The Importance of Feedback in Human Behavior

Developed: W. Huitt
Last modified: May 2004

Citation: Huitt, W. (2004). The importance of feedback in human behavior. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved [date], from

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Feedback is a very important concept in a systems view and refers to the process of receiving input from the environment based upon the actions or output of the system. It is somewhat related to the application of consequences, although it is a more encompassing term (Kearsley, 2003).

According to the definition provided by Stuart Umpleby at the Principia Cybernetica Web, feedback is "information about the results of a process which is used to change the process itself. Negative feedback reduces the error or deviation from a goal state. Positive feedback increases the deviation from an initial state." In this context, feedback could be information about one's action or thinking, but does not necessarily involve the application of consequences. Viewed from an information processing perspective, feedback could be positive or negative as Umpleby states or it could simply be neutral in that it indicates information that the thinking, affect, or behavior was perceived and understood. For example, when a person simply repeats what another has stated that could be considered as neutral feedback (i.e., it neither increases nor decreases future activity).

An important consideration of Umpleby's definition is the difference between negative and positive feedback. If one has already attained a specific end goal, then negative feedback (don't do that) will reduce deviations from that point. Similarly, if one is aiming for a specific end result, then negative feedback (change this error) will result in moving toward that end point. However, if the specific end result is ambiguous or unknown (environment is changing too fast to be certain or person has so little experience that the desired end result seems unreal), then positive feedback (that's a good start, keep going) will result in movement from the beginning point. Both aspects of feedback are important; proper use depends on which is the focus--moving from the initial state or obtaining the desired goal.

Another important point is that feedback is generally thought to be from external sources, whereas consequences can come from either external or internal sources. That is, one can change behavior (including internal as well as overt behavior) as a result of the application of reinforcers or punishers from external sources or by the individual. In the latter case, the individual is using the application of consequences in a self-regulatory manner.

The following is a proposed model of the role of feedback in the model of human development. It incorporates the classical and operant conditioning theories, the influence of the biological and spiritual aspects of the person's nature, as well as the consideration of cognitive psychology and conation/volition.

The fundamental hypothesis of this model is that action (including both internal and overt) can be correct or incorrect with respect to accomplishing a desired result and that it can stem from conscious knowledge, unconscious knowledge or both.

Unconscious knowledge can result from one or both of the primary components of human nature--spiritual/soul and genetics/biology--and/or the prior conditioning that the individual has experienced. To the extent that others review the individual's behavior and make changes in the environment that result in changes in behavior, this results in knowledge of which the individual is unaware and therefore remains unconscious knowledge.

To the extent that a person reviews his or her actions and corresponding results (including any conditioning controlled by others), this leads to a change in conscious knowledge. A personal decision and commitment is then required if this conscious knowledge is going to lead to a change in behavior. The paradigm for this sequence is the following:

Thought/Reasoning --> Conscious Knowledge --> Decision/Commitment --> Overt Behavior.

This model thus stipulates that both conscious knowledge and volition (conation) are required if one is to take control of one's life. While conditioning can produce changes in behavior, unless the individual is aware of the laws of conditioning and is personally reviewing both action and results, personal control towards a personally desired goal will not take place. If that personal review does not also consider the feedback provided by others' review of his or her behavior, personal control in meeting others' expectations will not take place. Critical thinking and sound reasoning, often proposed by educators as desired end results, are therefore necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for personal growth and development. It is also necessary that the person plans and commits in order to connect that knowledge to action. It is also necessary that the individual has acquired the specific skills essential to successfully implement desired plans.


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