Some highlights from The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life And Business by Charles Duhigg, a book which seems like an invaluable resource for pretty much everyone who wants to improve their lives. The below summarizes the first three chapters of the book, as well as the appendix, for I found those to be the most valuable and generally applicable parts. These chapters discuss individual habits, while the rest of the book discusses the habits of companies and individuals. The later chapters also contain plenty of interesting content (some excerpts: [1 2 3]), and help explain the nature of e.g. some institutional failures.

(See also two previous LW discussions on an online article by the author of the book.)

Chapter One: The Habit Loop - How Habits Work

When a rat first navigates a foreign environment, such as a maze, its brain is full of activity as it works to process the new environment and to learn all the environmental cues. As the environment becomes more familiar, the rat's brain becomes less and less active, until even brain structures related to memory quiet down a week later. Navigating the maze no longer requires higher processing: it has become an automatic habit.

The process of converting a complicated sequence of actions into an automatic routine is known as "chunking", and human brains carry out a similar process. They vary in complexity, from putting toothpaste on your toothbrush before putting it in your mouth, to getting dressed or preparing breakfast, to very complicated processes such as backing one's car out of the driveway. All of these actions initially required considerable effort to learn, but eventually they became so automatic as to be carried out without conscious attention. As soon as we identify the right cue, such as pulling out the car keys, our brain activates the stored habit and lets our conscious minds focus on something else. In order to conserve effort, the brain will attempt to turn almost any routine into a habit.

However, it can be dangerous to deactivate our brains at the wrong time, for there may be something unanticipated in the environment that will turn a previously-safe routine into something life-threatening. To help avoid such situations, our brains evaluate prospective habits using a three-stage habit loop:

From behind a partition, for instance, it’s difficult for a rat to know if it’s inside a familiar maze or an unfamiliar cupboard with a cat lurking outside. To deal with this uncertainty, the brain spends a lot of effort at the beginning of a habit looking for something— a cue— that offers a hint as to which pattern to use. From behind a partition, if a rat hears a click, it knows to use the maze habit. If it hears a meow, it chooses a different pattern. And at the end of the activity, when the reward appears, the brain shakes itself awake and makes sure everything unfolded as expected.

This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.

Over time, this loop— cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward— becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges. Eventually, whether in a chilly MIT laboratory or your driveway, a habit is born.

Unused habits disappear very slowly, if at all. If a rat is trained to find cheese in a particular section of the maze, and the cheese is then moved to a different location, it will obtain a new habit. But once the cheese is moved back to its original location, the old habit re-emerges, almost as if it had been active for the whole time. This is part of the reason why it is so hard to start exercising regularly, or to change one's diet: the habit of relaxing in front of the TV, or snacking on a meal, will still be activated by the old cues and engage the behavioral pattern. On the other hand, if one does manage to establish a habit of ignoring the snacks or going out for a jog, it will eventually become as automatic as any other habit.

Habits are crucial for our ability to function. People with damage to the basal ganglia, the parts of the brain responsible for habitual behavior, often become mentally paralyzed. Even basic activities, such as opening a door or choosing what to eat, become difficult to perform, and they may need to pause to wonder whether they should tie their left or right foot first, or whether to brush their teeth before or after taking a shower.

In one set of experiments, for example, researchers affiliated with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism trained mice to press levers in response to certain cues until the behavior became a habit. The mice were always rewarded with food. Then, the scientists poisoned the food so that it made the animals violently ill, or electrified the floor, so that when the mice walked toward their reward they received a shock. The mice knew the food and cage were dangerous— when they were offered the poisoned pellets in a bowl or saw the electrified floor panels, they stayed away. When they saw their old cues, however, they unthinkingly pressed the lever and ate the food, or they walked across the floor, even as they vomited or jumped from the electricity. The habit was so ingrained the mice couldn’t stop themselves.

It’s not hard to find an analog in the human world. Consider fast food, for instance. It makes sense— when the kids are starving and you’re driving home after a long day— to stop, just this once, at McDonald’s or Burger King. The meals are inexpensive. It tastes so good. After all, one dose of processed meat, salty fries, and sugary soda poses a relatively small health risk, right? It’s not like you do it all the time.

But habits emerge without our permission. Studies indicate that families usually don’t intend to eat fast food on a regular basis. What happens is that a once a month pattern slowly becomes once a week, and then twice a week— as the cues and rewards create a habit— until the kids are consuming an unhealthy amount of hamburgers and fries. When researchers at the University of North Texas and Yale tried to understand why families gradually increased their fast food consumption, they found a series of cues and rewards that most customers never knew were influencing their behaviors. They discovered the habit loop.

Every McDonald’s, for instance, looks the same— the company deliberately tries to standardize stores’ architecture and what employees say to customers, so everything is a consistent cue to trigger eating routines. The foods at some chains are specifically engineered to deliver immediate rewards— the fries, for instance, are designed to begin disintegrating the moment they hit your tongue, in order to deliver a hit of salt and grease as fast as possible, causing your pleasure centers to light up and your brain to lock in the pattern. All the better for tightening the habit loop.

However, even these habits are delicate. When a fast food restaurant closes down, the families that previously ate there will often start having dinner at home, rather than seek out an alternative location. Even small shifts can end the pattern. But since we often don’t recognize these habit loops as they grow, we are blind to our ability to control them. By learning to observe the cues and rewards, though, we can change the routines.

Chapter Two: The Craving Brain - How to Create New Habits

A basic rule of marketing, based on the habit loop, is to attempt to identify a simple obvious cue, and then offer a clear reward from one's product. An early success was in the marketing of Pepsodent, where the marketer instructed people to run their tongue across their teeth and notice the existence of a "film" on the teeth. He then argued that by using his toothpaste, people could get rid of the film and obtain beautiful, clean teeth. (In reality, the "film" is a harmless membrane that builds up on teeth regardless of how often one eats or brushes their teeth.)

However, other toothpaste companies had tried similar marketing tactics before, without much success. Another part of Pepsodent's success was that it happened to contain citric acid, as well as other chemicals that act as mild irritants. Their effect is to create a cool, tingling sensation on the tongue and gums of people. This acted as the real reward for the habit - although the sensation itself only happened to occur by coincidence, people came to associate it with having brushed their teeth, and of having a clean mouth. It was when people began craving this reward that tooth brushing really became a habit. When other toothpaste companies realized what was going on, they all proceeded to add similar irritants to their products.

“Consumers need some kind of signal that a product is working,” Tracy Sinclair, who was a brand manager for Oral-B and Crest Kids Toothpaste, told me. “We can make toothpaste taste like anything— blueberries, green tea— and as long as it has a cool tingle, people feel like their mouth is clean. The tingling doesn’t make the toothpaste work any better. It just convinces people it’s doing the job.”

When a habit becomes sufficiently established in the brain, the cue no longer just activates the routine - it also makes us crave the reward that is associated with completing the routine. If the cue is present, but we can't engage in the routine or try to prevent ourselves from doing so, the craving will increase in strength until it becomes almost overpowering. Various cues - the sight of a pack of cigarettes, the smell of food, a computer or smartphone chiming to signify the arrival of a new message - can activate the anticipatory mechanism, and the craving to take a smoke, eat a bite, or check one's messages.

Scientists have studied the brains of alcoholics, smokers, and over-eaters and have measured how their neurology— the structures of their brains and the flow of neurochemicals inside their skulls— changes as their cravings became ingrained. Particularly strong habits, wrote two researchers at the University of Michigan, produce addiction-like reactions so that “wanting evolves into obsessive craving” that can force our brains into autopilot, “even in the face of strong disincentives, including loss of reputation, job, home, and family".

The same mechanisms can also be used to encourage good or healthy habits. One chooses a cue, such as going to the gym as soon as one wakes up, and a reward, such as smoothie after each workout. Then one thinks about the smoothie, or the endorphin rush that follows during the exercise. As one allows oneself to anticipate the reward, a craving will begin to ensue, which will make it easier to get oneself to the gym every day. (See also PJ Eby on this.)

Cravings are what drive habits. And figuring out how to spark a craving makes creating a new habit easier. It’s as true now as it was almost a century ago. Every night, millions of people scrub their teeth in order to get a tingling feeling; every morning, millions put on their jogging shoes to capture an endorphin rush they’ve learned to crave.

Chapter Three: The Golden Rule of Habit Change - Why Transformation Occurs.

The Golden Rule of Habit Change is that one cannot extinguish a bad habit, only change it. One keeps the old cue and the old reward, but changes the routine. Almost any behavior can be changed if the cue and reward stay the same.

For example, alcoholics rarely crave the actual physical state of intoxication itself. Rather, people drink in order to obtain escape, relaxation, companionship, blunting of anxieties, or an opportunity for emotional release. Organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous1 build a system of "sponsors" and group meetings, allowing a person in need of relief to talk with their sponsor or attend a group meeting. The cue, a need for relief, stays the same, as does the reward: getting relief. What changes is the behavior: instead of drinking, one obtains their relief by talking to others.

Habit reversal therapy is the formal version of this technique. In one example, Mandy, a 24-year-old graduate student had a compulsive need to bite her nails. The therapist asked Mandy to describe what she felt right before bringing her hand up to her mouth to bite her nails: Mandy described experiencing a feeling of tension. This was the cue for the habit. After some discussion, they established that Mandy bit her fingers when she was bored, and after she had worked through all of her nails, she felt a brief sense of completion. The physical stimulation acted as the reward.

At the end of their first session, the therapist sent Mandy home with an assignment: Carry around an index card, and each time you feel the cue— a tension in your fingertips— make a check mark on the card. She came back a week later with twenty-eight checks. She was, by that point, acutely aware of the sensations that preceded her habit. She knew how many times it occurred during class or while watching television.

Then the therapist taught Mandy what is known as a “competing response.” Whenever she felt that tension in her fingertips, he told her, she should immediately put her hands in her pockets or under her legs, or grip a pencil or something else that made it impossible to put her fingers in her mouth. Then Mandy was to search for something that would provide a quick physical stimulation— such as rubbing her arm or rapping her knuckles on a desk— anything that would produce a physical response.

The cues and rewards stayed the same. Only the routine changed.

They practiced in the therapist’s office for about thirty minutes and Mandy was sent home with a new assignment: Continue with the index card, but make a check when you feel the tension in your fingertips and a hash mark when you successfully override the habit.

A week later, Mandy had bitten her nails only three times and had used the competing response seven times. She rewarded herself with a manicure, but kept using the note cards. After a month, the nail-biting habit was gone. The competing routines had become automatic. One habit had replaced another.


Say you want to stop snacking at work. Is the reward you’re seeking to satisfy your hunger? Or is it to interrupt boredom? If you snack for a brief release, you can easily find another routine— such as taking a quick walk, or giving yourself three minutes on the Internet— that provides the same interruption without adding to your waistline.

If you want to stop smoking, ask yourself, do you do it because you love nicotine, or because it provides a burst of stimulation, a structure to your day, a way to socialize? If you smoke because you need stimulation, studies indicate that some caffeine in the afternoon can increase the odds you’ll quit. More than three dozen studies of former smokers have found that identifying the cues and rewards they associate with cigarettes, and then choosing new routines that provide similar payoffs— a piece of Nicorette, a quick series of push-ups, or simply taking a few minutes to stretch and relax— makes it more likely they will quit.

For some habits, though, this is not enough. The alcoholics who replace their old behaviors with new ones may manage to stop drinking for a long while, until they run into some particularly stressful event in their lives. At this point, the stress becomes too much for many, who start drinking again. Not everyone does, however, and the difference seems to be in whether people are capable of genuinely believing that things will become better.

However, those alcoholics who believed, like John in Brooklyn, that some higher power had entered their lives were more likely to make it through the stressful periods with their sobriety intact.

It wasn’t God that mattered, the researchers figured out. It was belief itself that made a difference. Once people learned how to believe in something, that skill started spilling over to other parts of their lives, until they started believing they could change. Belief was the ingredient that made a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior.

“I wouldn’t have said this a year ago— that’s how fast our understanding is changing,” said Tonigan, the University of New Mexico researcher, “but belief seems critical. You don’t have to believe in God, but you do need the capacity to believe that things will get better.

“Even if you give people better habits, it doesn’t repair why they started drinking in the first place. Eventually they’ll have a bad day, and no new routine is going to make everything seem okay. What can make a difference is believing that they can cope with that stress without alcohol.”

Appendix: A Reader's Guide to Using These Ideas

There isn't a single formula for changing habits, but rather thousands. Different people are driven by different cravings, and different habits require different approaches: stopping overeating is different from giving up cigarettes, which is different from how one communicates with their spouse. That said, the author attempts to provide a general framework for changing habits. It consists of four steps: Identify the routine, experiment with rewards, isolate the cue, have a plan.

The routine involved in the habit is usually the most obvious aspect. For example, maybe somebody always gets up from their desk at afternoon, walks to a cafeteria, buys a cookie, and eats it while chatting with friends. What exactly is the reward here? It could be the cookie itself, the change of scenery, the temporary distraction, the opportunity to socialize with colleagues, or the burst of energy that comes from the blast of sugar.

To identify the answer, one needs to experiment with rewards. On one day, instead of going out to a cafeteria, they might instead take a walk around the block. Another day, they might go to the cafeteria and buy an apple or chocolate bar and return to their desk without talking to anyone. On yet another day, they might walk to someone's desk to gossip for a few minutes and then return to work. When they do return to their desk, they should take a moment to quickly write down their thoughts or feelings - even just in the form of three random words in their head, like "relaxed", "saw flowers", "not hungry" - and then set a fifteen-minute alarm. If, after fifteen minutes, they still feel the craving, they know that whatever it was that they just did, it didn't give the desired reward. On the other hand, if they replaced the cafeteria visit by going to chat with a friend and the cafeteria craving vanished, then they've identified the reward as being a desire for temporary distraction and socialization.

Then there is the task of identifying the cue. Experiments have shown that almost all habitual cues fall into one of five categories:

  1. Location
  2. Time
  3. Emotional state
  4. Other people
  5. Immediately preceding action

So when one notices themselves engaging in a habit, they can write down the state of each of these variables. For example, here's one of the notes that the author made while trying to diagnose his own snacking habit:

Where are you? (sitting at my desk)

What time is it? (3:36 P.M.)

What's your emotional state? (bored)

Who else is around? (no one)

What action preceded the urge? (answered an e-mail)

After making such notes for three days, the pattern became clear: he got an urge to snack sometime between 3:00 and 4:00. The reward was temporary distraction, the kind that comes from gossiping with a friend.

Now he needed to have a plan for overriding the old habit with a new one, while maintaining the old cue and reward. So he wrote down the following:

At 3:30, every day, I will walk to a friend's desk and talk for 10 minutes.

To make sure I remembered to do this, I set the alarm on my watch for 3: 30.

It didn’t work immediately. There were some days I was too busy and ignored the alarm, and then fell off the wagon. Other times it seemed like too much work to find a friend willing to chat— it was easier to get a cookie, and so I gave in to the urge. But on those days that I abided by my plan— when my alarm went off, I forced myself to walk to a friend’s desk and chat for ten minutes— I found that I ended the workday feeling better. I hadn’t gone to the cafeteria, I hadn’t eat a cookie, and I felt fine. Eventually, it got be automatic: when the alarm rang, I found a friend and ended the day feeling a small, but real, sense of accomplishment. After a few weeks, I hardly thought about the routine anymore. And when I couldn’t find anyone to chat with, I went to the cafeteria and bought tea and drank it with friends.

That all happened about six months ago. I don’t have my watch anymore— I lost it at some point. But at about 3:30 every day, I absentmindedly stand up, look around the newsroom for someone to talk to, spend ten minutes gossiping about the news, and then go back to my desk. It occurs almost without me thinking about it. It has become a habit.



1: How effective is the AA? The book admits that the effectiveness is hard to evaluate, but notes that An estimated 2.1 million people seek help from AA each year, and as many as 10 million alcoholics may have achieved sobriety through the group. AA doesn’t work for everyone— success rates are difficult to measure, because of participants’ anonymity— but millions credit the program with saving their lives. It also comments that although scientists have been critical of the AA's unscientific methodology in the past, increasing numbers of researchers have recently become interested in the organization as its methodology fits other findings about habit change.


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Thanks for the thought provoking article!

When they saw their old cues, however, they unthinkingly pressed the lever and ate the food, or they walked across the floor, even as they vomited or jumped from the electricity. The habit was so ingrained the mice couldn’t stop themselves.

I'm not sure whether to believe this applies to more complex mammals. The McDonald's example is problematic, because the punishment isn't immediate. Were there any other examples of what happens if you replace/follow the reward with punishment? Replacing every harmful habit wi... (read more)

This has been discussed here previously. Short answer: don't. Also, from a LWer's excellent summary of Don't Shoot the Dog:
Ironically, this doesn't work the same way for self-talk punishment. It's still useless, but for some reason it doesn't train down the self-punishment, it just fails to do anything about what you're punishing.
When I'm doing self-talk punishment, it really doesn't feel like I'm punishing myself, but rather berating some other part of my brain that did the wrong thing. Now that I tried the physical punishment, it feels like I'm punishing myself for something that my true identity didn't do.
When I thought about mild electric shocks, I wasn't really thinking about anything as powerful as a dog collar. Also I was thinking about applying it somewhere safer than my neck, like my arm. The punishment has to be self administered and not automated (whatever that would mean), to get the timing right. Seems like a real risk, but he seems to offer little support for it. I think I'll know when to stop if it isn't working. I think the likeliest thing to happen is I grow averse to it like gwern cites in the example. Thanks for bringing that summary to my attention.

Seems like a real risk, but he seems to offer little support for it

Read the original book. Punishment is useless, you want negative reinforcement, and yes there is a difference.

"Punishment" is something bad that happens when you do something. "Negative reinforcement" is something bad that goes away when you stop doing something.

The trick is that brains have a kind of reinforcement kluge: instead of having an "avoid this, it's painful" circuit, we are reinforced by positive changes, including the removal of a negative stimulus.

So technically, the thing about punishment is, it's not really punishment. Animals and people don't learn to stop doing something in response to punishment, they learn to do whatever makes the punishment stop the quickest. If this happens to be avoiding the thing being punished, it's purely a matter of luck. They may also learn to say, hide their behavior from whoever's punishing it, run away, etc.

So the catch to all this is that self-punishment is useless because the fastest way to stop the punishment is just to stop punishing yourself in the first place. The only consistent self-punishment people can apply is the kind t... (read more)

Indeed, they will often learn all of these at once, and then the punisher must do extra work to negate the latter set. So, yeah, negative reinforcement typically works better than positive punishment in the long run. Negative punishment (that is, removing something good when I do something) can work OK too, though it has some of the same problems. Training an incompatible behavior via positive reinforcement is often faster, though sometimes not an option.
Ok. I'm going to read the book. If I don't keep reading, I'll slap myself furiously with rubber bands. In my experience, negative punishment works very well with children. Any takes on that?
I'm not sure whether you're joking, serious, or being sarcastic. I don't know what you mean by "negative punishment", nor what you mean by "works very well". Works very well to accomplish what, specifically?
Just joking with good intentions. here's a nice diagram of what I'm talking about. Positive punishment is done with a noxious stimulus. Negative punishment is taking away a rewarding stimulus. Has worked wonders with my little brother in quenching unwanted i.e. violent, behaviour. Worked well for me too when I was a kid. Usually applied by taking away a favorite toy or activity for a while, and explaining why it's happening.
Not an expert, but I believe the distinction is that such abstract punishments as taking away toys effectively provide a motivation to change the behavior, effectively incentivizing the punished to try to change the habit. This can only work insofar as the punished is able to recognize the unwanted behavior and meaningfully control their response to it. This is inherently different from directly rewarding or punishing the behavior, and it certainly doesn't work on any animal besides humans.
I agree. This also implicates abstract punishment works differently for different developmental ages. Abstractly punishing kids too young enough to understand it is just cruel, and it's just a stupid way to punish older kids who understand it too well.
It works, but poorly.
Got a bit emotional. Sorry about that.
Thanks for letting me know. ETA: Anyone else notice (besides wedrifid, obviously), that this thread is full of claims not backed at all, and inexplicable upvotes, to boot?
Why doesn't negative reinforcement have the same problem?
Self-applied negative reinforcement has the same problem, for the most part: the fastest way to stop it is to just stop doing it. The reason that negative reinforcement applied by others works (when it works), is because the fastest way to make it stop is to comply with the wishes of the one applying it. Ideally, the act of compliance itself should make the disturbance stop, in the way that a properly used rein or choke chain on an animal should produce relief from the restraint as soon as the animal stops, turns, etc. For a more human-relevant example, one can imagine a parent's frowning look as the child approaches a vase -- a frown that goes away the instant the tiny hand withdraws. (Whether this specific example of training is actually a good idea is an entirely separate question from whether it's effective.)
I've heard of someone having success wearing an elastic band around his wrist and snapping it as punishment.
This sounds doable and less crazy and expensive than an electric shock device. I think the sensation caused is pretty similar to an electric shock, too.

I'm confused. I thought that the contents of this post would be generally considered immensely valuable, and many people in my social networks where I shared the link to this post seem to agree. But here at LW it currently sits at mere 12 upvotes, over 24 hours after being posted. What am I missing?

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I'm confused. I thought that the contents of this post would be generally considered immensely valuable, and many people in my social networks where I shared the link to this post seem to agree. But here at LW it currently sits at mere 12 upvotes, over 24 hours after being posted. What am I missing?

This is the first I have seen of the post. Posts on main are in practice less visible.

Something should be done about this problem. I probably wouldn't check the main at all if not for using the rss feed. Maybe promote posts more aggressively from the discussion section or encourage people more to make better versions of their posts for the main?

The front page is, in my opinion, pretty terrible. The centre is filled with static content, the promoted posts are barely deserving of the title, and any dynamic content loads several seconds after the rest of the page, even though the titles of posts could be cached and loaded far more quickly.


My personal solution is to treat the URL of as my Less Wrong home page, since it appears to load all articles from Main and Discussion equally for convenient viewing in newest to oldest order without kruft. I can't claim original credit for this url (which doesn't appear to be prominently linked anywhere that I see), since I'm fairly sure someone else showed this feature to me, but it has been long enough ago that I don't remember who.

If I were to be charitable, I could say the front page appears oriented to people who aren't familiar with the site or the concepts behind it at all, and need an introduction.

But I agree that to someone that tries to read the site frequently, the front page is pretty terrible.

My personal solution is to treat the URL of as my Less Wrong home page, since it appears to load all articles from Main and Discussion equally for convenient viewing in newest to oldest order without kruft.

I also use this; it would be nice if it were prominently advertised. I also learned about it from a comment a long time ago.

If I were to be charitable, I could say the front page appears oriented to people who aren't familiar with the site or the concepts behind it at all, and need an introduction.

I do think that having an introduction page is a good idea; when people hear about "less wrong" and punch it into Google, they should get a welcome page rather than a list of title links. But if someone's already logged in, they should probably get a list of title links rather than a welcome page. It should be possible to have redirect to if the person isn't logged in, and if they are.

It's mentioned in this FAQ entry.
Thank you for finding that!
Heh... I wrote that part of the FAQ. I encourage you to add useful stuff you think of to the FAQ.
I wish I would have known about this page earlier! Thanks for pointing it out. It seems like it should be highly advertised, or have it's own permanent spot near the top of the page (next to "Main" and "Discussion" they should put "All Recent Posts"
Fewer readers on LW over the weekend? (Upvotes seem to have increased substantially in the past 24 hours, anyway.)
I generally release my new Main posts to LW on Monday morning, so that people bored at work on Monday will see it as the new post and read it. It would be nice to see site visibility statistics, because I noticed this mostly on accident and am not sure that's the optimal time.
I wanted to love this post, but stylistic issues got in the way. It read too much like a gwern essay: certainly interesting, but in need of a summary and a guide for how it is practically applicable. A string of highlights and commentary with no clear underlying organization and conclusion is not optimally useful. That being said, I appreciate you taking the time to create this post, as well as your call for constructive criticism.
Consider the low-visibility Main an accidental feature, post in Discussion instead, and let the content speak for itself and get promoted to Main on merits.
It's not clear to me this is karma-optimizing, because I believe that every vote you get while in discussion is not amplified when the article is moved to Main. So if you get 20 upvotes in discussion, and then it moves to Main and you get another 20 upvotes, then you've lost 180 karma vs. beginning in Main and getting the same number of upvotes. I don't think starting in discussion results in getting almost as many people to upvote it while it's in Main as upvoted it in Discussion.
Sure, but I assume that Kaj's goal is maximizing his readership, not his karma.
Drucker/Peters/Leboeuf: The system should be aligned so that maximizing for what is visible maximizes for what is desirable. This is in large part because optimization systems which target what is visible are much more reliable than optimization systems which target what is invisible. (How would Kaj have noticed that a surprisingly low number of people were reading the post, except by that it had a surprisingly low karma?) Personally, my goal is much more in the "maximize karma" camp than the "maximize readership" camp. The main reason for that besides the increased visibility of karma (both to myself and others) is that karma has sign.
I've always wished there were more buttons. With 2 buttons: Upvote + Brain (I just learned something - use sparingly) With three buttons: Eye (Worth seeing, make it more visible) + brain, + thumbs up (agreement) With four buttons: Eye + brain + Heart (I wish to signal support ) + Checkmark (This is probably correct) ...and so on. To save space, you could double-click to indicate the reverse (make this less visible, this is incorrect, i condemn this). Visibility wise, eyes would function as upvotes. There's diminishing returns on additional buttons, but I really doubt that the optimal number is one button set. I'm guessing optimal probably sits around 2, possibly 3. Wouldn't you really love to sort posts by the number of people who say they personally benefited or learned from them, rather than karma? Wouldn't it be nice if opinion-popularity and visibility weren't interchangeable? And if someone was up-voted for making a good argument which was nevertheless controversial, wouldn't it be nice to know how many people actually agree? And heart/checkmark solve the whole "agree denotatively, disagree connotationally" thing, which I think happens much more frequently than people realize, and checkmark counts are good ways to assign confidence.
I understand the vilibility->optimization effect and I, too, feel the pull. However, I often make commenting or posting decisions which I expect to be karma-suboptimal, and so do many others here. Or at least that's what I think I do. Much more often now than when I first started participating here. I assume that Kaj, with over 30k karma, would care even less about maximizing karma.
I certainly can't speak for Kaj, but I'd hesitate to assume that people with a lot of karma care less about getting more of it. After all, caring a lot about karma is likely to increase someone's chances of getting a lot of karma in the first place.
As do I- I try to keep my upvote percentage on recent comments high, and so sometimes will avoid controversial subjects (unless it's one of the controversial subjects that I have decided to always discuss, in which case I still try to comport myself in a way that minimizes downvotes), even though a +3-2 comment would result in an additional point of total karma. But the primary impact karma-maximization has on me is it urgifies generating valuable content for LessWrong. I finished my Decision Analysis sequence as quickly as I did because doing so put me at the top of the Top Contributors, 30 Days list (which was only 5 people back in 2011), and if I had delayed the first post would have slipped to more than 30 days ago, and I wouldn't have had enough to leap over lukeprog. I kept notes and wrote book reviews when before I would have just read books. And so on.
Huh, I guess some of us are rather more competitive than others... I treat the 30-day karma list about the same way I treat the points earned by my favorite sports team: something to enjoy when it's up, but not something to base my decisions on.
I tend to only use competitiveness as an instrumental goal, and so it only shows up sometimes. I think this should change when you are on your favorite sports team, or you're not playing sports correctly :P
That's my point, I am not playing for the team Karma, though I am a fan.
Karmawhoring, while fun for a while, tends to lead one into... non-optimal directions. I would consider the size of the replies thread (which is visible, though not as obvious as karma) to be a better metric of readership and impact.
Isn't that true by pejorative label? Disagree. As an example, consider two posts I've written about Judea Pearl's work, Causality: A Chapter by Chapter Review, and Understanding Simpson's Paradox. Both of them have the same number of comments- 19. (I'll give you a moment to savor the irony of doing a same-X comparison on a post whose primary discussion was about reverse regression.) I got 52 times as much karma for the first post, and it was probably more than fifty times as much work to generate, and probably more than fifty times the value of the second post. Most of my technical posts get around that many comments- 0 to 50, say. Most of my nontechnical posts get many more comments, though, because most of my non-technical posts are things like Rationality Quotes threads (731 comments) or HPMOR discussion threads (953 comments). While some karma seems appropriate for those- since only one is up at a time, my having made one implies I put it up before anyone else, which increased the amount of time it existed- the amount of karma is roughly appropriate to the effort involved / value-added, whereas the number of comments is totally disproportionate to the value of my particular contribution. In particular, the Understanding Simpson's Paradox post highlights the weird distribution of comments. Oftentimes, threads are very short, but sometimes threads get very long- and generally, long threads have more heat than light involved, or have people slowly understanding each others' positions rather than rapidly grasping them. Sometimes the slow way is necessary, but it seems unwise to say the slow way is preferred.
It's a bit tricky because the points of view are different. The label is pejorative when applied to someone's behavior externally and I am saying that even if you don't care about labels applied to you by others, karmawhoring is unlikely to be a good strategy for yourself. Well, we need to figure out what do we care about. You are saying that karma is better correlated with "effort involved / value-added" while I'm talking about "readership and impact". I think it's a whole separate discussion as to which particular metric LW should optimize for. Website admins, by the way, should be able to produce number of unique views per post fairly easily.
What I meant by that is that it seems unlikely to me that someone would identify "I did X because of Karma, and X is something I endorse" as karmawhoring. So, by definition, doing karmawhoring is unlikely to be a good strategy- like murder is guaranteed to be illegal, but killing is murkier. To me, value-added is basically readership and impact, except with the readers giving some feedback on whether the impact was positive or negative. If you get a lot of people to read a random string of characters, and so you waste part of their day, this is a loss over those people not noticing a random string of characters that you generated. That section was mostly the empirical claim that number of comments is a bad proxy for the value generated by the post, whether you use karma or readership or some other metric. I mean, if you want more comments in your posts, put in more typos (in order to not annoy your readers, have only one typo, and when someone comments with a fix, edit in a new typo), or instigate political fights in the comments.
Non optimal. It can't be unless somehow max-karma happens to coincide with whatever other maxima is being searched for. But it is also unlikely to be net detrimental or a sufficient deviation from optimal to be worth focussing on as a problem. That's a better metric of controversy than impact. It is a reasonable indicator of readership.
Karma is pretty important.
Is it? Maybe the first few hundred points, I don't know. Karma has no fungibility, and is a weak proxy for status (karma per post might be a better metric). What is it important for?
Maybe since its redundant for LW? You yourself mentioned this exact thing being discussed twice before. Anyway, it was new for me so thanks.

Book summaries are always appreciated, but I don't understand your high praise of the book. I was disappointed with it for several reasons:

  • I wanted a book on how to change habits. In fact, my edition has the subtitle "Why we do what we do and how to change". I didn't really get much of that. There's abstract theory and even seemingly concrete advice, but I never got said advice to work.

  • I hated the book's structure, which required grinding through filler stories to get at interspersed facts. Most of these stories have hardly anything to do wit

... (read more)
Personally I enjoyed stories and felt that even the "social habits" and "organizational habits" parts were interesting. Though it's true that the stories led to a somewhat low information density, and that the social/organizational habits were actually a somewhat different topic from what the subtitle said. But I did find the advice on how to actually change habits to be useful, and feel like it was a major factor in helping bring my social media addiction under control.

Here's another blog post that's largely a response to The Power of Habit: It also touches heavily on some of the ideas you developed in your post on addiction and games. If you don't already know this guy, you probably should.

Thanks again! Still didn't finish reading the whole thing, but this part came off as something that might be quite onto something, and very much worth pondering:
Thanks, I'll check him out!

Also, I think it would be great if a few readers could give examples of how their own habits (good and bad) map onto the cue-routine-reward framework.

“Even if you give people better habits, it doesn’t repair why they started drinking in the first place. Eventually they’ll have a bad day, and no new routine is going to make everything seem okay. What can make a difference is believing that they can cope with that stress without alcohol.”

I suspect that this is because of intertemporal cooperation effects. If I think I'm going to give in and drink in five minutes, I might as well go ahead and give in and drink now.

I'm having trouble reading your footnote. What am I supposed to make of the numbers 12 and 13?

They were the original author's footnotes. Deleted 'em.

I really enjoyed this article, and I can see how many of my own behaviors map onto this cue-routine-reward structure. I've been wanting to read this book, but now I don't feel that I need to.

I would appreciate it if another reader could try to explain how rumination (focused attention on the symptoms of one's distress, and on its possible causes and consequences, as opposed to its solutions) would fit into this framework. Here's my attempt:

Let's say you were fired from a job you liked, and you ruminate on the loss of the job.

The cue: seeing a for... (read more)

The anticipated reward for ruminating might be the feeling of closure you'd get from finding a clear, simple solution to whatever problem you're ruminating about. So it's not a separate habit in itself but a misapplication of analytical, 'perfectionist' problem solving to problems with high uncertainty. I think that was it for me. I also had this idea shoved into my head while growing up, that real life is harsh and unpleasant and being an adult is all about facing the harsh unpleasantness. As a result, ruminating felt somewhat virtuous.
I second the idea about closure. Closure feels good. The problem is finding closure can take any time from hours to days for me. The "solution" is usually completely irrational. I partially solved the problem by replacing the habit with physical exercise. Unfortunately light exercise won't do the trick, it has to be strenuous and last atleast for an hour. Sometimes it seems I manage to simply suppress the habit, but maybe there are other replacement habits I'm not aware of.
I think that fits what I've read about worry. From Chapter nine of "Resilience–How to Survive and Thrive in Any Situation A Teach Yourself Guide (Teach Yourself: Relationships & Self-Help) by Donald Robertson":
If rumination does fit into this, I think the cue is considerably more general than that. At least for me, it seems more like it's triggered internally, by my thoughts turning to a particular subject (probably combined with an emotional state), than by any external cue. (I recently had rumination triggered just by being reminded of the word "rumination" and thinking "oh yes, that's the name for the thing I've been doing...") But it's not obvious to me that we'd expect rumination would fit into this. I don't think fear is a habit, for example, even though it has a cue, a routine and a reward.
I suspect the reward is the feeling that you are "doing something" about the problem.

Snacking does improve self control. But so does imaging other pleasurable rewards. You don't have to actually experience it. Instead, snack for nutrition.

""The role of glucose as a specific form of energy needed for self-control has been explored. Glucose, a sugar found in many foods, is a vital fuel for the body and the brain. Initial experiments suggested that self-control exertion depleted blood glucose, and that self-control performance could be replenished by consuming glucose (e.g., lemonade).[3] However, subsequent analysis has found that ... (read more)

It is good news! Can you give name or link to that paper?
Okay 3: • Gailliot, M. T.; Baumeister, R. F.; Dewall, C. N.; Maner, J. K.; Plant, E. A.; Tice, D. M.; Brewer, B. J.; Schmeichel, Brandon J. (2007). "Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: Willpower is more than a metaphor". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 92 (2): 325–336. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.92.2.325. PMID 17279852. 4: • Kurzban, R. (2010). "Does the brain consume additional glucose during self-control tasks?". Evolutionary psychology: an international journal of evolutionary approaches to psychology and behavior 8: 244. 5: • Hagger, M.S.; Chatzisarantis, N.L. (2013). "The Sweet Taste of Success The Presence of Glucose in the Oral Cavity Moderates the Depletion of Self-Control Resources". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 39: 28–42. doi:10.1177/0146167212459912. 6: • Molden, D.C.; Hui, C.M.; Scholer, A.A.; Meier, B.P.; Noreen, E.E.; d'Agostino, P.R.; Martin, V. (2012). "Motivational versus metabolic effects of carbohydrates on self-control". Psychological Science 23 (10): 1137–1144. doi:10.1177/0956797612439069. 7: • Sanders, M.A.; Shirk, S.D.; Burgin, C.J.; Martin, L.L. (2012). "The Gargle Effect Rinsing the Mouth With Glucose Enhances Self-Control". Psychological Science 23 (12): 1470–1472. doi:10.1177/0956797612450034. 8: • Frank, G.K.; Oberndorfer, T.A.; Simmons, A.N.; Paulus, M.P.; Fudge, J.L.; Yang, T.T.; Kaye, W.H. (2008). "Sucrose activates human taste pathways differently from artificial sweetener". Neuroimage 39 (4): 1559–1569. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2007.10.061

The analysis and recommendations seemed very "high-level mappy" to me.

The question is really about how we control our behavior.

"Habits" are really just decisions to do certain things. Maybe they involve less thought, but they certainly aren't unconscious actions.

Saying to just keep the cue and reward but change the routine seems very "high-level mappy" to me. Surely you could come up with a better algorithm for changing undesirable behavior than that. This would involve identifying the more root causes of the behavior, and ... (read more)

Of course they can be unconscious (or rather, we can lack consciousness of them). Many times someone's asked me about a martial arts technique or response, and I've said, "I don't know, attack me." (These would be relatively safe techniques.)