Vicious cycle

中国日报网 2013-08-23 10:26



Vicious cycleReader question:

Please explain “vicious cycle”, as in this sentence: Extreme weather and climate change may be in a “vicious cycle”.

My comments:

A vicious cycle works this way: One bad thing leads to another, which makes the original situation worse.

And the situation may go on and on, progressively getting worse and worse.

In our example, global climate change is perhaps the cause of extreme weather at the local level, such as prolonged draughts in some places, flooding in others, extreme cold winters here and high temperatures in summer at some place else, and so on, so forth.

Or perhaps it’s the other way around, extreme weather causes climate change.

Whichever it is that starts the ball rolling, the situation works like a cycle, or a loop or wheel that turns round and round without stopping.

And the situation gets worse and worse. That’s what vicious means – bad.

Vicious cycle is a variation, though, from the more formal idiom vicious circle.

Vicious circle is originally a linguistic term, referring to a circular argument, which is a fallacy in logic. Circular argument, as name suggests, is an argument that ends where it formerly begins, going like a circle with the end merging with the beginning.

For example, you must have heard some Christians say that their religion is the best religion because theirs is the religion of God, who is perfect and all mighty and protects nobody but Christians, etc and so forth.

Actually no theologians argue that way any more but I, for one, have heard newly recruited Christians in China argue in similar manners. And people from other religions have certainly argued in like manners also. That is why it is difficult for people of different religions to talk with each other.

Similarly, people from democratic countries often say their government is the best form of government because they have elections and elections produce the best government.

I am all for democracy and don’t want to say anything against elections (even though they can be rigged) lest people say I prefer passing one’s posts and thrones to one’s own children, but one thing has to be made clear. As an argument, that type of logic is vicious (faulty). It gets us nowhere because it uses the same type of logic that kings and queens of yore always seemed to use:

I am the king and therefore what I am right (because I am the judge of wrong or right).

Try telling that to the public today and you’ll raise tears, or jeers and sneers instead of cheers.

Except cheers from those who are wired to cheer. Those people, and quite large in number as a matter of fact, are still there – they’re wired to cheer their leader because their leader is dear. And so they’ll cheer their dear leader whatever he/she has to say, groan or mumble.

Anyways, from a fallacy argument springs the term vicious circle, which later gains wider currency to mean what we now know as vicious cycle.

Vicious circle still works to mean a chain of events which affects one another and progressively make the whole situation worse and worse. But vicious cycle seems to be more often used today, because it makes immediate sense.

Vicious cycle is American, by the way, according to some dictionaries. The Americans prefer simple and straight forward idioms to those that don’t make immediate, literal sense.

I see today’s youngsters are all like that. They cannot see beyond the obvious but they’re onto something – perhaps the American way.

And that, in so far as what we’re immediately concerned with in this article is neither here nor there.

Alright, here are media examples of vicious circle or vicious cycle:

1. The business model developed by Sam Walton in the 1960s to attract shoppers used low costs to lower prices. The more shoppers, the more efficient Walmart got, letting it lower prices further and attract even more shoppers. This is the famous “productivity loop,” and it’s pretty simple.

But it’s increasingly hard to pull off in the U.S., where Walmart’s namesake chain delivered its ninth consecutive quarter of declining same-store sales last quarter. Its prices have been rising relative to competition, as CEO Mike Duke acknowledged last week.

So what happens when a brand built on low prices doesn’t have such low prices anymore? People notice. That’s caused some to buy less, particularly in a bad economy. So the productivity loop has morphed into a vicious circle.

Despite Walmart’s rededication last year to its everyday-low-price philosophy and recent ads focusing on its “ad-match guarantee” against more promotional competitors, Morgan Stanley last month reported that 60% of Walmart shoppers don’t believe the retailer actually has the lowest prices anymore. Another survey released earlier this month by WSL Strategic Retail found an even broader 86% of shoppers no longer believe Walmart has the lowest prices – though that was fielded in April, just as Walmart’s latest EDLP-focused ads began.

- How Walmart’s Vaunted 'Loop' Turned Into a Vicious Circle,, August 22, 2011.

2. Sad shoppers are getting sadder.

Findings from a new study show when we're feeling blue and socially isolated, we shop. Shopping, meanwhile, makes us even more depressed and alone. To fix it, we shop — and the vicious cycle continues.

But there’s hope. It turns out there are three types of materialists in this world — and for one of them, shopping is a “virtuous” cycle that actually decreases loneliness over time.

For the study, a sample of more than 2,500 consumers over six years were asked how much they agreed with statements, such as: “It sometimes bothers me quite a bit that I can’t afford to buy all the things I like,” and “I enjoy buying things that are not practical.” Study author Rik Pieters, a marketing professor at the Tilburg University in the Netherlands, then placed the shoppers in different materialist buckets and tested them for loneliness.

After poring over the questionnaires and running the numbers through a series of formulas, the evidence showed that over time, and regardless of income, materialism was associated with an increase in loneliness, and loneliness was associated with an increase in materialism.

“Relationships can be hard. People can say no, but an iPad can’t,” Pieters told NBC News. While research indicates that when we’re lonely our first impulse is to reconnect with others, it’s often easier to go shopping.

Pieters was drawn to the topic because links between materialism and loneliness are so culturally ingrained that we accept them at face value, but the phenomenon has never been studied. The research that has been done on materialism – defined as the importance that people attach to acquiring and owning material possessions – has treated consumers as one lump.

But not all materialists are created equal.

One of the three types of shoppers Pieters identified uses shopping as a medicine to feel differently. Shopping is a drug that gives them a fix when they’re down or turns feeling normal into a buzz.

Another type of materialist shops as a means of social comparison. They agree with statements like “I admire people who own expensive things” and “It’s important to have lots of things in life.”

For these types of consumers, shopping is a loneliness loop that only makes them sadder and feeling the need to acquire more stuff to fill the void.

- Shopping is a ‘loop of loneliness,’ study finds,, August 13, 2013.

3. Ex-convicts are prejudged by the public even before giving them a chance to prove themselves in leading a new life, said Malaysian Crime Prevention Foundation vice-chairman Lee Lam Thye.

Lee said the stigma associated with ex-convicts was the reason many of them go back to a life of crime because there was no other option.

“The word ‘ex-con’ itself is not a pleasant word and most of us do not understand the real problem,” said Lee.

The 67-year-old social activist said because of the stigma most ex-criminals found it difficult get jobs.

“When ex-convicts apply for jobs they are not considered,” he added.

Lee said he had persuaded the government to come up with a plan to help ex-convicts lead a new life but it had fallen on deaf ears.

“Once you see a former criminal you will think he is a bad man. We have to change this mindset,” he said.

“The government can play a role by monitoring and counselling them,” he added.

Lee said the unemployment among former convicts need to be dealt with immediately as it would cause more problems in society.

It is a vicious cycle which needs to be broken before it creates more problems,” he said.

- ‘Ex-cons caught in a vicious cycle’,, August 15, 2013.

Related stories:

Through the revolving door?

Keep his counsel?

Halo effect?

Throwing them a bone?

Smoking gun evidence?

Political horse trading

Go to Zhang Xin's column


About the author:

Zhang Xin(张欣) has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at:, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.




















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