Tag Archives: Relationships

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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Can You Spot A Con Man?

journeysFrom my Journeys to the Edge of Reality site:

A review of The Man In The Rockefeller Suit, The Astonishing Rise And Spectacular Fall Of A Serial Imposter, by Mark Seal.

For more Engineering Thinking guidance on coping with scammers and frauds, please see “Relationships: ET Guidance on Improving Your Interactions with Others


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Protect Yourself: Four Ways To Tell If Someone Is Trying To Emotionally Manipulate You

That salesperson may be trying to fool you. And perhaps your new boyfriend/girlfriend is, too. How can you tell?

As mentioned before (“How Do You Make Decisions?“), the reason that engineers are so successful at creating useful products is not because they are smarter than everyone else, it’s because their ideas are subjected to rigorous review. An engineer will be challenged by others during the review, mercilessly, to make sure that lousy ideas are squelched before they can do harm to the company’s profits or reputation. (Fear of embarrassment is a good motivator, so most engineers are well-prepared when they have to make a presentation.)

Therefore, whether you are considering the purchase of a product, the establishment of a new relationship, or for whom to vote in the next election, act as though you were going to have to justify your decision to a room full of tough-minded engineers. Remember, they will want to see your decision supported by research and logical analysis, not emotions or slogans.


1. Take My Word For It

People who are trying to sell you something can be very persuasive. But if they can’t back up their pitch with independent data (think Consumer Reports), beware. A lack of independent data is one of the best indicators of a dubious or fraudulent claim (e.g., see “Is EasyWater (The “No Salt Water Conditioner”) A Scam?“). Another example: Before you commit too much to a new relationship, find out what your prospective partner’s friends, acquaintances, and co-workers really think of him/her. Since many people will not offer negative information unless they’re asked, you might be very surprised at the answers you receive; e.g., “My son’s a lazy bum; I’m surprised you’re going out with him.”

2. Don’t Question Me, I’m The Authority

Be very wary of folks in positions of authority who bristle at your desire to ask questions, or to seek a second opinion. Although someone may speak with authority (“you need chemo”), there may be other equally-qualified experts who have different views (“whatever you do, don’t take chemo”). As a rule of thumb, true professionals will welcome your questions and encourage you to get other opinions.

3. This Will Solve All Your Problems

Avoid products or services that promise to quickly and simply solve all of your health / weight / relationship problems (a single vitamin supplement, an eat-all-you-want weight-loss plan, a “how to attract the man/woman of your dreams” with a breast/penis enlargement pill.)

4. Vote For Me And I’ll Protect You From Those Evil Folks Who Are Trying To Rip You Off

Unscrupulous politicians will try to gain your vote by:

a. trying to make you envious of others who have more money
b. running “us against them” ads
c. trying to make you feel that others who have a different skin color or ethnic background are out to take advantage of you
d. avoiding a discussion of specifics and resorting to generalized name-calling, such as:

-successful folks are greedy
-folks getting welfare/unemployment benefits are lazy cheats
-bankers, Wall Street workers, and insurance companies are crooks
-those who prefer community-based solutions, rather than federal mandates, are Social Darwinists who want to push grandma off a cliff
-folks who prefer a strong federal government are socialists or communists

e. using meaningless but emotionally-charged slogans (ET comments are in brackets):

-“tax breaks for the wealthy” [Who are the wealthy and why should they pay more? If  a person is very wealthy that does not mean that you must be less prosperous; in fact, the opposite is usually true. See “Why Pizzanomics Is Immoral“]

-“take back the country” [Is it missing? Has someone checked behind the couch cushions?]

-“affordable health care for all” [Why not food, clothes, autos, and iPads for all?]

-“liberals are un-American” [Which persons, specifically, and why?]

-“social justice” [A code word meaning, “we should eliminate income inequality.” But how can we make incomes equal without penalizing the industrious, the thrifty, and/or the lucky; i.e., without creating moral hazards?]

-“conservatives are stupid” [Which persons, specifically, and why?]

-“the 1% against the 99%” [See “More Thoughts On Forcing The Rich To Pay ‘Their Fair Share‘”]

-“only criminals want gun control” [As logical as “only gun owners want criminal control”]

-“we need government investment” [Governments do not invest; they just move money from the pockets of some citizens into the pockets of others, inefficiently (see “An Antidote For The Folly Of Government ‘Investment’“) and often in a corrupt fashion.]

-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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Family Comes First: True or False?

Boldly Go Where Your Mind Has Not Gone Before: Challenge Your Assumptions! (Part 2)

Engineering Thinking requires that we challenge all assumptions, particularly those that seem to be obviously true. As mentioned before, such challenges may propel us toward conclusions that may, at first glance, seem weird, wacky, or nutty. Nonetheless, we must learn to go where the analysis takes us, so here we go:

In the area of personal relationships, an assumption that is rarely challenged is the one that says, loud and clear, “family comes first.”

Family Comes First: True or False?

The assumption behind “family comes first” is that we have a higher obligation to family members than we do to other folks. This would appear to be reasonable for nuclear parent-child families, where parents have a moral obligation to properly raise their children.

But what about more distant family connections, with cousins, aunts, uncles, and in-laws involved, or cases where the children are grown? Are there any instances where expending the time and effort on family matters may not be morally superior than spending time with others? Here are a few scenarios to ponder:

1. Your only child has grown, who unfortunately has not turned out to be a very pleasant person. You had an evening planned to go out with some rock-solid “non-family” friends you’ve known for twenty years. Your child suddenly drops by with a standard emergency. Should you cancel your outing with your friends?

2. Your family’s gatherings are full of strife, with excessive alcohol, bickering, and tension. Do you feel obligated to attend these family gatherings on every holiday?

3. Like many families, yours has become split by divorce. Do holiday gatherings become an ordeal where some relatives try to use guilt to force you into eliminating or minimizing the time spent with the other side of the family?

If one starts with the premise that true friends — those who appreciate you and consistently treat you with respect — are the definition of true family, you will find clear answers to the questions posed above.

Merry Christmas!

-Ed Walker


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Using Engineering Thinking To Solve Personal Problems

Boldly Go Where Your Mind Has Not Gone Before: Challenge Your Assumptions!

Consider this scenario: You have a close relationship with a fairly rational person, and you have an important personal issue you need to resolve. How to proceed?

In such cases we’ve  learned how different points of view branch from different assumptions (see “Put On Your Emotional Armor“). Therefore, before you even start to discuss the issue with the other party, a way to help improve the odds for agreement is to first review your own position. Dig down to the roots of your beliefs until you reach your baseline assumptions, and then boldly challenge them.


Susan: The issue: Sam never wants to go to the opera, but I always go with him to his ball games. This bugs me.

Susan: My baseline assumption: Fair is fair. If I do something for Sam then he should do something for me.

Challenge: Do you dislike going to the ball games?

Susan: Um, no, they’re kind of fun.

Challenge: Does he insist that you go?

Susan: Um, no.

Challenge: Do you know how much Sam dislikes the opera?

Susan: Um, no. We’ve never discussed it. He just never wants to go. I think he might like it if he went and tried it.

Challenge: Does he object if you go by yourself to the opera?

Susan: Um, no.

Challenge: Are there other activities that you both enjoy doing?

Susan: Yes. We both like hanging out at the beach, and motor biking.

Challenge: Your assumption for fairness seems to be that Sam should do something he doesn’t want to do for you, while you do things for him you like to do. Is your definition of “fair” really fair?

Susan: Well…

ET Observation: Humans spend a lot of time trying to control others, under the guise of “fairness” or “compromise.” Wouldn’t it be better to apply that energy to seeking activities that are mutually agreeable? After all, there is a whole universe of things to do out there, so why become obsessed about those few that one party doesn’t like?

-Ed Walker


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Update: An Engineer Writes A Novel

NEXUS receives “highly recommended” rating from Cindy Taylor, Allbooks Review. Read the full review here.


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A Summary Of Engineering Thinking Principles

Engineering Thinking is a wonderful tool set for making good decisions. This is not because engineers are better than anyone else, but because engineers work within a scientific/capitalistic framework, or culture, that strongly promotes excellence. Within the framework, if you do good work, you are rewarded; if you don’t, you aren’t. It’s really as simple as that.

You can pick any issue or problem — world events, politics, a purchasing decision, a relationship issue — and ET will help.

So what are the basic principles and corollary traits of Engineering Thinking?


Define the problem and set the goals / Organized & focused

Do the research / Thoroughness and persistence

Challenge assumptions / Avoid emotional blockages and confusion factors

Analyze & test / Apply logical thinking, as supported by empirical evidence

Conclude & correct / Follow-through to apply what has been learned

ET principles can simplify your life and lead to better decisions, while reducing stress:

Life is simplified if you have some rules to follow for important decisions; ET provides those proven time-tested rules. Better decisions are the result of ET’s reliance on objectivity — which includes the avoidance of emotional blockages — to improve the odds of making a good decision. Note that ET does not guarantee the proper decision, but it does optimize the chances of arriving at a good decision, and for human beings that’s as good as it gets.

ET also reduces stress. Although you may not (and should not expect to) win every argument or make the best decision every time, you can sleep better by knowing that by applying the principles of ET you did the best that you could.

Furthermore, after applying ET in a civil manner, if you experience unreasoned hostility or stubbornness (emotional blockages) from the other party, such a response provides you with significant feedback as to whether you should bother to discuss certain issues with that person; i.e. why waste your time? In some cases such a response may suggest whether or not you should even continue to maintain a serious relationship with the other party.

Example: You have a roommate that drops their socks and underwear wherever they happen to be at the time they are changing from their work attire and getting comfortable for the evening, such as in front of the TV. Seeing dirty socks and underwear in the living room annoys you.

ET step 1: Define the problem and goals: Messy roommate, want them to pick up after themselves.

ET Step 2: Research: Get on the Internet and determine if this is a common problem, and if so what are some solutions.

ET Step 3: Challenge Assumptions: Be willing to adjust your views and lower your expectations if you find that your roommate’s behavior is more normal than you think it is.

ET Step 4: Analyze the situation. Assuming that your research has determined that your roommate’s behavior is considered generally unacceptable [note: I have not researched this and don’t really know what the norm is for such unkempt behavior], apply the remedies suggested by your research and monitor the results.

ET Step 5: Based upon the results of your roommate’s response to your trial solutions, if satisfactory, then problem solved. If not, (a) modify the solution and try again, (b) learn to live with an out-of-the-norm roommate, or (c) get a new roommate.

-Ed Walker







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ET EXTRA: Protecting Your Relationship: How To Fight Fair

Engineering Thinking Extra Is A Short Review Of A Current Hot Topic

CounselorBarb™ (my wife) has recently posted “How to Fight Fair,” a list of helpful and practical (engineering-thinking-like) ground rules for arguments between couples. As Barb says, “Couples will argue, it’s natural, so now it becomes HOW you argue that is important.”

(The list was developed by Barb after consulting similar lists by Lambos, W.A., & Emener, W.G. (In press): Cognitive and Neuroscientific Aspects of Human Love: A Guide for Therapists and Researchers, Hauppauge, NY, Nova Science, Publisher; and Horton, Lee: Crumbling Commitment: Surviving a Marital Crisis.)

-Ed Walker


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