Wired Magazine: Harnessing the Power of Feedback Loops

Thomas Goetz, Wired Magazine

City engineers in Garden Grove, CA, took a new approach to reducing speeding in school zones: they put up dynamic speed displays, or driver feedback signs- a speed limit posting coupled with a radar sensor attached to a huge digital readout announcing “Your Speed.”

The results fascinated city officials. In the vicinity of the schools, drivers slowed an average of 14 percent. At three schools the average speed dipped below the posted speed limit. Indeed, traffic engineers and safety experts consider feedback signs to be more effective at changing driving habits than a cop with a radar gun. Despite their redundancy, despite their lack of repercussions, the signs have accomplished what seemed impossible: They get us to let up on the gas.

The signs leverage what’s called a feedback loop, a profoundly effective tool for changing behavior. Action, information, reaction. But the simplicity of feedback loops is deceptive. They are in fact powerful tools that can help people change damaging patterns, even those that seem intractable. Just as important, they can be used to encourage beneficial patterns, turning progress itself into a reward. In other words, feedback loops change human behavior. And thanks to an explosion of new technology, the opportunity to put them into action in nearly every part of our lives is quickly becoming a reality.

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.

Advances in sensor technology are making feedback loops more powerful and accessible than ever. Of course, sensor technology has been tracking what people do for years. The nation’s tractor-trailer fleets have long been equipped with GPS and other location sensors so that companies can track their cargo and the drivers. But the true power of feedback loops is not to control people but to give them control. It’s like the difference between a speed trap and a speed feedback sign—one is a game of gotcha, the other is a gentle reminder of the rules of the road. The ideal feedback loop gives us an emotional connection to a rational goal.

And today, their promise couldn’t be greater. The intransigence of human behavior has emerged as the root of most of the world’s biggest challenges. Consider our problems with carbon emissions, where managing personal energy consumption could be the difference between a climate under control and one beyond help. And feedback loops aren’t just about solving problems. They could create opportunities. They could lead to lower consumption of precious resources and more productive use of what we do consume. They could allow people to set and achieve better-defined, more ambitious goals and curb destructive behaviors, replacing them with positive actions. Used in organizations or communities, they can help groups work together to take on more daunting challenges. In short, the feedback loop is an age-old strategy revitalized by state-of-the-art technology. As such, it is perhaps the most promising tool for behavioral change to have come along in decades.


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