The Virtuous Cycle (or Circle)

Definition

A virtuous circle is one where a good event feeds on itself to improve a system further. It is a positive feedback loop. It might operate on a small or large scale, spanning days or even decades. The opposite of this is a vicious circle.

General Applications

The concept of a virtuous circle can be applied across many disciplines. Although it is commonly associated with business practices, the philosophy behind it can be applied in other areas as well, such as history, psychology, and education. Essentially, the concept of a virtuous or vicious circle is associated with human behavior.

A simple example of this might be seen in the interaction between a parent and child. When the child receives positive reinforcement for their behavior, they are likely to continue acting in a similar way to elicit more praise. The same is true of negative behavior. If the child is being ignored while practicing good behavior, they may act out to elicit a response, even if they know the response will be negative. This will then cause a downward spiral into yelling and harsher punishment.

In more esoteric terms we think of these cycles as good attracting good and bad attracting bad, as in, if you are happy/successful/financially secure, you will attract more of the same to you. However, the theory behind the virtuous circle suggests that it is not circumstance or luck that brings more good to you, but rather a cycle of positive behaviors.

Education

When we think of this application in the terms of education, we might go back to the parent/child behavior model. That is certainly part of it, even when we are dealing with adult aged students.

However, the virtuous circle goes beyond simple parent/child interaction to a societal level. If a student lives in poverty and has disadvantages stacked against them, they are less likely to be able to pull themselves out of a vicious circle and into a virtuous one.

This generalization extends beyond social class and economic well-being to general attitudes and even job prospects. These tensions can also be played out in the class environment, wherein some event can act as a catalyst setting into motion the tone for the rest of the semester.

Resources

This article in the Huffington Post gives a review of the movie “Inequality for All,” which is about the concept of a virtuous circle as it applies to economics.

This chapter considers the concept of the virtuous circle as it relates to poverty. It argues that whether a person falls into either type of circle is not their fault alone, but can in fact be addressed by social policy.

This author argues that if we want better teachers, who will make a bigger impact on improving student learning, we need to offer them a broad network of support for their own research.

This review of a speech given University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan in 2011 reviews her thesis that universities have the capacity to pull us out of economic recessions and other societal failures because they encourage research, which leads to innovation.

This New York Times article describes how income inequality in America is driving more income inequality in an ever more vicious cycle.

This article in Psychology Today describes steps we can take to break out of vicious circles and to begin to cultivate virtuous ones.

This TEDX speaker describes how we can use the philosophy of a virtuous circle to stop bad or dangerous behaviors.

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