Sunday, September 25, 2011


We hear of “vicious circles” fairly often: bad choices lead to bad consequences that make more bad choices likely. A hostile action leads to a hostile response, leading to more hostility. Less familiar, far more beneficent, is the opposite, the “virtuous circle.” In managing people, praise for a job well done is likely to produce improved performance, which will lead to more praise or other rewards, and improved performance, etc. Instead of spiraling down, the situation spirals up.

When the outcome of an action “feeds” into the successive action, influences it, we have a feedback loop, where the feedback can be negative (discouraging) or positive (encouraging). It can be like compound interest on your savings, where successive years give you interest on your interest as well as on your principal. At 3% per year, straight interest will double your account in 33 years, but compound interest will double it in 24 years. More dramatic is the chain reaction of atomic explosions, where the first fission emits energy plus particles that cause more fission, with the rate doubling rapidly.

In terms of human performance, success breeds success, the virtuous circle in action. I swear the following is true: I once made 25 basketball foul shots in a row, in practice by myself in the gym. Normally, I used to make about half my foul shots, a 50% probability of success, 1 out of 2. If making one foul shot did not influence the likelihood of making the next, the odds of my getting 25 in a row are 1 in 2 to the 25th power, 1 in 33 million! It never would have happened. Success bred success, a virtuous circle, indeed.

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