negative feedback look social science

Pareto principle as a consequence of positive feedback loops

“Alexander to Aristotle greeting. You have not done well to publish your books of oral doctrine; for what is there now that we excel others in, if those things which we have been particularly instructed in be laid open to all? For my part, I assure you, I had rather excel others in the knowledge of what is excellent, than in the extent of my power and dominion. Farewell.”

And Aristotle, soothing this passion for preeminence, speaks, in his excuse for himself, of these doctrines, as in fact both published and not published: as indeed, to say the truth, his books on metaphysics are written in a style which makes them useless for ordinary teaching, and instructive only, in the way of memoranda, for those who have been already conversant in that sort of learning.

– The Life of Alexander the Great By Plutarch

Besides the fact that Alexander was a paranoid megalomaniac, this occurred to me:

Learning begets more learning.

As well as:

  • Fitness begets more fitness.
  • Money begets more money.
  • Friendship begets more friendship.
  • Even children – traditionally people tended to either have none at all or a good few.

There is positive feedback (all up to a point of course and then returns diminish).

Why are societal things positive feedback loops whereas biological things are generally negative feedback loops? There are exceptions of course, notably the use it or lose it principle in anything neurological/behavioural as well as in exceptional situations like labour.

Can we think of any examples where there is a negative feedback loop in a sociological context?

It doesn’t have to be limited to humans by the way.

I can think of the following examples of negative feedback in society:

  • Election fatigue or the general situation of chasing after someone who isn’t interested be it in marketing or in interpersonal situations (for clarity, we can phrase it as the more attention they receive, the less attention they return).
  • Obviously, there are lots of theories about how markets self-regulate, but they are filled with problems.
  • Prices vs demand and prices vs supply is another tempting one. However, here the relationship is more genuinely between supply and demand rather than between either of those and price – and that’s not a negative loop.

And if there aren’t very many examples of negative feedback, this explains that so many things in society follow the 80/20 rule rather than the normal distribution.

In fact, you can extrapolate the 80/20 rule. Then you get:

64% of outcomes come from 4% of causes,

51.2% of outcomes come from 0.8% of causes.

I have about 20 GB worth of songs on my phone and I listen to the same 10 tracks. In other words, because there is no negative feedback (up to a pretty high threshold), these 10 songs monopolise my listening “choices”.  I have a whole wardrobe of stuff but I wear the same things all the time. Same with pots and pans. Apps on my phone.

Income inequality doesn’t quite as devilish when you think about it this way.

My thinking is that if we find more examples of macro scale negative feedback loops, we may be able to understand whether there is another way.

Or are we just always going to be in a use it or lose it situation? Are we just one giant self-similar network of walking talking neurons?

By BewareircdOwn work, Public Domain, Link


14 thoughts on “Pareto principle as a consequence of positive feedback loops”

  1. So…… Negative Feedback makes us evolve and Positive Feedback makes us stay in the sweet spot, no longer evolving. Is that right?
    When we are starting out we get lots of Negative Feedback,(because we’re terrible at first). We move our butts to get away from Negative Feedback.
    Once we are ‘good’ at something we get mostly Positive Feedback. No need to struggle and go out on a limb or into new territory if all the feedback is positive.
    Something like that?
    Maybe the Dr. Peter Principle was rolling through my mind while reading this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think we’re using the terms differently. By positive feedback, I don’t so much mean reinforcement, I mean an acceleration, e.g. a contraction in labour leads to more contractions (positive feedback), but a normal rise in blood pressure leads to a subsequent reduction in blood pressure (negative feedback). You’re talking more about management perhaps? Maybe you’re on to something!


  2. And here’s me thinking that Alexander is ticking Aristotle off for courting Likes and Followers. Great quote and interesting ideas, thank you.


  3. Positive feedback loops are only positive for a while.
    Take the game of Monopoly. You win, you take all the money as your wealth (money) begat you more money until what? You have all the money, but everyone else is dead. And those everyone else are those that made your clothes and shoes, grew and delivered your food, write the book, made the movies, emptied the garbage…

    Friendship begets friendship, until everyone is your friend and then you can’t stand any of them — LEAVE ME THE “F” ALONE!

    Fitness.. yeah, if one is reasonable about it, begets more fitness.

    But in general I think most positive feedback loops end in failure — eventually.
    • Global warming is a positive feedback loop, that’s not going to end well.
    • Government employment, a to manage 10 b’s to manage 10 c’s to manage 10 d’s… until everyone is hired by the government and the thing collapses — taxless.
    • I drink one beer, which leads to two more which leads to four more which leads to me on the floor more.

    Self-regulating system, like “open markets” do work, as long as both sides of the lever remain in tune with each other. But if on side benefits more than the other, or benefits because of the other’s demise, well, Adam Smith didn’t really think /everything/ through. (I’ve written a fair amount on this.)

    Open market systems are /suppose/ to behave like nature. Too many bunnies leads to too many bobcats leads to too few bunnies leads to too few bobcats. But what happens is that the bobcats have figured out a way to keep their bunnies and eat them too. And the damn bobcats don’t die off. Die bobcats, die!

    As far as the Pareto rule, I’m not sure I get your drift as how it intersects this argument. 2 bobcats, and 8 bunnies? And then there are 3 and 7 and then 4 and 6 and then there are 4 and 0 and, well, there should be Zero bobcats. Which let’s the bunnies come back but, hell, there are still 4 damn bobcats! Crap!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I tend to think that the so-called “80-20” rule benefits from some perspective issues. In any endeavor, once to get to 5% of the way to a solution or final product, once you get to the 10% of the way, you have doubled that early marker of progress! (Wow!) Another 10% of the way to the end is another doubling! (A relatively constant doubling period is a sign of an exponential growth path.) When you get to 40% of the way home, you will have doubled the 20% state, which was a doubling of the 10% state, which was a doubling of the 5% state. (Double wow!) But once you get past the 50% point, no further doublings can take place, so relative progress seems to slow down even though the amount of effort and accomplishment stay the same. So, this contributes to an illusion of the rate of progress being faster from the get-go than later on. (In actuality, growth or progress seems to occur in spurts.)

    Another perspective that contributes to this pareto feeling is enthusiasm. At the beginning of a project, one tends to be more enthused compared to toward the end when you have been thinking about and working on the idea for some time. Thinking and re-thinking are tiring, and in the early stage, the thinking comes easily as the “low hanging fruits” of intellectual and physical labor are tackled first, making what comes later seem much more difficult (because it is).

    late in a project, there are myriad little bits (looking up references, double-checking calculations, arranging for subcontractors, etc.) that are more tedious and tend to be discounted as progress. I tend to think that Edison was correct in that 80-90% of any project is comprised of quite mundane tasks (the perspiration of Edison) and not inspiration. The inspiring part, the creative part just feels so damned good and the mundane parts, … , well we typecast accountants, grinders on mundane tasks, as being stogy, unimaginative, boring types. (By favorite joke on this level is the definition of economists as “people who are good with numbers but don’t have enough personality to be accountants.”) All of this contributes to the feeling of speed through the first 80% of a task and lack of speed in the final 20%.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s an interesting perspective. I think that when we call something a “cause”, the 20%, it may be conditional on the 80% of the other causes so as to cause the 80% of outcomes.

      As to what does and doesn’t contribute to progress, again, it’s hard to know – and like you eloquently described diminishing returns kick in pretty soon

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I can’t contribute anything meaningful in this discussion as I don’t have any slightest idea what the article is all about. But perhaps having such a low intelligence has its good sides. I don’t have to unnecessary worry about something which is incomprehensible to me. I will try to re-read it few times again but there could always be a danger that I would still not understand the main problem. Chaos and probability theory wasn’t my favourite subject in school.
    As far as I notice when things are in chaos then there is demand for things to get organized. But when things are close to be organized then disaster happens and everything becomes chaotic again and after that it gets organized an so on and on. To me it is a formula for universe (universes) but why it happens I don’t know. If there was an answer to that question then we would know why Universe or universes exist. But It’s utterly futile for such explanation to the question why universe does exist. The god must be crazy or perhaps gets bored the same way as Zeus did as he would burn some people’s houses making a practical jokes when he did his play.
    Where is an explanation for the question that when something is hot then it must get cold and when it is cold it must become hot. When some creature is alive then eventually it must get dead. And when something=some creature is dead one would automaticlly think that it must become alive again. When there is a darkness then there must be a light otherwise there would be no contrast and dark would not mean dark and light would not be light. Have I gone to far?


      1. Most of that was on business so I didn’t enjoy it as much. Polish mountains are not as good as Alps and Baltic sea is too cold and not very blue. Still I can compare things to see how my body adapts to other environments which is more value that seeing my GP. I self medicate myself anyway. I know you doctors don’t like it but I’ve never liked Polish doctors being masters of life and death. 🙂


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