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In many parts of psychology there is an assumption that a complex system of determinants will tend to lead to a state of equilibrium. When this tendency is absent we use terms like virtuous circle and vicious circle (or virtuous cycle and vicious cycle) to describe these unstable pattern of events. Both circles are complexes of events with no tendency towards equilibrium (at least in the short run). Both systems of events have feedback loops in which each iteration of the cycle reinforces the first (positive feedback). The difference between the two is that a virtuous cycle has favorable results and a vicious cycle has deleterious results. These cycles will continue in the direction of their momentum until an exogenous factor intervenes and stops the cycle. The prefix “hyper” is sometimes used to describe these cycles. A well known vicious circle is hypervigilance.
Example of a vicious circle in psychology
In clinical psychology many conditions are exacerbated by vicious cycles (eg being depressed about being depressed) and by the failure of the usual self-care virtous circles to function (eg Anxiety can prevent sleep which might lead to less anxiety which might allow more rest which might lead to recovery and the reestablishment of equilibrium.
Example of a virtuous circle in psychology
In clinical psychology recovery is often facilitated in cognitive behaviour therapy by the identification of vicious cycles of thoughts and behaviour and the development of fresh strategies to start virtuos cycle up into operation. In phobias for example the avoidant respose can prevent sufferers remaining in the presence of the feared stimulus (eg dog) long enough to see that the are not really a threat. By encouraging people to remain with the situation, they learn there is no threat, which increases confidence, which makes it easier to cope with the threat, which could even lead to enjoying dog and keeping one as a pet, which could lead to better fitness and better mental health etc. etc
Example of a virtuous circle in management
An investment in your employees’ ability to provide superior service to customers can be seen as a virtuous circle. Effort spent in selecting and training employees and creating a corporate culture in which they are empowered can lead to increased employee satisfaction and employee competence. This will likely result in superior service delivery and customer satisfaction. This in turn will create customer loyalty, improved sales levels, and higher profit margins. Some of these profits can be reinvested in employee development thereby initiating another iteration of a virtuous cycle.
Example of a vicious circle in management
A harvesting strategy can be an example of a vicious circle. Rather than reinvesting in employee development, new product development, and marketing research, management could decide to harvest their investment by reducing costs then increasing dividends or increasing executive compensation. The consequence of this could be reduced employee wages, minimal training, an outdated product line, and a failure to understand the needs of the customer. This will likely result in employee dissatisfaction, employee incompetence, and high employee turnover. This could cause poor service delivery, customer dissatisfaction, high customer turnover, and loss of market share. Reduced sales and lower profit margins may require a further reduction in investment thereby initiating another iteration of the vicious cycle.
- Schlesinger, L. and Heskett, J. (1991) Breaking the cycle of failure in services, Sloan Management Review, vol. 31, spring 1991, pp.17 - 28.
- http://william-king.www.drexel.edu/top/prin/txt/gro/gro21b.html - An introduction to 20th century virtuous circle theory.
- Rational Choice with Passion:Virtue in a Model of Rational Addiction - In this link the author uses Aristotelian virtue as a mediator between passion and reason in the construction of utility/consumption functions in an esoteric part of consumer behaviour theory related to decision making in addictive situations.Cognitive psychology
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