I recently encountered something that is, in my opinion, one of the most absurd failure modes of the human brain. I first encountered this after introspection on useful things that I enjoy doing, such as programming and writing. I noticed that my enjoyment of the activity doesn't seem to help much when it comes to motivation for earning income. This was not boredom from too much programming, as it did not affect my interest in personal projects. What it seemed to be, was the brain categorizing activities into "work" and "fun" boxes. On one memorable occasion, after taking a break due to being exhausted with work, I entertained myself, by programming some more, this time on a hobby personal project (as a freelancer, I pick the projects I work on so this is not from being told what to do). Relaxing by doing the exact same thing that made me exhausted in the first place.

The absurdity of this becomes evident when you think about what distinguishes "work" and "fun" in this case, which is added value. Nothing changes about the activity except the addition of more utility, making a "work" strategy always dominate a "fun" strategy, assuming the activity is the same. If you are having fun doing something, handing you some money can't make you worse off. Making an outcome better makes you avoid it. Meaning that the brain is adopting a strategy that has a (side?) effect of minimizing future utility, and it seems like it is utility and not just money here - as anyone who took a class in an area that personally interested them knows, other benefits like grades recreate this effect just as well. This is the reason I think this is among the most absurd biases - I can understand akrasia, wanting the happiness now and hyperbolically discounting what happens later, or biases that make something seem like the best option when it really isn't. But knowingly punishing what brings happiness just because it also benefits you in the future? It's like the discounting curve dips into the negative region. I would really like to learn where is the dividing line between which kinds of added value create this effect and which ones don't (like money obviously does, and immediate enjoyment obviously doesn't). Currently I'm led to believe that the difference is present utility vs. future utility, (as I mentioned above) or final vs. instrumental goals, and please correct me if I'm wrong here.

This is an effect that has been studied in psychology and called the overjustification effect, called that because the leading theory explains it in terms of the brain assuming the motivation comes from the instrumental gain instead of the direct enjoyment, and then reducing the motivation accordingly. This would suggest that the brain has trouble seeing a goal as being both instrumental and final, and for some reason the instrumental side always wins in a conflict. However, its explanation in terms of self-perception bothers me a little, since I find it hard to believe that a recent creation like self-perception can override something as ancient and low-level as enjoyment of final goals. I searched LessWrong for discussions of the overjustification effect, and the ones I found discussed it in the context of self-perception, not decision-making and motivation. It is the latter that I wanted to ask for your thoughts on.


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What it seemed to be, was the brain categorizing activities into "work" and "fun" boxes.

I suspect the rule brain uses when categorizing is "Is there stress associated with the activity? Do I feel anxiety when I imagine I could do it wrong, or not finish it on time? Yes -> work. No -> fun."

Nothing changes about the activity except the addition of more utility

This would be true for a rational machine, but you have emotions. Adding positive financial utility may also also add negative emotional utility. It's not just "if I make this work, I will have extra $5000" but also "if I don't make this work, I will not be able to pay my bills, which could lead to many problems".

I can understand akrasia, wanting the happiness now and hyperbolically discounting what happens later

"Hyperbolic discounting" is IMHO a red herring. Yes, it exists in some situations. But many cases of akrasia are actually caused by emotional factors. Fix the emotions and the akrasia will go away. It's only Vulcan Rationalists pretending that everything is about hyperbolic discounting, because it allows them to debate mathematical equations instead of emotions.

I would really like to learn where is the dividing line between which kinds of added value create this effect and which ones don't (like money obviously does, and immediate enjoyment obviously doesn't).

A thought experiment: Imagine that there is a website that calculates some abstract "credits" for doing programming tasks. For example, you make a program, send it to the website owners, they will look at source code and give you 150 credits, because that's how they feel about the program's complexity and quality and whatever other criteria they evaluate. It's unconnected to the world outside: you can send what you wrote at work (let's assume there are no legal obstacles), or what you wrote at free time, anything. Then you could see "oh, I already earned 500 credits this month, I have 23450 total credits, and that makes me the 123th highest ranking programmer on the website".

My prediction: These "credits" would be classified as FUN. That is, no negative feelings connected. Despite the fact that you sometimes send them your work code.

A few years later: The website calculating "credits" becomes popular and people talk about it a lot. Your boss tells you: "If you can you get 50000 total credits, I will double your salary. However, if someone with better ranking would apply for your job, I will fire you and take them instead. I hope you feel more motivated now!" (Let's assume that the firing would be perfectly legal.)

My prediction: These "credits" would be reclassified as WORK. Now they are connected to some negative feelings. Despite the fact that you can still send them your free-time code. Actually, I suspect that even some of the free-time projects would suddenly start feeling like WORK when you realize that making them and sending them to the website could bring you the "credits".

I experience the same phenomenon in spite of not experiencing anxiety. (That's not 100% true, I did experience completely disassociated anxiety once.)

The most interesting case is that I spent about five months writing a new tabletop game after the beta of the current version of D&D made me annoyed. (It was when they started phasing feats out, eliminating yet another chunk of character customization.)

Five months and a novel's worth of writing in, I started planning ahead. As soon as I set goals for myself, I stopped enjoying working on it. I pushed through writing 250 spells over two months, and progress has been sporadic since then.

I don't think anxiety is the issue. I think it's something related to goal-oriented behaviors; the short view and long view fighting each other.

ETA: Thinking about it, I experience exactly the same thing WRT my daily work. If I receive an e-mail with something to do, I'll immediately hop on it, and wrap the task up. If I have a long-term project, I'll procrastinate. A task that enters my immediate list of things to do carries little or no internal resistance; the same task, attached to any kind of prior planning ahead on my part, requires substantial effort to undertake.

Hmm, you may be right.

A quick hypothesis is that when you don't plan, you see every achievement as an improvement over status quo. But when you have a plan, suddenly you compare every step with the goal, so the feedback for every step is "you are not there yet" -- not quite encouraging.

It's like instead of getting emotional rewards for every step we do, we take a huge emotional loan in the planning phase, and then we just have to pay it by work.

That explains why planning - even to ridiculous levels of detail, to the point where I've done most of the work - is enjoyable, yet following up on planning is tedious.

I don't think anxiety is the issue. I think it's something related to goal-oriented behaviors; the short view and long view fighting each other.

Another suggestion: freedom of choice. Things labeled "fun" you can do or not do, in particular you can always exit them with no negative consequences. Things labeled "work" you have to do (with a varied intensity of "have") and not doing them does have negative consequences.


That makes sense given that I'm libertarian. Assuming I follow the standard libertarian psychological profile, I am offended by the loss of my sense of control, even if I'm ceding that sense of control to my past self.


I enjoy planning. I despise carrying out plans. In the former case, I'm maximizing my current control over my self. In the latter case, I'm resisting the control over myself I have previously exerted, in order to maximize my current control over my self.

see my comment.

My take is that what matters in fun versus work is where the locus of control is situated. That is, where does your subjective experience tell you the source of you doing that activity comes from.

If it comes from within, then you count it as fun. If it comes from the outside, you count it as work.

This explains your feeling, and explains the comments in this thread as well. When past-self sets goals for you, you are no longer the center of locus of control. Then it feels like negatively connoted work.

That's how it is for me anyway.

Personally, even when I'm the one assigning myself "work", it's still a negative experience.

I like this idea, it seems to ring true to me.

You are using utility in the economic sense and not in the decision theorethic sense. If you frame it as "duty" vs "play" it becomes way more understandable.

A utility that you explicitly calculate on a paper can feel like an outside force that forces you to do something. Something that you have internalised as part of your soul and who you are is more just self-expression. While the concept of utility has been used to refer to both it only really ablies to the latter (for example when you turn preferences into ordinal numerical values). A agent not seeing that work has utility isn't in any way contradictory or paradoxical. If you keep your concept more stringent there is a step from going from dollar production into utility. If dollar production isn't the main utlity component then it is not surprising that there is a disconnect with them. This might have the same structure as the question of "free will" as you do not feel that it is your person doing the activity when it is your "employee" doing it as part of your job duties, that is in a sense you are doing "unvoluntary work" (while simultaneusly thinking that if you didn't like your job you would quit, in a sense also believing in voluntary working). It is easier to stop play if you feel like it but doing a similiar decision not to work today as you don't feel like it is a more responcibility calling enterpreneour level decision that can require doing things that might be in conflict with work ethics (or it calls in a more holistic "employee thriving" advanced management theory). It is somewhat popular to hold a stance that you need to work even if you some particular day you don't feel like it.

There is also a well known effect where two groups were given a puzzle and one group was given monetary rewards for completing it and the other wasn't. When afterwards they were given free access to the puzzle those that were not rewarded engaged with it and those that were rewarded did not. I believe the associated theory is about how explcit external rewards destroy intrinsic motivation. It could also be termed how a job were you normally get 10$ for doing you now get 0$ is clearly not worth the effort, the rewarded people tended to evalaute the gain by monetary terms.

You might be doing a somewhat reverse process. Because it generates money it can't be fun because work by definition isn't play.

The obvious question is: what can one do about this?

Off the cuff: perhaps you've got it backwards?

I've thought about this as well, but my observation ended up going a different direction: work as a category only has higher utility because it's unfun in some way. Everyone else would rather be doing fun things, but the unfun stuff needed for survival still has to get done somehow. Work generally has higher utility because other people are willing to pay you to do it so they can do the fun things instead.

What phase are you at in each project? Are things flowing equally well?

I find that different parts of programming, even on the same project, can be joyous and hair-pullingly frustrating.

Work is a failure case, a hole you dig yourself out of. You're doing things in the fun category when you see a danger coming. Your fun will end because you'll be hungry or lack a place to sleep if you dont fix the problem. This is especially true of people who can choose how much work they do and money to make instead of being trained into a schedule. "Work expands to fill all available time" --Parkinson's law. Its like a gas that spreads until you need to do a little more.


From my experience the main difference "fun" and "work" is that in the latter you have things like deadlines, limited resources, judgement and effect of current performance on future prospects. All this affects pretty directly social status and (to a lesser extent) survival. I think, the main failure mode here is that the brain reacts extremely sensitive to the first derivative of social status.

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