Category Archives: Feedback

Feedback is Critical for Great Relationships (How Not to Lose Your Partner)

sleepA review of the stats for prior ET posts indicates that some of the most popular are those that apply engineering thinking principles to relationship issues (e.g., see “Protecting Your Relationship: How To Fight Fair“;
Protect Yourself: Four Ways To Tell If Someone Is Trying To Emotionally Manipulate You“; “Feedback, Delay, and Sullen Spouses“).

In this post we’ll briefly discuss why the principle of “feedback”(1) is critical to successful relationships.

Feedback is a universal concept, applicable to every goal we have, whether the goal is bringing a fork to the mouth, maintaining the desired speed of a car, finding the best price for a purchase, and many, many others, including maintaining a great relationship.

With regard to your important relationships, do you simply assume everything is okay? If you don’t employ feedback — if you don’t measure the consequences of your actions (by frequently observing and asking how your partner feels, and by absorbing your partner’s suggestions and complaints) — then how can you be so sure? Without the use of feedback a big surprise may be awaiting, on that day when your smug assumptions explode, along with your relationship.

For a vivid example of the necessity of feedback in relationships, please see “Men: Read This Before You Lose Your Woman Forever,” by Dr. Barbara LoFrisco ( (2)

Note 1. Feedback is a measurement of the outcome of an action. This allows one to determine whether or not the action is achieving its desired objective. If one does not measure the output (zero feedback), one is “flying blind” and results will typically be bad, very bad.

Note 2. Dr. LoFrisco, among her many other qualifications, is a relationship expert, and (based on my latest feedback sampling) is also my happy spouse.

-Ed Walker


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Healthcare: Ask The Wrong Question, Get The Wrong Answer

“There’s a sucker born every minute.”
-P. T. Barnum

Engineering Thinking teaches us to challenge our assumptions, because if they are wrong, then our subsequent analysis and decisions will be wrong.

The healthcare challenge — it is commonly assumed — is this: how can the government best ensure that the weakest members of society receive adequate health care?

This is the wrong question. The reason it is wrong is that it is based on the flawed assumption that the government should be making our health care decisions. As discussed previously (see “Feedback, Prices, And Sullen Spouses“), the government is inherently inefficient, and is therefore the last organization that one should ever select to provide a service.

But what is the alternative?

First, remove health care from the tasks assigned to governments at all levels: federal, state, and local. This will substantially eliminate the tremendous waste of dollars caused by having inefficient bureaucrats positioned between patients and their doctors, and — just as importantly, if not more so — eliminate the moral hazard created by providing “free” services to those who may not deserve them, at the expense of diligent and hard-working taxpayers.

So who takes care of the poor, the unlucky, the out of work?

We do. But we do it through our local communities, through our churches and charities and civic associations. This was done before the advent of Big Government and worked well (see “What Would Happen If The Government Didn’t Take Care Of Us?“), and it can work well again. Local communities will be able to evaluate best who deserves help and how much and on what terms, eliminating the moral hazard. The rest of us will continue to pay for our own medical coverage. Government’s function will be reduced to its proper function, that of ensuring that insurance companies operate transparently and honestly in a competitive environment.

Does this sound simple? It is simple. Politicians and their special-interest allies (whose prestige and livelihoods depend on fooling you into providing your tax dollars for their grand and impractical ideas) would prefer that you think that all of this is too complex for you to understand, and that fairness can only be assured by putting your faith in the government.

Are you not yet convinced of my analysis? If so, I doubt I can change your mind, and respect your right to your opinion. But I would ask you one question:

Have you ever been asked by a relative or a friend for a favor, such as loaning them some money? If so, I’m sure that you based your decision on your personal knowledge of that friend or family member. But what if someone on the other side of the country that you don’t even know asked you for a loan? Would you give it to them? No? Then why on earth are you so willing to give your tax dollars to anonymous bureaucrats to give to anonymous people who may or may not deserve those hard-earned dollars?

-Ed Walker


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Feedback and Global Warming

An excellent summary of how the the science of feedback refutes the claims of the global warming alarmists: “The Skeptic’s Case” by David M.W. Evans in the 24 Feb Mises Daily.


“…the skeptics agree with the government climate scientists about the direct effect of CO2; they just disagree about the feedbacks. The climate debate is all about the feedbacks; everything else is merely a sideshow.”

“The data presented here is impeccably sourced, very relevant, publicly available, and from our best instruments. Yet it never appears in the mainstream media — have you ever seen anything like any of the figures here in the mainstream media? That alone tells you that the ‘debate’ is about politics and power, and not about science or truth.”



Feedback and Video Games

Positive feedback is a means of reinforcing a desired response in human behavior. The designers of video games know this.

“…Cow Clicker
became a runaway success, with tens of thousands of subscribers eager to be exploited so transparently by clicking on a picture of a cow twice a day … The first evidence of video game-related dopamine release was published in Nature in 1998, and since then scientists have gone on to find that heavy gamers, particularly adolescents, develop larger reward centers in their brains as compared to non-gamers. Humans are built to achieve things, even as idiotic and pointless as acquiring a virtual golden cowbell,”

-Becky Crew, “Let the gamifying begin,” 12 Jan 2012 Cosmos

For more on Feedback, please click the ET Principles tab.

-Ed Walker


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An Antidote For The Folly Of Government “Investment”

As we’ve discussed previously, efficient systems require feedback. Without the feedback of the pain that comes from making an incorrect decision, bureaucrats have no incentive to be good shepherds of taxpayer dollars.

For example, the federal government “invested” $527 million in the solar energy company Solyndra. These dollars have been (according to various accounts) diverted to the pockets of Solyndra corporate officers, squandered, kicked-back to corrupt Obama administration officials, or (at best) lost in a noble effort to put Americans back to work. In any event, taxpayers have seen $527 million of their money go down the drain.

The reason why this sort of outrage happens when the feds “invest” is simple: it’s not their money. As we all know, it’s easy to invest/gamble/have parties with other people’s money. Therefore one could reasonably ask, why not make it a requirement for every government official to have a stake in the outcome of every “investment”? (This is just for argument’s sake. Since there is no apparent Constitutional authority for the federal government to funnel taxpayer money into private enterprises, Solyndra-type expenditures should not even be taking place.)

In other words, if the investment is a bust, as was Solyndra, then the loss comes out of the bureaucrats’ pay checks. Let’s see, $527 million divided by approximately 16,000 direct Department of Energy employees equals about $33,000 per employee. Wow, no bonus this Christmas!

What if the investment is a success? Based on the government’s track record that would be highly unlikely, but if it should ever occur, we the people can work out an appropriate bonus.

-Ed Walker


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What Would Happen If The Government Didn’t Take Care Of Us?

As discussed previously, (e.g. “Feedback, Prices, and Sullen Spouses“), the federal government is not, and cannot be, an efficient provider of goods or services. Yet, some folks ask, what would happen without it? Wouldn’t the poor starve?

No. And here’s one of the best and most concise summaries of why this is so: “America Before The Entitlement State” (by Yaron Brook and Don Watkins, 18 Nov 2011


“After all, the world before the twentieth century–before the New Deal, the New Frontier, the Great Society–was a dark, dangerous, heartless place where hordes of Americans starved in the streets.

“Except it wasn’t and they didn’t. The actual history of America shows something else entirely: picking your neighbors’ pockets is not a necessity of survival. Before America’s entitlement state, free individuals planned for and coped with tough times, taking responsibility for their own lives.”

-Ed Walker


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Feedback, Delay, and Sullen Spouses

As discussed earlier (Feedback, Prices, and Sullen Spouses), feedback is an extremely valuable tool that is used extensively by engineers for all manner of applications to ensure accuracy. However, there’s a catch: feedback must be provided quickly, or it can provide the opposite of the desired result.

Let’s assume that you’re driving a car in the normal fashion, using its speedometer as feedback so that you can properly control your speed. Let’s also assume the speedometer is working properly, except that it’s very sluggish; i.e. there’s a time delay of two or three seconds until your car’s speed is displayed on the speedometer.

Let’s now assume that you’re zipping along and you notice that your speed is dropping, and you want to speed up. You press on the pedal and you feel the car surge a bit, but no, the speedometer (because of its delay) says that you haven’t picked up any speed (even though you have), so you push on the accelerator even harder. Therefore, because of the speedometer’s delay, you pushed the accelerator twice, whereas once would have been enough.

At the second push of the accelerometer, the speedometer finally registers the speed following your first push, indicating you are at the correct speed and everything is fine, but then the speedometer registers the speed from the second push, and you realize with horror that you are well over the speed limit. You immediately press on the brakes and you think you feel the car slow down, but no, the speedometer (because it hasn’t yet registered the slower speed) says you are still moving much too fast, so you press on the brakes some more. Therefore, because of the speedometer’s delay, you pressed the brakes twice, whereas once would have been enough.

After the second press of the brakes, the speedometer belatedly registers the speed following the first press, indicating that you are at the proper speed, but then the speedometer registers the second press, and you realize you have slowed down much too much, so you stomp on the accelerator…

…and your car continues to jerkily speed up and slow down, like a teenager first learning to drive an auto with a stick shift, until the police officer pulls you over and charges you with reckless driving.

Therefore, although the use of feedback achieves superior performance, feedback must be provided quickly. If there is too large of a delay then feedback will be interpreted incorrectly, which can cause a system to become wildly unstable and possibly even be damaged.

Feedback must be quick

In the earlier post we talked about how a lack of feedback from a sullen spouse could contribute to a poor relationship. In a similar manner, feedback that is supplied after a long delay can make things worse, rather than better:

He: Please pass the salt.

She: No. I don’t like the way you spoke to me.

He: What? When?

She: The last time we were at this restaurant.

He (becoming angry): That was two months ago! What does that have to do with tonight?

The above is an example of how feedback, if it had been delivered quickly, could have served a constructive purpose. However, delayed feedback loses its proper context, and instead of being corrective, easily becomes destructive.

-Ed Walker


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Feedback, Prices, and Sullen Spouses

To ensure that a desired result is achieved, engineers design systems that measure the system output and compare that output to a reference value. If the output does not match the reference — if there is an error — the system adjusts itself to minimize the error. This type of system, one that samples the output and feeds it back to the input for comparison and correction purposes, is called a feedback system.

As an example of a feedback system, consider the system that consists of you and your automobile, zipping along on the interstate with a police cruiser not far behind. To make it in time to a very important interview for a lucrative new job, without getting a ticket, you plan to accurately drive along right at the speed limit. Visual feedback from the speedometer tells you the system output (speed) and whether or not you are traveling above or below the limit. If an error occurs (whoops, going a bit too fast), your brain sends a signal down to your foot to ease off of the accelerator until the speed is reduced to the limit. This feedback loop, from output (as measured by the speedometer) to your brain to your foot to the gas pedal, maintains your car at the desired speed.

Now imagine that the feedback path is broken; e.g. your speedometer suddenly quits working and always reads zero. In this case you rely on a secondary feedback path, the passing landscape, and estimate your speed. Since it’s only a rough approximation, however, you’ll play it safe and drop your speed a few miles per hour to be sure that you are under the limit, although this might make you a bit late.

But what if it’s a dark night with no moon and your headlights fail? You now have no feedback, and are forced to stop, ruining your chance for the new job.

As feedback decreases,
inefficiency increases.

Because of its extreme importance, feedback is used  everywhere. In many cases, as in the example above, sensors provide feedback to human operators, who act on that feedback to achieve the desired results. In many other cases feedback is completely automated, without any human intervention at all.

Feedback is applicable to social organizations as well. Many commercial organizations exist for the purpose of providing goods or services to the population. These companies receive feedback from their output (how much they sell) and then adjust prices accordingly. A “price discount” in this case is analogous to the accelerator in the auto example, and sales is analogous to the speed. If sales are down, a company will step on the accelerator by offering higher discounts in order to increase sales.

Likewise, individuals who work for private companies experience feedback in the form of salaries and promotions based on their work efficiency. Slackers tend not to be paid as well, if they remain employed at all.

At the personal level, a spouse who provides quick feedback about their partner’s perceived inappropriate behavior will reap the rewards of a much more efficient and positive relationship, than one who remains mysteriously and sullenly silent.

Large bureaucratic systems, such as the federal government, are the least efficient organizations for providing services, because (like a sullen spouse) they do not employ effective feedback. In fact (unlike the sullen spouse), bureaucratic systems have no choice — their very nature precludes the existence of meaningful feedback.

In other words, there is no output/price feedback. Consumers cannot chose Federal Government A over Federal Government B because A charges less for services than B; we are all forced to “buy” government services from a single monopolistic federal entity, under penalty of fines or imprisonment if we don’t.

Although governments don’t have output/price feedback, one could argue that they do have feedback from elections (and sometimes in the interim from noisy constituents). However, the time lag between governmental actions and subsequent voter response on election day is so large as to render the normal benefits of feedback almost moot. Indeed, as we’ll show in an upcoming post, a time lag can create system instability, or even the opposite of the desired result.

If one accepts the fact that quick feedback is essential for efficient and accurate results, then an important Engineering Thinking conclusion is this:

 Regardless of the Intentions or Talent or Compassion
or Political Beliefs of the Individuals Involved,
Excellent Results Are Much More Likely to be Achieved by
Individuals or Organizations That Employ Effective Feedback.
Poor Results Can Be Expected from Those That Don’t.

-Ed Walker


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