A few hundred years ago, we decided that circular causality was a logical fallacy. All causes are linear. If something moves, then something else pushed it. If you want to see why, you have to look smaller; all forces derive from microscopic forces.
Yet as a human, I see circular causality everywhere.
- autocatalytic loops in biology
- self-reinforcing systems (few women enter or stay in tech because there are few women in tech)
- romantic infatuation (he likes me, that feels good, I like him, that feels good to him, he likes me 🔄)
- self-fulfilling prophecies (I expect to fail, so I probably will 🔄)
- self-regulating systems (such as language)
- cohesive groups (we help out family, then we feel more bonded, then we help out 🔄)
- downward spirals (he’s on drugs, so we don’t talk to him, so he is isolated, so he does drugs 🔄)
- virtuous cycles (it’s easier to make money when you have money 🔄)
These are not illusory. Circular causalities are strong forces in our lives. The systems we live in are self-perpetuating — otherwise they wouldn’t stay around. The circle may be initiated by some historical accident (like biological advantage in the first days of agriculture), but the reason it stays true is circular.
Family therapy recognizes this. (In the “soft” sciences you’re allowed to talk about what’s right in front of you but can’t be derived from atomic forces 😛.) When I have a bad day and snip at my spouse, he withdraws a bit; this hurts our connection, so I’m more likely to snip at him 🔄. When I wonder if my kid is hiding something, I snoop around; she sees this as an invasion of privacy, she starts hiding things 🔄. When my partner tells me something that bothers him, and I say “thank you for expressing that” and then change it, next time he’ll tell me earlier, and it’ll be easier to hear and fix 🔄.
Note that nobody is forcing anyone to do anything. This kind of causality acts on propensities, on likelihoods. We still have free will, but it takes more work to overcome tendencies that are built into us by these interactions.
Or at work: When I think a coworker doesn’t respect me, I make sarcastic remarks; each time he respects me less 🔄. As a team, when we learn together and accomplish something, we feel a sense of belonging; this leads us to feel safe, which makes it easier to learn together and accomplish more 🔄.
Some of these cycles are merely self-sustaining. Many spiral us further and further in a particular direction. These are growth loops, which Kent Beck describes: “the more it grows, the easier it is to grow more.” There is power for us in setting up, nourishing, or thwarting our own cycles. Growth loops are more powerful than individual, discrete incentives. The most supportive families, the most productive teams have them.
Because a growth loop moves a system in a particular direction, it’s more of a spiral than a circle. I want to draw a z-axis through it. Like snipping at my spouse:
As my spouse and I get snippy with each other, we spiral toward disconnection. When we talk early and welcome gentle feedback, we spiral toward connection. Whereas, when my team bonds and accomplishes things, we spiral toward belonging — with a side effect of accomplishments.
Call this “the network effect” if you want to; network effects are one form of growth loop.
When I start looking for these growth loops, I see them everywhere, even inside my head. I’m low on sleep, so I’m tired, so I don’t exercise, so I sleep poorly, so I’m tired 🔄. I’m not sleeping, so I get mad at myself for being awake, which is agitating and makes it harder to sleep 🔄. Once I recognize these, I can intervene. I notice that what I feel like doing and what will make me happy are not the same things. I step back from my emotions and feel compassion for myself and then let them go instead of feeding them. I stop negative loops and nourish positive ones.
Circular causality is real, and it powerful. In biology, in our lives, and in our teams, it feels stronger than linear causality; it can override individual competition and incentives. It forms ecosystems and symmathesies and cultures. Linear causality is valuable to understand, because its consequences are universal, while every loop is contextual. But can we stop talking like the only legitimate explanations start from atoms? We influence each other at every level of systems. Circular causality is familiar to us. I want to get better at seeing this and harvesting it in my work.