Positive feedback loops influence the size of stars, the spread of viruses and everything in between. The defining feature of a positive feedback loop is that the output from a magnifying process is ‘fed back’ as the input of that same process.
To illustrate the point, the following are some real world examples:
1. A star’s gravity attracts mass → Increased mass results in more gravity (repeat)
2. A city has a large population which makes it easier to do business → people are attracted to the city for the business opportunities → The population of the city increases (repeat)
3. A tree gets sunlight → The tree grows taller → The tree gets more sunlight (repeat)
4. I’m unhappy because I’m overweight → I eat more because I’m unhappy → I’m more overweight because I eat more (repeat)
5. People I listen to agree with me so I’m more confident in my views → I’m confident in my views so I stop listening to people who disagree → More people I listen to agree with me (repeat)
6. My debt attracts interest → The interest increases my debt (repeat)
7. Each infected person infects more than 1 person → There are now more infected people (repeat)
When a feedback loop is established the output doesn’t just increase it accelerates and, once in a feedback loop, it can be very difficult to escape. The interplay of scientists, the media, the public and the government during the coronavirus pandemic have created a positive feedback loop that amplifies fear:
Advisers release frightening projections based on modelling
The media reports frightening projections
The public are frightened and demand stricter measures
The government plan stricter measures but require fear for compliance
If we wish to break this cycle we’ll have to break one or more of its links:
The use of modelling seems stubbornly resistant to criticism despite its poor record. There is a clear disconnect between the scenarios that scientists believe they are providing: “Possible outcomes if all of our assumptions are correct” and the apparent perception of those models by the public: “The most likely outcome”.
With much of mainstream media experiencing steady declines in readership and advertising revenue, there is an incentive to publish articles that attract attention rather than reflect reality. Even when the content of the article is accurate, the headline writers are incentivised to pick the most attention-grabbing statistic and sadly most people only ever read the headline of a scientific article.
The use of fear in this pandemic has been intentional and truly unprecedented. “The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging”.
We have never before experienced government funded advertising us to ‘look a covid patient in the eye’ or ‘act like you’ve got it’. The use of statistics, in particular that ‘one in three people who catch covid are spreading it without knowing’ is highly questionable and yet remains unchallenged.
A government that showed true leadership would follow evidence and make policy on the basis of the best interests of the country rather than whatever was popular at a given time.
It does now appear that, despite what polls would have us believe, more and more people are deciding to live with hope rather than fear and to manage their own level of risk with regard to covid-19. We can only hope that sufficient numbers break out of the fear cycle before permanent damage is done to our democracy and our freedom.