Your mind is a complex machine constantly receiving and processing information, but what if we told you that a powerful mechanism shapes your behaviors, thoughts, and emotions within this complex system? Welcome to the world of feedback loops!

What Is a Feedback Loop and How Does it Work?

Feedback loops are like the gears of a clock, working tirelessly to keep things ticking. Simply put, they're cyclical processes in which the input of what you do or feel influences what you'll do or feel next, and so on. It's a loop in which the output of your actions or thoughts becomes the input for further processing.

These loops aren't just limited to your own thoughts; they're everywhere. From how you perceive situations to how you interact with others and even how societies function, feedback loops shape our experiences, ideas, and behaviors at every turn! Understanding how they work is essential for navigating the complexities of our minds, lives, and relationships. A feedback loop is why specific habits persist, change can feel difficult, and our sense of mental well-being is connected to our everyday experiences.

Here's how psychological feedback loops work:

  • Something happens, like a thought or an event.
  • Our brain reacts to it, which leads to a certain feeling or behavior.
  • That feeling or behavior then affects what happens next, creating a loop.

For example, positive thoughts might make us happy, leading to more positive thoughts. On the other hand, having negative thoughts might make us feel sad, which could lead to more negative thoughts. So, our thoughts and feelings keep feeding into each other, creating a loop that can either be positive or negative.

What Are the Two Types of Feedback Loops?

In psychology, there are two main types of feedback loops:

  • Positive feedback loops
  • Negative feedback loops.

Think of a positive feedback loop as a magnifying glass for your actions or feelings—it can make them bigger and stronger, whether they're good or bad. Conversely, a negative feedback loop acts like a stabilizer, keeping things balanced and steady. Understanding how feedback loops work together is key to understanding our behavior!

The Unknown Side of Positive Feedback Loops

We already know that positive feedback loops amplify certain behaviors or emotions. A positive feedback loop happens when the output of a process amplifies the initial action, leading to an increase in that behavior or emotion.

For instance, think about social media use. The more likes and comments you receive on a post, the more likely you are to continue posting similar content to get even more engagement. This cycle perpetuates and amplifies your social media activity.

This 2016 study found evidence supporting the idea of a positive feedback loop between positive activities, kindness, and well-being. The authors suggest that when we engage in positive activities, like spreading kindness, it's not just a one-time thing—the overall effect is a persistent feedback loop. Our acts of kindness make most people feel better about their days and seriously boost our well-being. It's like planting seeds of happiness that keep growing and will determine the course of our actions.

Nonetheless, positive feedback loops are like a double-edged sword.

While they can be beneficial for reinforcing good behaviors or emotions, they can also perpetuate harmful patterns. For example, in the context of addiction, the pleasure derived from substance use triggers a positive feedback loop, reinforcing the behavior and making it more likely to recur in the future, too.

Similarly, in the case of anxiety, avoiding anxiety-provoking situations may temporarily reduce discomfort, but it reinforces avoidance behavior, making it more likely to repeat the situation in the future. Thus, positive feedback loops motivate us to continue doing the same things and repeat patterns.

The Hidden Power of Negative Feedback Loops

Negative feedback loops act as a stabilizing force within a system, they occur when the output of a process counters the initial action, leading to a decrease or regression of that behavior or emotion. A classic example is the body's temperature regulation: when you're too hot, your body sweats to cool down. This action reduces your temperature, decreasing sweating and thus maintaining a balanced internal temperature.

One study found that negative feedback loops are essential for maintaining homeostasis and that they help regulate human behavior and emotions, preventing them from spiraling out of power. For instance, in the context of stress (e.g., a business meeting), the body's stress response triggers the release of cortisol and adrenaline. Once the stressor is removed, the negative feedback mechanisms kick in to reduce the production of these stress hormones, restoring the body to a state of balance.

Thus, negative feedback loops encourage us to adjust our behavior or try a different approach to achieve better results in the future.

The Science Behind Feedback Loops

In this 2011 article in Wired magazine, journalist and entrepreneur Thomas Goetz delves into the realm of technology companies crafting innovative solutions with feedback loops to influence human behavior. One company explored in Goetz's article caught our attention: Vitality.

Vitality produces a cap designed for prescription pill bottles known as the GlowCap:

The GlowCap is quite simple to use: upon receiving a medication prescription, a GlowCap is supplied by either the physician or pharmacy to be affixed atop the pill bottle, supplanting the conventional childproof cap.

The device comes with a plug-in unit called a night-light, and it links to a database that knows the patient's dosage directions—for example, they must take two pills twice a day, at 7 AM and 7 PM. The device has four stages of action.

  • First stage: If it is 7 AM and the pill bottle is not opened, the GlowCap and the night light start pulsing with a gentle orange light.
  • Second stage: If the pill bottle remains unopened, the light pulses a little more urgently.  
  • Third stage: The device plays a song—not an annoying buzz or alarm.
  • Fourth stage: The patient receives a text message or a recorded phone call reminding them to take their pill.

This clever design creates a continuous feedback loop that encourages patients to adhere to their medication schedule, and the gentle reminders have proven highly effective.

A 2010 study conducted by Partners HealthCare and Harvard Medical School exemplifies this. They provided GlowCaps to 140 patients on hypertension medications, while a control group received bottles with inactive GlowCaps. After three months, adherence in the control group dropped to less than 50 percent, a common trend in previous studies. However, patients using GlowCaps showed significant improvement, with over 80 percent consistently taking their pills throughout the entire six-month study period.

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How Feedback Loops Shape Our Habits

Feedback loops shape our habits by influencing our behaviors, thoughts, and emotions in a continuous cycle. According to James Clear, the mastermind behind "Atomic Habits," a feedback loop is a process in which information about the results of an action or behavior is used to adjust and improve that behavior. It is a mechanism that allows us to break old habits and build better new ones in your life.

But wait, how are habits formed, and why is it important to know this?

Simply put, habits are a product of repetition and reinforcement. When we consistently engage in a behavior in a specific context, our brains form neural connections associated with that behavior. Over time, these connections strengthen, making the behavior more automatic and habitual. This process is driven by feedback loops, where the rewards or consequences of our actions reinforce the habit loop.

James Clear breaks down habits into four simple stages:

  • Cue: This is what that tells your brain to start the habit. It could be a time of day, a place, a feeling, an idea, or something else that triggers the habit.
  • Craving: This is the feeling you get that makes you want to do the habit. It's like a desire or urge that pushes you to take action.
  • Response: This is the actual habit itself—the thing you do in response to the cue and craving. It could be anything from eating a snack to checking your phone.
  • Reward: This is the good feeling you get after doing the habit. It's like a little prize your brain gives you to reinforce the habit and make you want to do it again next time.
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Learning about the habit loop—cue, craving, response, and reward—helps people better understand their habits. This knowledge makes it easier for them to change their habits, leading to positive changes in behavior and lasting improvement in their lives. Next, let's see how we can use feedback loops to create good habits and break bad habits!

Here's How to Build a Feedback Loop

Harnessing the power of feedback loops for behavior change is a smart move. Feedback loops can be used to cultivate good behaviors and to break bad ones. When you create a feedback loop, it's like shining a light on yourself. You get to see what you're great at, where you struggle, and what really matters to you.

By thinking about your actions and listening to what others say, you can spot areas where you want to improve. With this insight, you're better equipped to understand yourself and make choices about your future that align with who you want to be.

The first step in creating a good habit is designing a feedback loop that provides immediate rewards or positive reinforcement for engaging in the desired behavior. For example, if you want to develop a habit of exercising regularly, you can reward yourself with a healthy treat or a relaxing activity after each workout session.

Similarly, to break a bad habit, it's crucial to have effective ways to disrupt the existing feedback loop associated with that behavior and replace it with a new, healthier one. This may involve identifying the cues or triggers that lead to the habit, modifying the environment to reduce exposure to those triggers, and implementing strategies to introduce negative consequences or discomfort associated with the undesired behavior.

In short, by understanding how feedback loops influence habits and behavior, we can leverage this knowledge to create positive feedback loops that reinforce good habits and disrupt negative ones, leading to long-term behavior changes and feeling better overall.

To design good feedback loops, it is essential to keep the following ideas in mind:

  • Set S.M.A.R.T Goals: Set clear, measurable goals so you know exactly what you're trying to accomplish. Here's a step-by-step guide on how to set goals that actually work.
  • Identify Your Cues: Figure out what triggers your behavior. It could be a particular time of day, a place, an object, a text message, or even your mood.
  • Create a Routine: Establish your actions to respond to the cues. Make sure they're specific and achievable.
  • Reward Yourself: Give yourself a little treat or positive reinforcement every time you complete the routine. This could be as simple as congratulating yourself or treating yourself to something you enjoy.
  • Be Open to Adjustments and Improvements: Review your advances regularly to see what's working and what's not. Write down what works and what doesn't, and adjust as needed to keep the loop going strong. Be open to experimentation and continuous learning.
  • Celebrating Successes: Don’t forget to celebrate your successes, even the smallest ones, to strengthen your motivation and commitment.
  • Get an Accountability Partner: Regular feedback helps you stay on track and progress towards your goals. This is the perfect opportunity to start our coaching free trial and start your accountability journey!

We do not just follow some steps when we build our feedback loops. It's more like going on an adventure to discover new things about ourselves and get better at what we do. By being clear about our goals, staying open to learning, and listening to different viewpoints, we can create feedback loops that help us grow, become more confident, and handle whatever life throws our way.

Final Thoughts and Why Some Feedback Loops May Fail

So, you understand feedback loop psychology, work effortlessly on eliminating bad habits and building better behaviors, and have tried so many things, but you see no results! Can feedback loops really fail?

Yes, feedback loops may fail, and it can happen to anyone, leading to challenges in our daily lives. Sometimes, these loops can get stuck or go wrong, just like a glitchy game on a computer. This happens for various reasons:

  • Instead of focusing on learning, your brain gets stuck in a cycle of negativity. For example, constantly focusing on your mistakes without learning from them can lead to feelings of failure and low self-esteem.
  • You misinterpret or ignore other's feedback. For instance, when someone offers you constructive criticism, you perceive it as a personal attack, impeding your personal development.
  • The fear of failure paralyzes you, and you're not giving yourself a chance to learn and improve.

So what can you do about it?

First, as mentioned, feedback loops critically influence how humans think and behave, so measuring progress and adjusting whenever necessary when trying to change habits is essential.

Second, take a step back and consider why the positive or negative feedback loop might not work. Is the cue not strong enough? Is the routine too tricky? Reflecting on these questions can help you pinpoint the problem. Once you've identified the issue, adjust your feedback loop. This could involve changing the cue, modifying the routine, or altering the reward.

Lastly, acknowledge that you can change your behavior when confronted with a cycle of negative thoughts or actions and that you do that by being aware, understanding, and managing your feedback loops! Through mindfulness, awareness, and purposeful actions, we can disrupt unhealthy routines and enable healthier habits and mindsets.

Changing habits and behaviors takes time and effort, so be patient with yourself. Remember that setbacks are normal and part of the process. Stay focused on your goals, and keep moving forward!

Food For Thought:

  • What are some recurring patterns in your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors?
  • How do your thoughts influence your emotions, and vice versa?
  • Are there any feedback loops contributing to unhealthy habits or patterns in your life?
  • How can you use feedback loops to enhance your personal growth and well-being?


What is the meaning of feedback loops?

A feedback loop is a cyclical process where the output of your actions or thoughts becomes the input for further processing. In short, what you do or feel influences what you'll do or feel next, and so on. Feedback loops allow us to evaluate our performance, tweak things, and make more intelligent choices. They also play a crucial role in motivation, emotion regulation, and decision-making.

What are the two types of feedback loops?

There are two types of feedback loops: positive feedback loops and negative feedback loops. A positive feedback loop is a catalyst that amplifies your actions or emotions, intensifying their impact, whether they're beneficial or detrimental. Conversely, a negative feedback loop serves as a stabilizer, maintaining balance, control, and steadiness in your actions.

Why use a feedback loop?

Using a feedback loop is an intelligent strategy for improving your well-being! Feedback loops are crucial in cultivating good habits and breaking bad ones. They also offer us essential information about our triggers, processes, and future behaviors.

Feedback loops allow us to monitor and adjust our actions, thoughts, and emotions in response to outcomes or consequences. They help us focus and stay on track toward our goals by providing continuous guidance and direction.

What is an example of a feedback loop?

An excellent example of a feedback loop is your home thermostat. When you set it to a specific temperature, it tries to keep the room at that level. If it gets too cold, the thermostat turns on the heat until it's back to the set temperature. If it gets too hot, it turns on the air conditioning until it's back to the same number. This back-and-forth rotation helps keep the room temperature steady, just like feedback loops help us learn and adjust our behavior.


Kristin Layous, S. Katherine Nelson, Jaime L. Kurtz & Sonja Lyubomirsky(2017) What triggers prosocial effort in human beings? A positive feedback loop between positive activities, kindness, and well-being, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12:4, 385-398, DOI:10.1080/17439760.2016.1198924

Turrigiano G. Homeostatic signaling: the positive side of negative feedback. Curr Opin Neurobiol. 2007 Jun;17(3):318-24. doi: 10.1016/j.conb.2007.04.004. Epub 2007 Apr 23. PMID: 17451937.