NEW HAVEN – In his First Inaugural Address, during the depths of the Great Depression, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously told Americans that, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Invoking the Book of Exodus, he went on to say that, “We are stricken by no plague of locusts.” Nothing tangible was causing the depression; the problem, in March 1933, was in people’s minds.
The same could be said today, seven years after the 2008 global financial crisis, about the world economy’s many remaining weak spots. Fear causes individuals to restrain their spending and firms to withhold investments; as a result, the economy weakens, confirming their fear and leading them to restrain spending further. The downturn deepens, and a vicious circle of despair takes hold. Though the 2008 financial crisis has passed, we remain stuck in the emotional cycle that it set in motion.
It is a bit like stage fright. Dwelling on performance anxiety may cause hesitation or a loss of inspiration. As fear turns into fact, the anxiety worsens – and so does the performance. Once such a cycle starts, it can be very difficult to stop.
According to Google Ngrams, it was during the Great Depression – around the late 1930s – that the term “feedback loop” began to appear frequently in books, often in relation to electronics. If a microphone is placed in front of a loudspeaker, eventually some disturbance will cause the system to produce a painful wail as sound loops from the loudspeaker to the microphone and back, over and over. Then, in 1948, the great sociologist Robert K. Merton popularized the phrase “self-fulfilling prophecy” in an essay with that title. Merton’s prime example was the Great Depression.