Michael McDonald's Blog

The Fire Ants Paradox

While I'm on the subject of ants, here is an interesting illustration of how multiple feedback loops cause surprising, paradoxical behavior:

Of Fire Ants & Feedback Loops

But notice the paradoxical dynamics. An "obviously correct" strategy ("kill all the fire ants") that successfully defeats fire ants on the time-scale of days, actually encourages the fire ant population on the time-scale of seasons. A slower strategy requiring more patience ("feed them tempting poison") actually works.

This analogy shouldn't be pushed too far. But with a little practice at looking for these kinds of second-order effects, and particularly looking for paradoxical responses where the long-term effect is in the opposite direction to the short-term effect, it is amazing what you see out there.

X removes Y, ultimately making Y worse (and similar paradoxes). This analogy originally had a political bent (see the post's numerous Iraq-related comments) but applies pretty universally.

Sometimes wild success or failure (a.k.a. tipping points) is stumbled upon, fueled by these unexpected feedback loops.

Sometimes feedback loops are more subtle, harder to measure, and therefore harder for number-crunchers to believe. E.g. greed, which contains the seeds of its own destruction.

Sometimes people keep whacking at one problem the same way, making it worse, but unwilling to change because they can't understand why it is failing. Silicon Valley is rife with these all-or-nothing single-feedback-loop companies an interesting side effect of the venture capital feedback loop.

Sometimes people identify a couple feedback loops and able to blend them together, creating runaway successes or unique, carefully balanced ecosystems. (There's gold in them thar ant hills.)

But it is always healthy to brainstorm potential feedback loops and keep an eye out for them. E.g. compare how your company thinks about raising/reducing prices with how the Fed thinks about raising/reducing interest rates.

link  |   |  10/13/06 11:43am
updated 2/25/10 10:08am
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