coaches use low-key constant correction advice to get their players to change their performance in real time (or close to it). Apparently, now is the time for feedback loop devices as a public policy method, as the costs of one of the primary means of providing feedback loops - sensor technology - continues to sink.

While not all feedback loop applications require sensors, the rise of such technology should perhaps give us pause to consider how such mechanisms might be used in a wide number of settings. For instance, can it be used effectively in teaching (perhaps, not too different from coaching)? I occasinally use real time quizzes via powerpoint, but I never really thought of it as a feedback loop although I imgaine that there are similarities.

But, what about legal applications? Can we use it for more than just speeding? Will such mechanisms make us more likely to obey the law? Why do they work in the first place? Well, here's what the article said on that point:

So feedback loops work. Why? Why does putting our own data in front of us somehow compel us to act? In part, it’s that feedback taps into something core to the human experience, even to our biological origins. Like any organism, humans are self-regulating creatures, with a multitude of systems working to achieve homeostasis. Evolution itself, after all, is a feedback loop, albeit one so elongated as to be imperceptible by an individual. Feedback loops are how we learn, whether we call it trial and error or course correction. In so many areas of life, we succeed when we have some sense of where we stand and some evaluation of our progress. Indeed, we tend to crave this sort of information; it’s something we viscerally want to know, good or bad. As Stanford’s Bandura put it, “People are proactive, aspiring organisms.” Feedback taps into those aspirations.

With all of this in mind, I invite readers to suggest potential applications :-)

[H/T Tim Ferriss]

Posted by Jeff Yates on June 22, 2011 at 08:43 AM in Article Spotlight, Criminal Law, Culture, Law and Politics, Science, Sports, Teaching Law, Web/Tech | Permalink


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Not a potential application, but a real one, codified in the CFR: FDA regulations governing medical device manufacturers require them to implement Corrective and Preventative Actions (CAPA) during the manufacturing process. It's essentially a feedback loop that requires manufacturers to identify the root cause of problems, document those, implementing corrective and preventative actions, and verify that those addressed the underlying problems. These are at 21 CFR part 820.

Posted by: Nathan Cortez | Jun 23, 2011 2:08:23 PM

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