Celebrate Trivial Impetuses

by Alicorn1 min read24th Jul 200941 comments

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Trivial InconvenienceAkrasia
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There is a flipside to the trivial inconvenience: the trivial impetus.  This is the objectively inconsequential factor that gets you off your rear and doing something you probably would have left undone.  It doesn't have to be a major, crippling akrasia issue.  I'm not talking so much about finishing your dissertation or remodeling your house, although a trivial impetus could probably get you to make some progress on either.  I'm talking about little things that make your life a little better, like trying a new food or permitting a friend to drag you along to a gathering of people and pizza.

An illustrative anecdote: the first time I tried guacamole, I was out with my family at a restaurant and my parents decided to order some.  The waiter came out with a little cart with decorative little bowls full of ingredients and a couple of avocados, and proceeded to make guacamole right there with all the finesse of one of those chefs at a hibachi restaurant.  He then presented us with the dish of guacamole and a basket of chips.

If my prior reasons for avoiding guacamole had been related to concerns about its freshness or possible arsenic content, this would have been a non-trivial reason to try the new food, but they weren't - I was just twelve, and it was green goop.  But on that day, it was green goop that someone had made right in front of me like performance art!  I simply had to have some!  It was delicious.  I have enjoyed guacamole ever since.  I would almost certainly have taken years longer to try it, if ever I did, had it not been for that restaurant's habit of making each batch of guacamole fresh in front of the customer.

Not all trivial impetuses have to be so random and fortuitous.  Just as you can arrange trivial inconveniences to stand between you and things you should not be doing, you can often arrange trivial impetuses to push you towards things you should be doing.  For instance, I often get my friends to instruct me to do things when I'm having trouble getting moving: sometimes all it takes to get me to stop dithering and start making the pasta salad I agreed to bring to a party is someone agreeing when I say, "I should make pasta salad now".  Or "I should go to bed now", or "I should probably pay that bill now".

Does anyone have any other ideas for trivial impetuses that could be helpful in fighting small-scale akrasia (or large-scale)?

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Does anyone have any other ideas for trivial impetuses that could be helpful in fighting small-scale akrasia (or large-scale)?

In my experience, all large-scale akratic dilemmas can be reduced to small-scale problems. Large-scale akrasia in not writing your novel is small-scale akrasia of not writing a chapter this week. Large-scale akrasia of losing weight is small-scale akrasia of not bothering to eat well today. Akrasia is the reduction of its parts, not the sum.

In my experience, all large-scale akratic dilemmas can be reduced to small-scale problems. Large-scale akrasia in not writing your novel is small-scale akrasia of not writing a chapter this week. Large-scale akrasia of losing weight is small-scale akrasia of not bothering to eat well today. Akrasia is the reduction of its parts, not the sum.

Then you're either very lucky, or you've misinterpeted your experience. People can be perfectly capable of writing one chapter this week, and then giving up on the whole thing the next week. The apparent reduction in this case is an illusion, because you can do a thing once and yet not be able to do it, in general.

It seems like you should be able to simply repeat the experience the following week, but it doesn't actually work that way in practice for most people who have problems with procrastination.

The thing that PCT added to my repertoire in this area was an explanation of why this phenomenon occurs. Specifically, perceptual variables are measured over differing time periods, with "higher" (i.e. controlling) levels being averaged over longer periods. So, for example, if you have a valued variable like "spending time with my kids" or "having time to myself" that's perceptually averaged over a multiweek period, the first week you work on your novel probably won't make much of a dent in that measurement.

By the second week, though, the measured error is going to start putting you into conflict and "reorganization", during which you will suddenly realize that gosh, that novel isn't really all that important and you could work on it tomorrow...

In some respects, this model is even simpler than Ainslie's appetites-and-hyperbolic discounting model of competing "interests". The interests are still there in PCT, but the activation of an interest is based on its degree of error - i.e., generating the "appetite" for more time for yourself or whatever. Thus, an interest can thereby seem to build up strength over time, and displace another interest that was previously ascendant.

Once your behavior changes, the error falls off on that interest, but the perceived average of your original interest (writing the novel) begins to fall out of its desired range. Soon, you're determined to write again... and the loop begins again.

That, of course, is the mild version. It's likely that you also fight back harder, by raising your determination (i.e., the reference level for completing the novel), leading to a greater sense of error, sooner, and active conflict between controllers (aka ego depletion), as the countering interest also goes into greater error.

In effect, the harder you try, the harder you fail, as the systems in conflict push back at you.

Whew. Can you tell I've had some experience with this sort of thing? ;-) Anyway, long story short: akrasic reduction is an illusion, because akrasia can result from conflicts between perceptual variables measured over different time frames. Thus, you can be capable of doing something at one time scale without conflict, but not at another, without inducing ego depletion.

This creates the all-too-common experience of discovering anti-akrasia hack #57, and having it work great for a little while, before it mysteriously stops working, or you simply stop using it. It's not meta-akrasia; it's just predictive akrasia. (I.e., if you know it's going to work, and your "real" goal at the moment is to lose, then you will find a way not to do it.)

It's likely that you also fight back harder, by raising your determination (i.e., the reference level for completing the novel), leading to a greater sense of error, sooner, and active conflict between controllers (aka ego depletion), as the countering interest also goes into greater error.

This sounds like a recipe for almost manic-depressive-like oscillations in behavior. What damps the cycle?

This sounds like a recipe for almost manic-depressive-like oscillations in behavior. What damps the cycle?

Maybe nothing. PCT suggests, however, that if your behavior leads to sustained chronic intrinsic error (e.g., you get stressed enough), your brain will begin "reorganize" (learn) to change your behavior (or more precisely, change the control structure generating the behavior) until the error goes away.

Unfortunately, because automatic reorganization is a fairly "dumb" optimization process (Powers proposes a simple pattern of "mutate and test until errors stop"), it is subject to some of the same biases as evolution. That is, the simplest solution will be chosen, not the most elegant one.

So, instead of elegantly negotiating suitable amounts of time for each goal, or finding a clever way to serve both at the same time, the simplest possible mutation that will fix the error in a case of conflict is for you to give up one of your goals.

Over time, this will then lead you to tend to give up more quickly, as your brain learns that changing your mind ("oh, it's not really that important") is a good way to stop the errors.

PCT proposes that intrinsic error (errors in perceptual signals whose definitions are hardwired by evolution) triggers a neural reorganization process, in which the brain tries out different reference levels and changes to inter-controller connections, for controllers involved in the error... that is, a mechanism for driving "trial and error" learning in the general case, but which can operate autonomously from conscious control. Powers proposes that this process can actually be quite random and still work, since the overall process has a selection step, driven by the overall levels of intrinsic error or conflict. IOW, learning is a control-driven optimization process using a meta-perception of errors in the primary control systems as its fitness function for optimizing.

Of course, this process can also be directed consciously, by thinking things through -- and Powers suggests that directing the learning process is in fact the original function of consciousness, since the raw control structures themselves aren't much more than a huge network of glorified thermostats.

So the main addition I've made to my training methods since grasping PCT, was to devise an algorithm for mapping out all the relevant control structure (using methods I already had for identifying subconscious predictive beliefs) in order to be able to get the big picture of the control conflicts in place before attempting to make changes, using the other methods I already had.

I already knew that subconscious predictive beliefs ("if this, then that") played a major role in behavior, but PCT helped me realize that the "if" and "then" clauses actually refer to the controlled perceptual variables that each belief links.

That is, memory (belief) is used to store value-change relationships between controlled variables, whether they're as trivial as "if I fall, I'll hurt myself" or as abstract and Bruce-ish as, "if I go after what I want, I'm selfish and unlovable".

So, by examining beliefs, one finds the linked variables (e.g. "fall" and "hurt"). And by hypothesizing changes to each newly-discovered variable, one finds relevant new beliefs. This process can then be iterated to draw a multi-level map of the salient portions of the control structure affecting one's behavior in a particular area.

At this point, the work is still at a very early stage, but results so far seem promising. To be really sure of a substantial improvement, though, it's going to take a few more weeks: in both my own case and in the case of clients trying the new method, the relevant behaviors have a cycle time of up to a month.

Perceptual Control Theory, an approach to the study of living organisms developed by William Powers.

I introduced the subject to LW here. Pjeby has enthusiatically taken to it.

Other links here, here, here.

In Getting Things Done, after the first step of simply writing down each task you want to accomplish (can be of any level of difficult and time), and then you do a seperate processing step after that.

That is when you decide how long each task takes, and if it takes less than 5 minutes you do it now. When you get into the GTD system of life organization, trivial impetuses you put down in the initial collection phase, and when you get around to processing them, you have habits that say "do task now if takes less than 5 minutes". GTD is (apparently, I tried to get it working for me but to little success so far) a life changing thing.

GTD works great for me.

First of all, congratulations for not writing about gender issues. Welcome back - we missed you :-P.

Second, the effect you are talking about is a well-known one in social psychology. Here is one example from moral cognition and psychology. (I can get the references but I'm at work and hey, I'm not procrastinating... My simulation is running: http://xkcd.com/303/)

In a study on moral behavior, there was a confederate old lady that needed help. In the normal condition, only 17% of the passers-by helped the old lady. In the manipulation condition, subjects were made to find a dime on the ground before coming across the old lady. In this condition, %80 helped the old lady.

Similar effects were observed for asking for change in front of a store with a pleasant smell (i.e. a bakery) versus one with neutral smell (i.e. a shoe store). There are more examples in a paper authored by Joshua Knobe on moral cognition and blameworthiness but I'm too lazy to get the reference. (Why don't you give ma slight impetus in that direction?)

Lastly, in an airport where men were missing the urinals and peeing to the ground, an image of a fly on the urinal substantially decreased this utterly utterly unhygienic and terrible behavior.

There is a book written about such 'nudge's to motivate rational behavior. I haven't read it but here is the reference: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Nudge-Improving-Decisions-Health-Happiness/dp/0300122233

And here is a NYT article about the same thing. This is the article from which I got the urinal example: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/08/business/08nudge.html

(I feel like what candy is to a little kid, social psychology is to me. 8-) ).

utterly utterly unhygienic

Interesting but irrelevant fact time! Urine is actually almost completely sterile (at time of excretion) and not even particularly toxic. As far as actual hygiene goes it's probably one of the less problematic things that occurs in public restrooms.

Still an utterly terrible behavior though.

Urine is actually almost completely sterile (at time of excretion) and not even particularly toxic.

Urine may be sterile when excreted, but it acquires significant bacterial charge when exposed to the environment. These bacteria break down urea and produce ammonia gas, which is quite irritating.

Haha, that's just my bizarre humor. Glad someone picked up on it!

I like irrelevant fact times. I think they are so much fun :-)

Specially circumsized men will have more trouble if ya know what I mean. (And that Sheryl Crow cover, "First Cut Is the Deepest" - that's totally true...)

Lastly, in an airport where men were missing the urinals and peeing to the ground, an image of a fly on the urinal substantially decreased this utterly utterly unhygienic and terrible behavior.

The fly gives us the pleasure of aiming at something. I've also seen a bee, which is not a symbol of dirt. It works just as well.

I don't believe men ever miss the urinals. If just one man did this, the entire floor would be covered in piss. You merely see the accumulation of a lot of splashbacks.

Yes - the reason the fly image worked was because it was placed in a particular location on the urinal surface that deflected the least amount of urine.

Cool! I'd a couple times noticed the effect in me, and once or twice sort of deliberately used it. That is, deliberately decided a little thing to be an excuse to do something, which made it easier for me to do so. Hadn't really thought of it though, and didn't know it was a "known" thing that's been studied.

Lastly, in an airport where men were missing the urinals and peeing to the ground, an image of a fly on the urinal substantially decreased this utterly utterly unhygienic and terrible behavior.

In fact, this is readily explained by perceptual control theory! In a urinal without a reference target it is more difficult to aim near the center of the urinal bowl, so the probability that urine will be deflected outside the urinal increases.

I am of course not a urinal expert, but don't they have... drains? That you could aim at?

They do. And besides, standing up close I can't see how anyone could miss at all, unless they were too drunk to be allowed onto a flight. Now, pub toilets --- but I shall tastefully say no more.

There are more examples in a paper authored by Joshua Knobe on moral cognition and blameworthiness but I'm too lazy to get the reference. (Why don't you give ma slight impetus in that direction?)

This sounds like a cool paper and I'd love to read it - can you track down the citation, please? ;)

Thanks.

Basically it seems that people are more likely to call harmful side-effects intentional, compared to beneficial ones.

I'm not sure this really is a bias; the harmful/beneficial cases are not exact counterparts: in the harmful case one could assume that the actor needs to mentally do something -- namely, 'overcoming the moral problem' or 'silence his/her conscience', which makes the harmful case indeed a bit more 'intentional'.

How many spurious accounts are you going to register to upvote me?

Usually, I do things like this for 3 karma points but since you look nice, I'll give it to you for free.

It wasn't actually Knobe but John Doris, who also works in the so-called experimental philosophy paradigm. The exact reference is:

“From My Lai to Abu Ghraib: The Moral Psychology of Atrocity.” Midwest Studies in Philosophy XXXI: 25-55

Here is the relevant quotation:

"(i) Passersby who had just found a dime were twenty-two times more likely to help a woman who had dropped some papers than passersby who did not find a dime (88% vs. 4%).27 (ii) Passersby not in a hurry were six times more likely to help an unfortunate who appeared to be in significant distress than were passersby in a hurry (63% vs. 10%).28 (iii) Passersby were five times more likely to help an apparently injured man who had dropped some books when ambient noise was at normal levels than they were when a power lawnmower was running nearby (80% vs. 15%).29 (iv) In Zimbardo’s “Stanford Prison Experiment,” subjects role-playing in a simulated prison rapidly descended to Lord of the Flies barbarism.30 (v) In Milgram’s “obedience experiments,” subjects participating in a study purported to test the effects of punishment on learning would repeatedly punish a screaming “learner” with realistic (but simulated) electric shocks at the polite request of an experimenter."

(I can't use stylistic stuff like linking and quoting... Is there a guide to show how you quote?)

Click "help", to the bottom right of the reply box.

There's a lot of x-phi stuff by Knobe and friends available online - mostly about all the same sorts of topics at the moment. There's also a book called "Experimental Philosophy" edited by Knobe and Nichols... not quite a textbook, more a collection of papers with insufficient attention to detail on methodology... nonetheless, it's a pretty good book for those interested in the field.

Doris doesn't seem to host his stuff online, but here is a good starting place for interest in the field (hosted by Knobe).

For instance, I often get my friends to instruct me to do things when I'm having trouble getting moving: sometimes all it takes to get me to stop dithering and start making the pasta salad I agreed to bring to a party is someone agreeing when I say, "I should make pasta salad now". Or "I should go to bed now", or "I should probably pay that bill now".

You can always take this sort of approach and automate it. Unless you really need it to be a live person telling you that, I guess.

It helps a lot for it to be a live person, although I could probably use that in a pinch.

Here's a related phenomenon I have noticed that sometimes helps me get things done.

On occasion, I get in trouble with my wife. I do something that makes her upset with me, and although it may not be the best habit, my instinct is to start working on various tasks I need to do until she is ready to talk (her usual action is to give me the silent treatment for a little while, then slowly open up to talking so we can have the fight/discussion about whatever it was that got me in trouble). I think my motivation is somewhere along the lines of trying to be hyper nice in order not to draw more negative attention to myself, but it certainly works for getting things done.

Too bad this is just an occasional way to make me do things that happens by accident since I have no plans for making my wife angry with me on purpose just so I can get a few things done. But I think this is a special case of a general phenomenon that we can each probably harness to help us get things done.

Works with internet flame wars too. (Or is it that I am more likely to provoke flame when I am working hard? Causality is tricky!).

On occasion, I get in trouble with my [ ] ... think my motivation is somewhere along the lines of trying to be hyper nice in order not to draw more negative attention to myself

'Getting in trouble'? General supplication to avoid negative attention? Is this your wife or your mother you're talking about here?

So you are after some tips? A google search for 'fight procrastination' will get you many.

Anyway, a simple one that works for me is simply to have a to-do list, and the trivial impetus is the joy I find in ticking off an item. The impetus is so strong that I would sometimes almost add an unlisted item did I already finished, just to be able to tick it off.

Another one is to specify some time (say, Sunday evening) where all your inboxes (physical ones, e-mail etc.) should be empty and dealt with -- that means, things are answered, bills are paid and so on. Full-blown GTD may not be necessary, but just keeping all your inboxes organized like that is very useful. And of course, make clearing-inboxes a off-tickable item in your to-do list.

Note: Dan Ariely describes (and did) some of the interesting research in the way the presentation of foods determine how much people like them.

Does anyone have any other ideas for trivial impetuses that could be helpful in fighting small-scale akrasia (or large-scale)?

I set an alarm in my phone and stash stimulants on top of it. That usually reminds me that there is something that I needed to do that I thought was important. :)

I guess a significant difficulty with these little anti-akrasia tricks [*] is that they have to make the activity fun. You can't bail yourself out with repetitive routine, because routine isn't fun, no matter what the routine is. Which is why another person is often a good influence on getting little things done: a person isn't repetitive.

[*] I assume eirenicon's point.

If you're setting up the trivial impetus yourself and your brain has had enough time to connect the dots, I'd guess the akrasic difficulty of setting up the impetus will tend to equal the akrasic difficulty of doing the damn thing in the first place. So the impetus has to spontaneously come from outside, and the advice turns into this: physically move to a long-term environment that spurs you to be productive, e.g. if you're a procrastinator, change jobs to find a strict boss.

I haven't found this to be the case. Let's take a trivial impetus idea I came up with, to use the next time I move: I can put a piece of candy in each box (on the bottom). If I just grab a handful of Creme Savers, put them in my pocket, and drop one into each box as I pack, that's easy. I don't think I'd experience any akrasia about doing that that wouldn't also stop me from packing, so assuming I get my packing done, the candy will also be packed. Then, when it comes time to unpack, the fact that every box unpacked means a piece of candy would serve as a trivial impetus to get unpacking accomplished.

Ah - you're setting up the impetus intertemporally, not "right now for right now" as I'd assumed. Good catch, this might work.

is childhood aversion to green foods common?

[-][anonymous]12y 0

I use simple food impetus for most tasks. Take a partitioned snack, say several cupcakes, and place one in front of me. I can snack on it at whatever rate I want, but I can only replace it with the next partition after reaching a point in my work.

My trivial impetus is driving.

Some background is needed first. I grew up in a large family in the far North whose members were prone to loud talk and occasional hysterical theater. Scenery chewing, worse than James Blish on a bad day hysterical theater. So as soon as I hit sixteen if I was thinking on something deeply and one of these bouts came upon someone I would immediately hop in the car and go driving so I could continue thinking without the large scale distraction. So driving and thinking are somewhat paired with me by habit but as I've aged I don't like to drive anymore.
There are two things I do to encourage the habit - the first is to pick a new destination with some small reward for every "thinking road trip" (bookstore, candy store, etc.,) and the second is to occasionally random drive. This makes for interesting scenery that you usually haven't seen before, and sometimes even getting lost. How do you random drive? With coin flips at every intersection - left is heads, right is tails. It's akrasia btw to do something dangerous like drive while deeply thinking, but... the long established habit's unbreakable in my case.

I've had some short term success using a timer with an hourly or 15 minute chime to keep me on task for a period. I didn't keep up with it but it might work better for others.