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The Magical Satisfaction of Feedback Loops

I’ve acquired a constant companion, and not because it’s an attractive fashion accessory.  Au contraire.  The thing is a dratted nuisance and its lumpy protrusion from pocket or belt spoils the line of any outfit.  No, my pedometer goes with me everywhere because I’ve become addicted to the satisfaction of gaining the magical 10,000 steps each day, and chalking up points on Walker Tracker, an online site for pedometrized walkers.

At first, I observed my own behaviour with detached humour,  OK, you’ve just retired from a life where we lived and died by “the numbers”, so perhaps your little brain is intrigued with this one sop to things statistical.  It’s all to the good – just get in the damned steps. I thought the novelty would wear off, but it’s been a couple of months now, and I’m not the only one…

I had ordered two of them, one for each of Glenn and me, but only one arrived.  Glenn was away for a few days, so I got it up and running for myself.  Upon his return, Glenn watched with astonished fascination as I began walking to the grocery store, trotting up to the bank of an evening to deposit a cheque (both good for 5500 steps), or suggesting we walk to the local pub for dinner (2500 steps)– all activities which previously we would have attended by car without a second thought.

His arrived a few days later and soon he was joining me on these little jaunts.  A somewhat competitive streak emerged in both of us, not only against the personal goal of 10,000 a day, but between us, too.  A couple of times a day, we will announce our progress and adjust our activities accordingly.  A round of golf, Glenn discovered, is about 13,000 steps, so on the days he golfs he beats me handily.  One evening, we were planning to sit down and watch a movie when it became evident that Glenn was ahead of me by about 2000 steps.  I quietly left the house and walked for sufficient time for me to pull ahead before sitting down in front of the TV.  Now we’ve got my partner at Authentic Impact, Gordon Parry, hooked.  He got his pedometer as a gift for Father’s Day, and is quickly getting caught up in the same tide.  On his first day with the thing he found himself sprinting up and down stairs before bed so he could cross the magic 10,000 step threshold.  We’re all nuts.

Is this just childish competition between aging humans?  Perhaps.  Or is something else going on?   It seems we’ve inadvertently stumbled onto the benefits of the feedback loop, the subject of an article called Harnessing The Power of Feedback Loops, written by Thomas Goetz in Wired Magazine’s July issue.  In it they report how the community of Garden Grove, California tackled the seemingly intractable problem of drivers speeding through school zones, an activity that had resulted in a depressingly large number of accidents and deaths.

The solution?  Dynamic speed displays, or driver feedback signs.  You’ve seen them – large digital displays announcing YOUR SPEED.  Simply installing these signs at strategic locations resulted in speed dropping by an average of 14%.  Why is that?  The signs are not giving information people don’t already have – there is a speedometer in every car, for heaven’s sake.

There is something about providing the information in a beguiling way that strikes a balance between being blurring into background noise and being too obnoxiously intrusive.  Like the combination of the pedometer and entering our steps on WalkerTracker, where the site always finds something positive to say about your progress and gives points for diligence, assisting in pushing you up to the next level.

What is a feedback loop?  It’s pretty simple.  There are four stages:

  • Evidence:  Gather the information
  • Relevance: Provide it in as close to real time as possible
  • Consequence:  Give an opportunity to change the behavior
  • Action:  More desirable behavior ensues.

Think of the pedometer. It gathers the information, provides it to us in real time throughout the day, giving us an opportunity to adjust, so we reach the goal of 10,000 steps per day.

The concept of the feedback loop is not new.  It was the subject of much exploration in the work of Stanford University’s Albert Bandura in the 1960’s, and the Vitalsmarts group, Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield and Ron McMillan, discusses his work in their book Influencer. Until recently, however, gathering sufficient and meaningful data has been problematic.  But technological innovation, particularly in sensors, is giving us more data, more cheaply than ever before.  Pedometers are just one example.

Over time, feedback loops typically improve performance by about 10%, a seemingly small number, but it turns out that 10% is something of a tipping point.  Reducing speeds from 40 to 35 mph cuts fatal injuries by about half.  Or consider weight management.  A mere 100 calories a day translates into ten pounds a year.  Those 100 calories are far less than 10% of most people’s daily consumption.

When you think about it, evolution is really one giant feedback loop. It’s how we learn.  We succeed through adjusting our behavior on a trail and error basis, and it provides enormous satisfaction.  As Bandura put it:  “people are proactive, aspiring organisms.”  Feedback gratifies those aspirations.

So perhaps Glenn, Gordon and I are not so nuts, after all.  Well, don’t ask our kids…

 

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