The central premise behind positive feedback is the notion that “success breeds success” or the “rich get richer.” In essence, positive feedback operates on rewards to the system. The more profit a firm earns, the more profit it will seek to earn. “A positive feedback mechanism includes a self-referencing process that accentuates rather than counterbalances a trend” (Baumgartner and Jones, 2002, p. 13).
In describing how positive feedback unfolds within a governance network, Baumgartner and Jones observe that “positive feedback processes come about when issues are reframed, when institutional designs are altered, and when policy makers come to realize that other policy makers may be looking at old issues in new ways” (Baumgartner and Jones, 2002, p. 27).
In governance systems, positive feedback generally occurs as the result of one of two forces: mimicking and attention shifting. According to Baumgartner and Jones, mimicking “operates when people observe the behavior of others and act accordingly” (2002, p. 15). Mimicking leads to fads, cascading or bandwagon effects. Attention shifting occurs as a result of the boundary rationality of individuals, or what Herbert Simon refers to as “serial information processing” (1966). “They attend to only limited parts of the world at any given time. Since one cannot possibly simultaneously be attuned to all elements of the surrounding world, people use various informational short-cuts in order to make reasonable decisions” (Baumgartner and Jones, 2002, p. 15).
Baumgartner and Jones observe that positive feedback contributes to the coupling of policy streams. They note that conditions do not automatically translate into problems; that translation occurs when previously ignored aspects of a complex situation become salient, which occurs through the efforts of policy makers attempting to redefine public debates. They go on to add that the two mechanisms of positive feedback, mimicking and attention shifting, are “intimately related.” They describe a phenomenon of how “previously ignored attributes of complex public policies become salient in a policy debate, setting off a cascade of interest through the calculations of expected action” (Baumgartner and Jones, 2002, p. 23).