Feedback: Positive versus Negative

Our behaviors in daily life are governed by positive and negative feedbacks. The former consists of incentives that encourage continuation of same behavior, while the latter involves disincentives that discourage or forbid.

Negative feedbacks are simpler in nature. They serve to control indulgence and bring life back to normal rather quickly. The following are some obvious ones:
Feel hungry → eat → stomach full → stop eating.
Want to buy a product → price too high → don’t buy or find a substitute.
Drive too fast → police citation → drive slower.

Positive feedbacks are more complicated. They finally lead to bad results, even a disaster if not restrained. However, it is not easy to control positive feedbacks because the bad results are not obvious initially. It may be too late by the time you want to stop it. That is why most positive feedbacks end up in disasters. The following illustrates:
Smoke cigarettes → fun → smoke more → lung cancer.
Gamble → fun → gamble more → lose everything.
Swindle people → get away → swindle more.
Monopoly → bigger profits → stronger monopoly.
Corrupt system → bribe to get more things done → more corrupt system.
Rising home prices → expect even higher prices → more buying→ bubble created → bubble burst eventually.

Now we come to the complicated issue of oil. It has both positive and negative feedbacks. The positive feedback is mobility and economic growth.  The negative feedback is increasing oil prices and environmental pollution. Oil prices have been rising for decades but demands continue to increase worldwide. Why? The positive feedback conveys more urgency at the present time. Environmental pollution must wait until it accumulates to an unbearable level. People have to put up with high prices too because they have no other choice. Alternative fuels such as electricity, ethanol, bio-fuel, and natural gas only began to develop in recent years when oil prices became too great a burden.

The oil producers understand the threat of alternative fuels to their industry. They also know how to impede the development of alternative fuels. How? Basically by keeping oil prices high enough for their profit, but low enough to forestall a massive consumer switch to alternative energy.

The issue of global warming is perhaps the most complicated to understand. Many people don’t even think this monumental problem exists. Global warming presents plenty of positive feedback where the adverse consequences cannot be seen until it is too late. One example is the reflective surface of ice due to its white color. When ice melts as the climate warms, less heat from the sun will be reflected back into space, thus causing more warming and melting.

Another example is burning fossil fuels. It releases carbon buried under the ground into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide. As a counter balance, the trees absorb the carbon dioxide via photosynthesis, and turn it back into carbon compounds to be re-buried eventually when the trees die. This carbon recycling is disrupted when large areas of forest are cleared for human use. It produces a positive feedback where more and more carbon dioxide is released into the air without being re-buried by trees and plants.

Positive feedback is hard to control because the immediate advantage is so obvious that outweighs any future damage or threat. It requires foresight to understand the consequence of a positive feedback, and great skills to convince other people to take a long-term view that runs counter to their present behaviors.

(November 2010)

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