Sunday, 25 September 2011

The Feedback system

Swami Gulagulaananda observed:
"Control theory says positive feedback results in unstable systems, psychologists say positive feedback results in emotionally stable systems"

People are different, and different people think differently. It is a well known thing about the two people seeing the same glass as half empty and half full. That being said, different people have different ways of leading lives, and they believe in principles of their own, formulate their own philosophies or sometimes follow those set by others and/or by God.

The ability to formulate their own philosophies and principles, is developed after some experiences were had. Like, a man lied to his wife, said that he was with his friend, while instead he was dining with his secretary. Later, he got a bump on his head after the wife discovered the lie on interrogating the friend (sans the overhead glaring lights)  She subsequently relayed the illumination gained to him through her rolling pin. This man develops either one of the following principles - Don't lie to wife, or take friend into confidence before going for a clandestine rendezvous, or hide the rolling pin. Suppose he didn't choose option one, and forgot to hide the rolling pin, and the wife happened to see him with her on her way home, then he gets some more experience which will teach him something more. To be more careful, and also to keep the helmet for at least 15 minutes after entering the house.

This lather-rinse-repeat mechanism is based on a simple concept which is the fundamentals in control theory - Feedback.

This figure shows y as the output. The input r is combined with the feedback taken from output and the new output y is again computed. Every time, new behaviour results from the result of past experiences.
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Simple_feedback_control_loop2.png)


Feedback, however, is not obtained by a person only through his own experiences. He can learn from someone else's experiences as well. And not only does a person depend on experiences, he also tends to depend on opinions. And this is where the topic begins to get interesting. For, the question is, whose opinion is to be considered and whose to discard.

A worthwhile read would be on two topics - Dunning Kruger effect and Illusory Superiority. A question on technical aspects is normally straightforward - A person knows it, or he doesn't. It's often boolean as the computer engineers like, or digital, as the electronics guys like. Basically, 0 or 1, it is absolute. However, human relations are more complex, and involve a lot of parameters.

A simple example would be a person who wants to be better than what he was yesterday. "Yes, every day, I want to learn something. I don't want to make the mistake I made yesterday. I want to be a better person, one who is adored, loved and respected" and so, he does something interesting, for the feedback system is not applicable all the time. He asks for the opinion of another. Why? The feedback system doesn't work all the time. There is the problem of Social Contract - You don't tell people something that you feel, just because you felt it. How many times have you felt "Dude, you stink, didn't you have a bath?" or "Dude, keep your voice down. Why do you want the whole bus to know that the biriyani that you had with your wife last night was amazing? (Whatever that was supposed to hint)"

There are some things you tell your friend, because, you are friends - Macha, don't pick your nose in public da, it's bad manners... You might say this to your friend. But, if your colleague did that, you wouldn't venture a remark. So, you don't always get honest feedback from people. So, the guy who aspired perfection goes around trying to get it - putting his finger down the throat of others to force it out. What happens as a result? A tactful person may safely evade and circumvent. But some people may decide to be honest, and give an opinion. "Hey, I think you speak with an accent. That's a tad annoying" The guy is now wondering "Oh boy, I didn't know that. Maybe I should flatten my style? Or is this the only guy who feels that? Let's verify". So, he goes around asking other people...

One of the following things can happen -

  • If he was indeed speaking with an annoying accent, and people are genuine, then they will give honest opinions. He puts it in his feedback loop and corrects himself
  • If he was indeed speaking with an annoying accent, and people decide to circumvent and change topics "Hey, the weather is great today!" he might think that the first guy was jealous and not correct himself.
  • If he was not speaking with an accent, and people are genuine, they will give honest opinions, and he concludes that the first guy was jealous or a moron
  • If he was not speaking with an accent and people say he was, he will wrongly make changes...
Now accent is just an example. But notice that the decision of the person now depends rather heavily on people, their morals, qualities and knowledge. If the people whom he sought advice from have the IQ comparable with a retarded rabbit, then he is in trouble. But even otherwise, he tends to become a people-pleasing person - One, who over a period of time, will align himself to the society in a bid to become acceptable, loses originality, ability to reason, and individuality.

But this doesn't mean that opinions are bad - Opinions of people are always important. Right opinions are very important. For, in times of deep trouble, the brain of a human behaves in ways it wouldn't have, when not under stress. Then, people unaffected by stress continue to hold reason, and they can give sane advice. Again, the person's decision will be affected by qualities of people, and thus, right company becomes sine qua non.

To summarise, a person must develop a strong ability to think rationally on his own - through his own as well as through others' experiences. A person should be able to choose good company, using his reason. The person should know whose opinion matters, and how much weightage is to be given to whose opinion. One must always listen to all opinions, and then decide himself which is the best option and not blindly follow others. Well informed opinions are much better than one taken without adequate data, and data always comes through research as well through other people. Thus, we conclude that the individual needs to be strong and stable, or have a strong and stable partner to depend on.

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