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What is the word for a cycle where the cause is made worse by the effect? A very simple example is a decline in fish leads to a decline in coral reef health which then leads to a further decline in fish and so on.

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  • Welcome to EL&U! For single-word-requests, we recommend providing a sentence with a gap to help understanding the question. An example might be "When I poke a jelly and it makes a wavy motion, it is ___.", to which the answer may be "wobbling". – A Lambent Eye Dec 19 '18 at 16:57
  • Probably not what you're looking for, but the mathematical field of catastrophe theory studies the conditions under which a system will remain stable or slide into a state of inescapable feedback. – joeytwiddle Dec 20 '18 at 6:46
  • Possibly related question. – Pam Dec 20 '18 at 10:18
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    The effect is called a runaway. – Mazura Dec 21 '18 at 2:10
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11 Answers 11

65

A vicious cycle is the term you want.

  1. a chain of events in which the response to one difficulty creates a new problem that aggravates the original difficulty

[M-W]


EDIT: The term is also known, as others have pointed out, as vicious circle. I prefer cycle because it better connotes the iterative nature of the process.

Here are some usage examples from vocabulary.com:

Science:

As Arctic permafrost thaws, it unleashes a vicious cycle—the unfrozen soil releases its carbon reserves that intensify climate change, in turn accelerating the thaw.

Scientific American Feb 9, 2018

Technology:

This reversed a vicious cycle of previous generations that saw high data costs leading to sparse use of data-heavy features, and sparse use of data-heavy features being used to justify high data costs.

The Guardian Jun 29, 2017

Business:

A rising dollar increases the value of dollar debt in local currencies, making repayment more difficult and depressing currencies further in a vicious cycle.

New York Times Jul 13, 2018

Sports:

Observers now describe a vicious cycle in which fewer at-large bids for leagues and teams lead to fewer resources and less exposure, leading to declines in recruiting and performance, leading to fewer at-large bids.

New York Times Mar 15, 2017

  • 15
    You meant "vicious circle" I think. – Michael Harvey Dec 19 '18 at 15:44
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    It goes by both. I wrote cycle because that's the word in the OP. – Tushar Raj Dec 19 '18 at 15:48
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    @MichaelHarvey definitely goes by both. ngrams. – Kevin Dec 19 '18 at 17:43
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    There's also the "virtuous cycle" (or circle) for the opposite effect (i.e, a cycle that gets better with each iteration). – No Name Dec 19 '18 at 23:02
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    I would definitely use "vicious cycle", and would have assumed that "vicious circle" was a corruption, though I happily concede that Kevin's ngrams suggest the opposite is true. – Lightness Races in Orbit Dec 20 '18 at 17:49
40

It's feedback, or more specifically positive feedback:

the enhancement or amplification of an effect by its own influence on the process that gives rise to it.

GOOG

"Positive" here is not a judgement on the result as good or bad. It's a statement that the cause is magnified, and often yields unstable behavior. Negative feedback usually diminishes the effect.

the diminution or counteraction of an effect by its own influence on the process giving rise to it

GOOG

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    To avoid the word positive, there's always "feedback loop". – georgewatson Dec 19 '18 at 19:44
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    @georgewatson Feedback loops can be negative or positive. Negative feedback loops have an effect that is diminished from what it would be without the feedback, but still in the same direction. – Spehro Pefhany Dec 19 '18 at 19:54
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    True. Although it's obviously wrong, in my experience laypeople tend to assume the feedback is positive - presumably because self-sustainining negative feedback is a mildly harder concept to grasp. – georgewatson Dec 19 '18 at 20:21
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    I would vote 'feedback loop' as a compromise between accuracy and understandability, and rely on context to describe the cycle. Even though I'm familiar with feedback loops, if someone describes one using the terms 'negative' or 'positive' I'm going to assume they're talking about the cycle's effects, unless they're an engineer/scientific professional and the context is appropriate for such an easily-misunderstood term. If your audience won't understand the 'correct' phrase accurately, then the phrase is not meaningfully accurate. What are words, but what people understand them to mean? – HammerN'Songs Dec 19 '18 at 21:32
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    Negative feedback eliminates itself, usually very quickly because the effect is exponential over time. When a microphone screeches, we don't naturally say, "Stop the positive feedback," we just say, "Stop the feedback." – CJ Dennis Dec 19 '18 at 22:46
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Not a single word, but a downward spiral or (less commonly) a death spiral. Wiktionary says a downward spiral is, "A series of thoughts or actions which feeds back into itself, causing a situation to become progressively worse."

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    I was thinking of death spiral. I use the term quite regularly to describe companies that are trapped in bad decision-making until they succumb to the inevitable. – Richard Dec 20 '18 at 0:41
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    Personally, I prefer "downward spiral" over "vicious cycle" in this case, since the inclusion of "downward" illustrates that this is not just a system at equilibrium, but one which is getting progressively worse. Vicious cycles may be getting worse (see most of the examples from Tushar Raj) but may also just be a self-perpetuating system of negative states (as in the example from The Guardian). Downward spirals, I suppose, are a specific subset of vicious cycles, and in general I would prefer the more specific term. – A C Dec 22 '18 at 18:10
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"Snowball effect" might also work for you. Where as things progress, the results build upon themselves for good or bad.

It comes from the idea of a small snowball rolling down a snow-covered hill, and the snow sticks to the snowball causing it to continually increase in size as it rolls down the hill.

6

The correct term for this is a 'positive feedback cycle' or a postive feedback loop.

It sounds unintuitive as the word 'positive' is mostly associated with improvement. However strictly speaking it is correct as here we are saying that the gap between the the current state and the ideal state INCREASES (i.e. by a positive amount) after applying the change, so things are worse off than when we started. A negative feedback loop would be one where the effect is diminished after each cycle and moves closer to the ideal state.

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    This is the correct technical description and is what i was dropping in to say. But it may be less than clear to non-technical audiences. – dmckee Dec 20 '18 at 17:25
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A few similar terms which haven't been mentioned:

  • chain reaction — a series of events, each caused by the previous one.
  • domino effect — the cumulative effect produced when one event sets off a chain of similar events.
  • ripple effect — the continuing and spreading results of an event or action.
  • butterfly effect — the phenomenon whereby a minute localized change in a complex system can have large effects elsewhere.
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    Nice suggestions, but none of them imply the circular progression that OP is looking for (from his example, at least). If he's open to scenarios involving more than two effects then your first two would be good, though. – Will Crawford Dec 20 '18 at 13:22
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Vicious spiral. Subtly different from a circle, since in some respects the situations the same (e.g. everyone's poor, the war's still going on) but in others it's different (e.g. an extra three zeroes on the banknotes, more people are dead).

0

Depending on how much flexibility you have in using the term- a figurative term for this could be a "catch-22"

For example: "To get a job- you need work experience but to get work experience- you need to get a job. Now that's a catch-22."

It's based on a book called Catch-22.

Other words could be- counterintuitive. Sometimes written with a hyphen as counter-intuitive or even as two seperate (or separate) words counter intuitive.

Contrary, contradictory, paradoxical.

Hope it helps!

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    Welcome to EL&U! Thank you for your answer. It could be improved by adding citations and sources, since Stack Exchange strongly values authoritative answers. – A Lambent Eye Dec 19 '18 at 16:52
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    A catch-22 is more like the opposite of what OP is describing. A catch-22 is a self-inhibiting loop, whereas OP describes a self-perpetuating loop. Your other suggestions don't imply any kind of circular dependency. – MackTuesday Dec 19 '18 at 20:08
  • If the no-job no-experience no-experience no-job cycle isn't self perpetuating, as Mack Tuesday suggests, it must be trivially easy to break out of it. Many jobseekers might not be convinced. – Bloke Down The Pub Dec 20 '18 at 19:26
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You've already had the best three answers I can think of, but if you have other situations in mind than your example, another suggestion or two (not one word, sorry):

  • Mutually Assured Destruction

    This usually applies to (international) political situations (the definition is generally given as some variation on "it's a military strategy"), but is often used metaphorically to describe interpersonal relationships (including both intimate emotionally-charged and professional ones) — precisely because it very much carries a sense of inevitability and of any action by either side worsening or at least perpetuating the situation.

    *Yes, I'm aware Wikipedia is not always the reliable reference we'd like it to be, but this entry "seems legit" as far as I can tell.

  • Deadly embrace

    Also carries the sense of inevitability and "doom" (for want of a better word).

    This one is also often used to describe a political or military deadlock (and it also has a technical use in computer science to refer to a process deadlock, but that derives from the earlier meaning, and loses some of the “progressively worsening” feeling of it).

    At its simplest this describes (for example) the situation of an occupying force in a foreign country where they “invaders” feel they cannot leave due to their belief that they are “keeping the peace” and that “it would all fall apart without them” (or simply that they would lose whatever benefit they gained from invading in the first place) but their presence is both costly to the invaders and strangling the development of the hosts.

    Another example, which is something of a cliché:

    The fossilised remains of a Tyrannosaurus Rex and a Triceratops have been unearthed, still locked together in a deadly embrace that has lasted 68 million years.

    However this example also lacks the “progressively worsening” aspect unless you are describing the eventual outcome from a point-of-view contemporaneous with the final throes, death struggle, etc etc.

0

A cycle of degradation.

A cycle of degradation which leads to ecological collapse (or catastrophe).

Cyclic collapse of the system.

Cyclic collapse of the ecology.

-2

Though the question asked for a word, the phrase "negative feedback loop" is the one that comes to mind first. In the cited example, declining fish populations trigger a decline in coral health, which further decreases fish population which further reduces coral health and so on.

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    *positive feedback loop. See this answer and this answer, which both give the same answer and both explain that "positive" in this context means "increasing effect," rather than being something good. – DonielF Dec 20 '18 at 16:47
  • Welcome to EL&U! Sources are always considered a good way to increase the security of your answer. – A Lambent Eye Dec 20 '18 at 16:56
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    Negative feedback pushes systems toward stasis (generally a good thing). Positive feedback pushes systems toward increasing effect (generally leading to bad things). The adjectives refer to the sign of mathematical terms, and not to how you should feel about the feedback. – dmckee Dec 20 '18 at 17:29

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