[linkpost] The Psychological Economy of Inaction by William Gillis

by Quinn1 min read12th Sep 20211 comment

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World Modeling
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William Gillis is an excellent essayist, LessWrong amongst their influences, who doesn't post on LessWrong.

I wanted to open up a dialogue about their new essay to see what commenters here have to say, it's just under 2k words.

Gillis is a compelling philosopher of agency, in this they argue that consciousness is insufficient for agency.

All of which is to underline: just because you’re conscious doesn’t mean you’re agential. Agency is – perhaps unfortunately – habituated.

Speaking for myself, I feel like Gillis' take on "what actually is freedom?" is closest to my own, yet I think they go farther than I've gone with this idea of processes that habituate less or more agency (rather than simply agency as a metric on scenarios, as if evaluated on a snapshot )

But taking away choice isn’t a path to happiness, it’s a path to depression. Freedom from stress or fatigue, perhaps, but certainly not a freedom to influence the wider universe. This is not to praise the shallow causal depth that a choice over mere toothpaste has, but to emphasize the often overlooked degree to which even small situations of immediate choice in our lives help habituate our capacity to act.

Toward the bottom, the comment about projects that don't pay out for a long time vs. projects with immediate payout seems like one way to operationalize the utilons-fuzzies distinction

The general idea of tipping the scale in favor of action over inaction is tricky, it calls to mind the Catch 22 of Advice that I think Kelsey TUOC used to write about-- that you can't determine if the people who need to hear it will hear it more than the people who need to hear the exact opposite. Can we do better than the Catch 22?

There's a comment in methods chapter 93, actually, (don't click if you haven't read it before, spoilers) where Harry takes the side of action

"because Neville tried to do something, even if it wasn't the right thing, doing what's right is the second lesson, you can start practicing that after you learn to do anything at all -"

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I was recently wondering what is the current best knowledge about "willpower". (Looking at what is in the water supply of the rationalist community, I got an impression that if you say "willpower depletion", someone will immediately tell you that it was debunked; but if you say "limited spoons", people will agree... and I am not really sure what exactly is the difference between those two concepts.)

This article suggests that agency is on a spectrum between "acting on pure instinct" and "procrastinating forever"; obviously, being stuck at either extreme is harmful. What we practice more, is what we are more likely to do in the future. And given that successfully civilized people usually practice inaction, the average person should deliberately practice action. You can't do it always, because sometimes the decision to do it later is the right one; but that is precisely why you should regularly balance it by doing something else immediately.

Lack of practicing agency makes one unhappy, so if you do not practice agency, you get depressed, and sometimes a part of your brain tries to fix the balance by doing stupid things on impulse, such as buying expensive and useless things. (From certain perspective, the possibility and easiness of doing stupid things on impulse works as a safety valve for capitalism, or perhaps civilization in general. It is what people do after a frustrating day at job in order to preserve their sanity.) A problem with this fix is that a repeated stupid impulsive action gradually becomes a habit, so your now brain needs more stupid actions to feel agenty again.

This is good material for thought. I wonder about implications of what feels agenty...

This seems obviously related to the job/hobby distinction; how hobby becomes less fun when it becomes job. Some people say it is because the job inevitably also contains some boring parts. Which is true, but maybe more important is that job feels like something you have to do, while hobby feels like a small rebellion against the system; and by converting your hobby into job you lose the feeling of free choice. Similarly, it is dangerous if your projects are your only source of agency, because starting a new project feels more agenty than continuing an existing one, so you will feel the need to abandon existing projects and start new ones to keep the same feeling of freedom.

Also makes me think how micromanagement kills agency at work. Even if you have to work 8 hours for your boss, you can still find tiny pieces of freedom at choosing which task to do first, or which specific approach to try. That is, unless your manager carefully prioritizes all items in your sprint, makes you plan all details in advance, and then uses daily standups to check that you do not deviate from the predetermined path. (This is technically against the rules of Scrum, because the manager is not even supposed to be at your daily standup... not that it ever actually stopped anyone...)