Learning depends on feedback. This is not a surprising statement, and is a common theme within many different academic disciplines, including Systems Thinking (as discussed by Sterman, Meadows, Forrester and others). But despite this consensus, learning, in the sense of shifting our beliefs about something, is very hard to do. And feedback loops are not as easy to understand as we often believe them to be. What follows is my attempt to explore John D. Sterman’s perspective on learning and feedback and apply it to health behaviour change in the context of obesity.
First let’s look at a simple feedback loop and learning process. We receive information about something, and based on this, we make a decision. The actions we take based on that decision influence various outcomes and we get new and updated information that allows us to make additional decisions and take further actions (Figure 1). This is sometimes referred to as single loop learning. We modify our decisions based on the information we receive, and the information we receive is in part determined by the actions we take.
Using weight management as an example, the decisions made might include restricting food intake or exercising more in order to produce a change in body weight. The information about the “real world” then comes from stepping on the scale to assess if there is a change in body weight.
In this example, the decisions we make are consistent, each time based on our preconceptions of how the real world works. These preconceptions, or mental models, provide us with the rules or guidelines for the decisions we make. They include habits and routines, interpretations, and attributions. In single loop learning, our mental models are not affected by the feedback we receive. Our understanding of how things work, our goals, and values are not influenced. Is this single loop learning enough to change health behaviour? Are the mental models that we have appropriate for supporting the change we hope to see?
What would happen if we changed the rules that governed how we made decisions? This requires a second feedback loop, creating what is referred to as double loop learning (Figure 2). In this example, information we receive can not only affect our decisions, but can alter the guidelines that we use in making them.
I’ll revisit the ideas and questions I’ve raised here in future posts; to discuss what the current mental models of obesity are, how they affect “learning” (or behaviour change), and explore potential strategies to change our mental models.
1. Sterman, John D. (1994). Learning in and about complex systems. System Dynamics Review, 43 (2-3), 239-330 DOI: 10.1002/sdr.4260100214
2. Sterman, J.D. Business Dynamics: Systems Thinking and Modeling for a Complex World. McGraw-Hill. Boston. 2000