tl;dr version: Akrasia might be like an eating disorder!

When I was a teenager, I ate ice.  Lots of ice.  Cups and cups and cups of ice, constantly, all day long, when it was freely available.  This went on for years, during which time I ignored the fact that others found it peculiar. ("Oh," I would joke to curious people at the school cafeteria, ignoring the opportunity to detect the strangeness of my behavior, "it's for my pet penguin.")  I had my cache of excuses: it keeps my mouth occupied.  It's so nice and cool in the summer.  I don't drink enough water anyway, it keeps me hydrated.  Yay, zero-calorie snack!

Then I turned seventeen and attempted to donate blood, and was basically told, when they did the finger-stick test, "Either this machine is broken or you should be in a dead faint."  I got some more tests done, confirmed that extremely scary things were wrong with my blood, and started taking iron supplements.  I stopped eating ice.  I stopped having any interest in eating ice at all.

Pica is an impulse to eat things that are not actually food.  Compared to some of the things that people with pica eat, I got off very easy: ice did not do me any harm on its own, and was merely a symptom.  But here's the kicker: What I needed was iron.  If I'd been consciously aware of that need, I'd have responded to it with the supplements far earlier, or with steak1 and spinach and cereals fortified with 22 essential vitamins & minerals.  Ice does not contain iron.  And yet when what I needed was iron, what I wanted was ice.

What if akrasia is experiential pica?  What if, when you want to play Tetris or watch TV or tat doilies instead of doing your Serious Business, that means that you aren't going to art museums enough, or that you should get some exercise, or that what your brain really craves is the chance to write a symphony?

The existence - indeed, prevalence - of pica is a perfect example of how the brain is very bad at communicating certain needs to the systems that can get those needs met.  Even when the same mechanism - that of instilling the desire to eat something, in the case of pica - could be used to meet the need, the brain misfires2.  It didn't make me crave liver and shellfish and molasses, it made me crave water in frozen form.  A substance which did nothing to help, and was very inconvenient to continually keep around and indulge in, and which made people look at me funny when I held up the line at the drink dispenser for ten minutes filling up half a dozen paper cups.

So why shouldn't I believe that, for lack of some non-food X, my brain just might force me to seek out unrelated non-food Y and make me think it was all my own brilliant idea?  ("Yay, zero-calorie snack that hydrates, cools, and is free or mere pennies from fast food outlets when I have completely emptied the icemaker!  I'm so clever!")

The trouble, if one hopes to take this hypothesis any farther, is that it's hard to tell what your experiential deficiencies might be3.  The baseline needs for figure-skating and flan-tasting probably vary person-to-person a lot more than nutrient needs do.  You can't stick your finger, put a drop of blood into a little machine that goes "beep", and see if it says that you spend too little time weeding peonies.  I also have no way to solve the problem of being akratic about attempted substitutions for akrasia-related activities: even if you discovered for sure that by baking a batch of muffins once a week, you would lose the crippling desire to play video games constantly, nothing's stopping the desire to play video games from obstructing initial attempts at muffin-baking.

Possible next steps to explore the experiential pica idea and see how it pans out:

  • Study the habits of highly effective people.  Do you know somebody who seems unplagued by akrasia?  What does (s)he do during downtime?  Maybe someone you're acquainted with has hit on a good diet of experience that we could try to emulate.
  • If you are severely plagued by akrasia, and there is some large class of experiences that you completely leave out of your life, attempt to find a way to incorporate something from that class.  See if it helps.  For instance, if you are practically never outdoors, take a short walk or just sit in the yard; if you practically never do anything for aesthetic reasons, find something pretty to look at or listen to; etc.
  • You might already have periods when you are less akratic than usual.  Notice what experiences you have had around those times that could have contributed.


1I was not a vegetarian until I had already been eating ice for a very long time.  The switch can only have exacerbated the problem.

2Some pica sufferers do in fact eat things that contain the mineral they're deficient in, but not all.

3Another problem is that this theory only covers what might be called "enticing" akrasia, the positive desire to do non-work things.  It has nothing to say about aversive akrasia, where you would do anything but what you metawant to do.

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What if akrasia is experiential pica?

In my case, it definitely seems to be so. I noticed that my akratic habit #1, competitive PC gaming, seems to kick in when I have a status or achievement deficiency. I'm a reinforcement whore, so when I don't have a steady stream of incoming positive reinforcements, which happens a lot on long projects, I may turn to games to get a quick and reliable fix.

I do this. As humans, we have needs for certain things, like nutrients and status (usually through achievement). I used to play a lot of World of Warcraft, until eventually I realized that

video games : need for achievement :: McDonalds : need for calories

In the same way advertisers use Photoshop to create women so beautiful they couldn't actually exist, and the same way the fast food industry creates foods so calorie-dense they couldn't actually exist, video games have created a source of achievement that provides achievement so reliably it couldn't actually exist. There's a word for this phenomenon, but it eludes me presently.

"Pica" is a new word to me, but is exactly what I realized was going on for me. When the urge to play video games, or solve a Rubik's cube for the millionth time, is strongest, I have learned that that's a reliable indicator that what I actually need to do is study, do laundry, cook a meal, etc.

This is because video games have divorced the feeling of achievement from actual life progress. I used to wake up and play video games all day, then feel good, shut off the video game, and look around and realize I hadn't cleaned the apartment or studied fo... (read more)

Why the McDonalds hate? There's not that much difference between McDonalds food and what you get in fancier, more expensive restaurants. Whether you order a steak or a hamburger, you're still eating dead cow flesh. And the steak won't have lettuce and tomato on it. Perhaps this is backwards, but I've been measuring my personal level of accomplishment by how I do at games - video and otherwise - instead of more conventional measures for a long time now. I'm not particularly proud of my academic achievements, and consider them more a credit to my parents than myself.
Do you have tastebuds? I mean, I know I'm a food snob, but... Maybe the problem is that you have a confused category of "fancy, expensive restaurant"?
I mean, in terms of nutrition and being a superstimulus. What you get in a fancy French restaurant is likely to be just as good - or bad - for your body as what you get in McDonalds. Heck, the fancy restaurant probably uses a lot more butter, for one thing. In terms of taste, though, I agree that McDonalds is less than impressive - the other common fast food chains are significantly better, as far as I'm concerned. Personally, I don't notice much of a difference in the amount of pleasure I get from eating Really Expensive food (I've been to a Really Expensive restaurant once or twice on vacation) and from eating more ordinary food that I happen to like.
The fancy French restaurant may use more butter, but they also know about the existence of vegetables that aren't iceberg lettuce, the most ordinary of tomatoes, and onion. And they use spices more esoteric than salt, some of which have beneficial health effects. And they don't encourage you to consume your meal with an enormous container of fizzy sugar water.
Frankly, for a lot of people (myself included), I think increasing the portion size by 10% counts for more enjoyment than using more than one kind of tomato or eight kinds of lettuce. It's reliable in a way that adding other kinds of things isn't, since the more different things there are, the more likely it is that one of them or some combination will be unpalatable. Please consider the possibility that some of us actually prefer chain restaurant food to "fancy Xish restaurant" food, bizarre as it may seem to you, if you don't. :)
I think such a preference is more likely to result from an inadequate sample of fancy food (because some upscale places aren't at all good enough to justify their cost) and/or sour grapes about its expense, but perhaps some people are well-sampled and find fancy food financially accessible and still don't think it's an improvement over McDonald's. These people, I contend, do not have tastebuds. McDonald's can ruin chicken fingers. (For what it's worth, I virtually never go out to eat at all (on my own dime): when I do, I make a point of getting mostly things that I don't know how to cook myself, such as sushi.)

Y'know, I plain can't eat McDonalds myself. But I also can't tell the difference between low-quality and high-quality chocolate, and my girlfriend can, and she thinks McDonalds is one of the culinary wonders of the world.

It takes all sorts.

I contend that it was because they were working outside their milieu. Chicken McNuggets are already perfect, and so one must feel a tearing at one's soul to work for McDonalds and invent another chicken dish.
Well, you're right about the diversity of ingredients. And indeed, the fizzy sugar water is definitely bad. I don't order it myself, though, because fizzy drinks usually give me heartburn. (I get water or orange juice.) I just think that a lot of the food served at fast food restaurants isn't as awful as people assume it to be. At least, I think we can agree that there are things that are a lot worse than a McDonalds hamburger, which, for all its flaws, is still more like actual food than a Twinkie is. ;)
Neither the fancy restaurant nor the fast food restaurant is optimizing for nutrition. However, the fast food restaurant is optimizing for cost, while maintaining acceptable taste. The fancy restaurant, though, is probably serving food that is in some way traditional (else it would be Weird, not Fancy; there are exceptions of course); that is, there is a long history of people eating it. I have heard (no sources, sorry) that any particular traditional cuisine tends to be reasonably healthful [compared to what? I forget], presumably because people have been successful living off it. So given that, the fancy restaurant is likely to serve more nutritious food. (I think the weakest link in this is whether the average fancy restaurant does, in fact, serve traditional-in-that-sense food, and whether the presumable skew towards the particularly appealing, rather than typical, food of that cuisine opposes this effect.)
California cuisine in particular can get expensive, and one of its hallmarks is the inventiveness of the chef in combining fresh ingredients into a new dish. So you're probably right that expensive French or expensive Italian is mostly traditional food, but there are other cuisines that aren't like that.
That's the type of exception I had in mind. Of course, “fresh” says something about the nature of the food too. (Unless you mean "novel" as opposed to "recently alive".)
The "fresh" in California cuisine is about "recently alive", though "novel" is often part of the experience as well.
McDonald's is also maximizing for serving size. Fancy restaurants rarely do this; some pretty much minimize portion size so they can sell you as many overpriced microportions as possible. But a lot of fast food (and chain restaurants) sell huge, cheap portions compared to more expensive restaurants, so it is something of a case of having a whole lot of something compensates for it not being quite what you need.
Speaking of WoW, I have a very strong suspicion that the Blizzard game design team explicitly knows and uses intermittent / variable-ratio reinforcement schedules to keep the game addictive.
I'm afraid I can't link you, but I've (somewhere) read discussions on precisely that. Most game designers don't know the terminology, but they're intimately familiar with the effect.
I played WoW for a while and got bored with it. I did, however, get a cool 1000 Achievement points, though. ;)
Not unlike binge eating to avoid feelings of being fat and unlovable, or going shopping for cheap crap to avoid the feelings caused by not having enough money. (Btw, speaking of money, there's an excellent book called something like "How To Get What You Want With The Money You Already Have" that has an interesting set of life/mind hacks for breaking that particular cycle.)
Oh, yes. This describes me as well. One thing I get out of games is a feeling of achievement. When I'm upset, I can often cheer myself up by playing a certain difficult video game that I've thoroughly mastered to the point where it feels easy. After having played a session of Space Megaforce, I feel much less like a useless and incompetent person. (Space Megaforce is also pretty good at getting me into the "flow" state - it's hard to dwell on my miseries while I'm busy putting my whole attention into the game performance.)
Try working on Project Euler problems instead. Should satisfy your need for immediate achievement gratification.
For immediate "I have done a cool, hard thing easily!" gratification, it's probably very hard to switch gears - he's good at video games, has lots of practice, and can really do the hard ones easily. But there are lots of other areas with limitless, or almost limitless, potential for improvement, which is the same thing only better, and given the state of some of the activities in question in common practice, it doesn't take too long to get to a point where you can impress people. Making a cake from scratch is more than (my guess) 80% of the population ever does, now that mixes are so common (and now that making one from a mix is significantly more impressive than buying one from the grocery store). Cooking (mine of choice, so much space to play in!) or handicrafts (all kinds of variety, and so very convenient to be able to hold up an actual object and say "I totally made this" and distribute these objects at Christmas) or drawing (also one of mine, also lots of space to play and always the possibility of getting better) are all sources of "now I have accomplished something" feelings.
I wholeheartedly endorse this project; I got a very impressive return on investment, in terms of feelings of achievement, impressing others and of course delicious cake for a very small time investment. The only downside was that continuing to create them reliably leads me to consume large quantities of delicious cake.
You can use cooking skills to create delicious dishes of quinoa and kale, too, if you are so inclined. It doesn't all have to be cake.
Here's another videogame substitute that gives feelings of accomplishment and reinforcement: Programming. For me, this is a good substitute because when I play computer games, I get attracted to the technical aspects of the game and its mechanics anyway (e.g. "Theorycraft"). What I realized is that I have a need to always be systemizing something, which was a big source of computer games playing. With programming, I can systemize something that actually makes me money.
Hugh Ristik links to a Wikipedia article on the constellation of skills called systematizing. The article definitely implies that individuals better than average at systematizing are worse than average at empathizing. Does anyone have any theories on why being skilled in one decreases the probability of being skilled in the other? The only theory I can think of that seems to fit the facts is that the child's natural human desire to learn the empathizing skills is stronger than the desire to learn systematizing skills, but since learning the empathizing skills tends to depend on many neurological and cognitive developmental events going right, some children stop being able to continue to learn empathizing, so they turn to systematizing because learning something is better than learning nothing. (This theory does not mean that it is certain or even very likely that adults strong in empathizing are more useful to modern society than adults strong in systematizing, but it does mean that it is very likely that adults strong in empathizing enjoyed higher reproductive fitness in the EEA.)
I recommend reading up on Simon Baron-Cohen's work. His theory is that systemizing is related to cognitive masculinization, e.g. through prenatal testosterone and other biological developmental factors (leading him to suggest that people with autism and Asperger's Syndrome exhibit an "extreme male brain"). Richard Lippa has also found that an important dimension of personality is orientation towards things (which corresponds to systemizing) or orientation towards people (which corresponds to empathizing). His research claims that the people-things dimension of interests is correlated with gender (males being more thing-oriented and females being more people-oriented on average), and independent of the Big Five personality traits.
In a paper linked off of wikipedia SBC says When you plot these, five different “brain types” are seen but at the end says It may be that there is a degree of trade-off between E and S, such that the better one is at one, the worse one is at the other. The last sentence doesn't leave me with a lot of confidence that he actually has plotted them. A first bit of evidence for that claim would that he published such a plot. or at least a correlation coefficient. Has he actually done so?
That... looks like fun, actually.

the brain is very bad at communicating certain needs to the systems that can get those needs met.

It's not so much that the brain is bad at communicating, as that you have a bad expectation lodged in it. Or in common idiom, "you can never get enough of what you don't really need in the first place."

Example: last month I did a workshop and the demonstration volunteer was spending too much time on Twitter instead of working. Turns out, even if he spent "25 hours a day" (his words) on Twitter, it still wasn't going to fix the hole in his social life that was left by not working at an office any more. His brain had latched onto Twitter as a partial substitute, and was trying like crazy to make it work.

So I (sort of) agree with your general idea of akrasia as experiential pica. But IMO the cause (in both akrasia and pica) is erroneous information in your brain's planning table that predicts you will get an increase in what you want/need if only you eat ice or get on twitter. The rest of the machinery can be functioning perfectly normally.

My wife, for example, satisfies her iron cravings by eating liver and almonds, while until I knew I was potassium deficient,... (read more)

I think I surf the internet because I'm lonely.

Bake an enormous batch of cookies. Knock on your neighbors' door, tell them you're never going to be able to eat all of these cookies, and ask them if they want some. Repeat until this turns into a conversation or you run out of cookies.

That would probably work, if I did it. On the other hand, that would mean parting with delicious, delicious cookies! I couldn't do that! ;) And my neighbors probably wouldn't appreciate being woken up at four in the morning, either. :( Indeed, "being lonely" is something I should be able to fix. There are lots of people I used to know that I could get in touch with, and at least one lives pretty close by and has said I can drop in any evening I want. It's just so hard to get off the computer...
Define "enormous" to mean "far more than you could possibly eat".
We're talking about cookies. By the time the second batch is done, your appetite will have returned! (This is why I never make too much mashed potatoes - instead of refrigerating, I just sit there trying to eat it all.)
We're gonna need a bigger oven
Assuming the person in question uses e-mail or instant message clients or whatever, you don't need to get off the computer in order to tell him you'll be dropping by. It's much easier to get up once you have an actual time limit you need to meet in order to avoid being late.
If you believe that you spend that time on the computer because you're lonely, this would seem to be a prime example of "experiential pica". If I were you my hesitation would probably be inertia, feeling like it would be odd to just stop in even if they left that offer open. In which case, perhaps you ought to will yourself to do it a first time so that it becomes more normal. You have little to lose, presumably.
Yes, the internet, sometimes it's a substitute for company, but I think sometimes I spend a lot of time on the net reading what smart people have written (and there's no end to it) as a kind of substitute for exercising my own creative intelligence. Reading other people's smart stuff pushes a lot of my buttons intellectual-satisfactionwise but not all of them by any means. And that makes it feel like a kind of voyeurism. Speaking of the net, I guess porn is a good example, in some ways it's very close to something you want, but in other ways it's nowhere near it.

We've gone out on a limb with the akrasia discussion. Posts seem like they are using loose references to published material to justify grand pet theories. The term akrasia has become a tent under which all manner of effects and phenomena are being housed. A counter-reductionist trend has set in. The definition of akrasia grows, the manners of dealing with it expand, possible theories of methods of its identification and mitigation can be found in every other top level post. It has the feel of rat hole.

There is too much explanation and not enough prediction. What am I to anticipate?

Solving the problem of the erosion of will and of short term preferences is going to take more than pouring cold water into our own ears. It is likely not generally solvable through introspection.

This discussion of akrasia afflicts this community like a kind of akrasia -- a fertile field for arm chair theories to distract us from harder problems.

Meditation? Really? "Reset my experiential pica?" What?

I propose a one month ban on the akrasia topic. If there is something to be gained through introspection on the subject let those with an interest introspect. For now, though, the only thing these posts lead me to anticipate is a post titled "Akrasia: Because of Magic!"

I was thinking of posting a reply to this like "Hey, this is all very interesting, but you have no evidence whatsoever for it." Decided against it, because it's not being presented as a proven theory. It's being presented as an interesting and elegant possibility that deserves further discussion, or a fertile direction for future research. That puts it on the same footing as eg superstrings, and sometimes one of those sorts of things is the creative seed someone else needs.

No one's going to discover a simple cure-all that works for everyone, but I've already [gotten something really useful to me] partly out of our discussions here, and the comments there make it look like some other people have done the same.

Even if we don't expect any further direct benefits, it might end up kind of like the moonshot, which wasn't too useful in itself but which more than made back its cost in generating peripheral technology. The akrasia discussion has led to some really good peripheral posts like Utilons vs. Hedons, which clarified a lot for me, and some very introductory discussion of PCT, which pjeby thinks explains everything about everything. The comments in my Preferences thread ar... (read more)

Not at all. It merely fills a lot of gaps and simplifies things in the model of mind that I already had. But my overall model still contains things that I consider to be lacking in the explanation department, and which PCT doesn't really touch. PCT has become a central metaphor in my model, but it's quite far from the entirety of my model. For example, PCT has little to directly say about status, self-esteem, and the like, except insofar as it implies these are controlled perceptual variables like any other. (That is, that we have ranges for them that we're comfortable with, outside of which we take action to restore them to that range.) PCT also doesn't make much distinction between controlled "avoidance" variables (e.g "amount of pain") and controlled "approach" variables (e.g. "amount of pleasure"), and I find those to be rather important practical distinctions. In addition, one of the first mindhacking techniques I usually teach to people (dubbed "feeling elimination") has no obvious connection to PCT, nor really a very good explanation at all. I know that it works, and many of the parameters that make it work or not work in a given instance, but as to how it really works, I know very little. However, despite these inadequacies, PCT actually doesn't have any competition as a generalized reductionist model of behavior. Not since Skinner has anybody in the field of psychology even tried to make such a generalized model, AFAIK, let alone succeeded half as well as PCT.
While I agree with the substance of your point, I take exception to this: It's too common for people to assume that big, difficult problems must have big, difficult solutions. You can't possibly know that no simple solution exists unless you have a sufficiently detailed model of the problem to extract a non-simple solution. It's reasonable to dismiss any particular proposed simple solution if the proposal isn't backed by real evidence, but that shouldn't discourage us from looking for evidence that points to solutions of unknown difficulty.
I suspect that people here have more of a problem with willpower/motivation than average, so they press "upvote!" on anything that promises, however vaguely, to solve their problem. EDIT: Wikipedia states that there is "scant research" "which suggests that the disorder is caused by mineral deficiency in many cases", and also lists other possible causes such as OCD. So Pica may, or may not, be mostly related to deficiencies. We also know that the rate of incidence of Pica is low in general, i.e. < 5% of people probably have it, so conclusions drawn about people who have Pica may not generalize well.
Eh? Pica) is a known disorder. The sample size for the causation claim is clearly more than 1. [ETA: In case anyone's wondering why this comment no longer makes any sense, it's because most of the original parent was removed after I made it, and replaced with the current second para.]
EDIT: The claim that Pica is a known disorder is distinct from claims about what causes it. The only evidence given in the post is one personal experience. However, the wikipedia article does state that referencing a study which states that:
It has always seemed to me that the Less Wrong community treats akrasia like a problem that needs to be solved rather than simply a flaw that needs to be avoided; this, and the fact that krasia is a sort of rationality, seem to explain why we discuss it so much.

the brain misfires. It didn't make me crave liver and shellfish and molasses, it made me crave water in frozen form.

I think it's been suggested that this craving made sense when cracking bones with your teeth released iron-rich marrow, and ice cubes were not available. (Hearsay from Seth Roberts's blog; I don't have a reference.)

Cyan already mentioned what Seth Roberts had to say on the subject.

Study the habits of highly effective people. Do you know somebody who seems unplagued by akrasia?

Let's not forget that akrasia can manifest itself in "being busy in the wrong way", as opposed to just being lazy. The person may be occupied 20 hours a day working on something, but this doesn't necessarily mean that this something is their "best judgment".

A better idea would be to watch people who directly or indirectly declare their goals, then achieve them.

The frequently heard advice to "get out more" might be related to this.

and started taking iron supplements. I stopped eating ice. I stopped having any interest in eating ice at all.

What did this feel like? Did you previously crave ice, and then stop craving it? Or did you just happen to eat ice, and just happen to stop? (by "just happen" I guess I mean that you could observe your behavior but couldn't explain it; I guess the part about excuses matches this, but you talk about craving elsewhere. and the exit may have felt different from the entrance.)

trivia: the most efficient source of dietary iron is tomatoes cooked in a cast-iron pan.

It failed to feel like anything, which was one of the weirder parts. It never felt as immediate and urgent as what I usually identify as a craving (e.g. with chocolate). I would just feel like the next thing I ought to do would be to get some ice and eat it. Rather quickly - I think over a week or two - this stopped popping up on my mental to-do list. I also got less pleasure out of eating ice, and less vague unnervedness from not having access to any.

I've noticed that when my self control is slipping it has a feeling like what you describe. Not so much wanting, more like just knowing that's what I'm going to be doing next, and not being able to divert that inevitability.
I think that was a sign that it was an important part of the story and you should have emphasized it more. I deduced it (or generated it as a hypothesis) from the conclusions you drew. I think not having that intermediate step explains some negative reactions to the article.
I'm not sure I understand. Why is the lack of craving-evaporation-qualia such an important part of the story?
The distinction between giving in to a experienced craving and just happening to act in a way that outsiders would describe as involving a craving seems very important to me. In particular, people responding to your story might think "I don't have cravings, so I shouldn't worry about what those cravings are really for." But maybe I'm making up too specific a failure mode. I see the central point of the post being a perfect example of how the brain is very bad at communicating certain needs to the systems that can get those needs met and failure to communicate that there was a need seemed a more fundamental and problematic failure than the mere failure to communicate details of the need. (I'm assuming that there never was any craving; I'm not putting emphasis on the end of the story. But if there's asymmetry, that's interesting, too. Another detail I wonder about is: did you make up the excuses for yourself, or only when questioned?) I'm sorry it took me so long to respond. I thought I could put my thoughts in better order, but time didn't help. I do think weird things are usually important, though perhaps not here. If there parts you don't understand, then it's dangerous to generalize from it. If there are parts that surprised you at the time, but made everything make sense, then they'll probably surprise everyone else and should be disseminated.

If you are severely plagued by akrasia, and there is some large class of experiences that you completely leave out of your life, attempt to find a way to incorporate something from that class.

I find this suggestion hard to follow. There are far more experiences I don't have than ones I do have, and I think this is true for almost everyone. How would I know where to start? Should I take up dancing? Baking? Painting? Horse riding? Ant farming? Blogging? :-)

If our brains can have a deficiency of some kind of activity, there must be a relatively small numbe... (read more)

There are far more experiences I don't have than ones I do have, and I think this is true for almost everyone. How would I know where to start? Should I take up dancing? Baking? Painting? Horse riding? Ant farming? Blogging? :-)

If you cannot work out an answer, and you want an answer, then you must look for one. This is also called "research".

Alicorn said "some large class of experiences", and by definition, there aren't all that many of those. Physical exertion, craftsmanship, artistic creation, social interaction, intellectual endeavour (although people reading LW are unlikely to be doing too little of that), making money...

Pick something, anything, pursue it seriously, see if it does anything for you, take it as far as seems useful. Repeat.

intellectual endeavour (although people reading LW are unlikely to be doing too little of that)

Unless they are spending all their time reading community sites such as LW as a substitute for, say, acquiring the kind of detailed, in-depth understanding that you typically need textbooks for.

There's no such thing as too much intellectual endeavor! There's too much to know!
There is if doing other stuff will make your time spent on intellectual endeavor significantly more productive.
Not food. Pica is by definition an appetite for non-food; best-case scenario, they're eating actual iron objects or iron-rich dirt or something. Not knowing what classes of activities exist is a handicap, but we can make guesses - exercise is plausibly one, and one that looks promising for other reasons. I suspect that creative activities, possibly including baking, is another, and there's some evidence that sunlight and fresh air are splendid things to have, so going outside might be useful too.
Exercise and sunlight and so on are definitely good for us. But why do you think they're particularly linked to akrasia? I know they're linked to various mood disorders and so on... I guess I just don't understand why you're proposing this hypothesis and not another. Is is just the analogy with pica, on the level of "akrasia is a craving to do or not-do X, so maybe its cause is doing or not-doing some unrelated Y"? Does this explain/retrodict some known facts about akrasia that I missed? Or is it just a direction of investigation for now?
I can only propose hypotheses I think of. It's mostly just a direction of investigation, based on a known thing the brain can do - when some Y is is needed, the brain is known to sometimes ask for unrelated X, which does not eliminate the root problem (need for Y). I'm saying that Tetris et. al. may be the Y in a pattern like this.
You say that like trying all of those would be a bad thing or something!
I was saying there are far too many things I don't do for the suggestion 'do something new' to be effective without a non-random way of choosing what to try next. Also, I'm sure there are some experiences or combinations of experiences I don't have that would turn out to be bad. The examples I gave weren't intended to evoke that idea, though.
How would I know where to start? The ancestral environment. In fact camping might be a good default answer.
Camping tends to make me miserable, for some reason.
I'd suggest that, even more than camping, any one of rock climbing, forestry, or hunting would probably provide the concrete achievement sense that pica/akrasia requires.

As for the habits of highly effective people, you might check into the book "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People"... my father had a copy and it's really quite good, it's far from being the superficial "think positive" kind of book that it's often assumed to be. Not much about Akrasia though.

I might be considered someone little affected by akrasia, or who's standards for akrasia have risen substantially. I sleep polyphasically (the "Everyman" schedule, about 4.5 hours a day) and spend about 14-18 hours a day trying to brin... (read more)


Does this have any insights for meditation? Some of my friends swear by it but I cannot bring myself to use the time. Could I meditate for an hour and reset my experiential pica for the day?

Maybe! Meditation (or a broader class of experience, "sitting around not doing much but not trying to nap either") could be useful for some or all people. It's not something I've tried seriously, mostly because trying to breathe regularly gives me a sore throat and trying to sit very still makes me very itchy.
I think part of the idea is to basically acknowledge the sensation of itchiness, notice it, "observe" it, and then "let go" of it. Of course, easier said than done. And no idea about the throat thing. Rather than actively trying to regulate your breathing, just sit and try to observe your breathing and let it regulate itself? (ie, feel all the sensations relevant to inhalation and exhalation. Flow of air, etc etc). Though, to be fair, I've only tried to on and off. And yes, itchiness is annoying, even given all of the above. :)
Actaully, I don't know why I didn't remember my experiences with sensory depravation tanks years ago. I remember after spending an hour in the tank feeling amazingly refreshed and significantly more able to concentrate on stuff.
I've thought about trying sensory deprivation before! Is it hard to get access to the tanks?
you can do a poorman's isolation tank by cutting a ping pong ball in half and taping them over your eyes, then turning the radio to static and lying down. set the static to be just loud enough to muffle the sound of your own breathing.
I rented one in Austin from a hippie couple. It was fun.
Meditation is not just "sitting around not doing much but not trying to nap either". It is also observing your own feelings and thoughts that arise while doing it. You try to to detach from your feelings and observe yourself objectively while having them and observe the thoughts and feelings that arise from observing yourself etc., recursively. E.g. if you get itchy, then try to isolate and detach from the itchiness and make it an objective observation and find out how and why does that affect you, etc. The way to get there is by trying to expel your inner dialogs and find other dialogs arising deeper and if you go on and expel them again. Iterating that, you can hope to be able to listen to your own even deeper (in a sense of "more hidden") thoughts that were already there but were covered by the "much louder" voices on the surface. This way you can learn a lot about your inner (hidden) problems, motivations, etc. by just patiently expelling everything you are so preoccupied with at the highest level of your consciousness. Another side effect is that by doing that you can train the skill set of expelling undesired thoughts and feelings which can fight distraction when something inconvenient or boring has to be worked on.
I know it's not just that. That is why I identified "sitting around not doing much but not trying to nap either" as a broader category. Trying to observe and not scratch an easily-accessible itch sounds like such an unpleasant way to spend time that I would rather just be as akratic as I am than practice it.
I just end up clearing my head of everything but some random earworm that never goes away, or focusing on some background noise, or whatever. Stupid auditory cortex, running in circles and not wanting to shut up...
Are you sure it's completely random? :)

Saw something like this just recently on how reading small bites on the Internet trains our "drive" (keep pushing button) rather than "satiation" (actually feel good) circuits. Can't seem to find it just now - anyone got the link?

Simulacra already posted the Slate article, but I found it via this article that adds some interesting context connecting it to confirmation bias. That is, we're driven to seek out more of the same information, not genuinely new information. This actually gives me a fresh understanding of why information product buyers are generally repeat customers, and why I own so many books on basically the same topics. ;-)

Hrm... This seems to ring true for me too. Maybe not completely, but sometimes it feels like I'm poking around online or otherwise, looking for "something"... but no idea what it is that I'm looking for.

This is certainly an interesting idea, but I'm skeptical. I've noticed that a few practices have that effect (exercise, for example), but it seems to me that it's more a matter of habitually exercising willpower than getting the right mix of experiences. Lots of extremely successful people just spend all their time doing whatever it is that they do well.

For example, when I read this pleasant profile of Richard Posner, I don't imagine that he's a great jurist because he goes to the zoo or plays with his cat; I imagine that he's a great jurist because, asid... (read more)


I'd agree that Richard Posner spends a great deal of time thinking about law, but for him, it's probably not a matter of habitually exercising willpower.

Individuals who have the kind of self-discipline to get to to the top of their field on willpower alone simply don't exist. The simplest explanation for why certain people devote their lives to their work is that they legitimately enjoy their work. In fact, there are cases of individuals finding success without having explicitly sought or expected success, only coming to fame and fortune after the fruits of their "hobbies" became recognized by others. Besides, if success was mainly a matter of self-control, then you'd expect most high achievers to prove resistant to not only sloth but also the entire spectrum of harmful temptations. Yet we often find that even those who have reached the apex of achievement have done so in spite of private failings with counterproductive habits and addictions. (or not-so-private, as the career of Bill Clinton might serve to inform.)

Those who succeed, do so because they put in more work than the rest. Those who work more than the rest, do so because they get more fulfillment out of their work.

(And why do people enjoy their work in the first place? Usually, because they are good at it.)

Wikipedia states that there is "scant research" "which suggests that the disorder is caused by mineral deficiency in many cases", and also lists other possible causes such as OCD. So Pica may, or may not, be mostly related to deficiencies. We also know that the rate of incidence of Pica is low in general, i.e. < 5% of people probably have it, so conclusions drawn about people who have Pica may not generalize well. The study referenced in the "scant research" sentence states:

Pica is probably a behavior pattern driven by mu

... (read more)

As for the habits of highly effective people, you might check into the book "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People"... my father had a copy and it's really quite the book, and is far from being the superficial "think positive" kind of book that it's often assumed to be. Not much about Akrasia though.

I might be considered someone little affected by akrasia, or who's standards for akrasia have risen substantially. I sleep polyphasically (the "Everyman" schedule, about 4.5 hours a day) and spend about 14-18 hours a day trying t... (read more)

Excellent post. The one problem I have with the analogy is that pica is almost completely objective; it involves eating non-food items and is (usually) caused by a mineral deficiency. Akrasia isn't quite like that. It's entirely possible that doing Z will cause you to stop doing X, but there does not appear to be an objective sense in which Z is the real thing you need and X was a misguided proxy. Plenty of people play World of Warcraft and never go outside, and they can continue to be excellent, cheerful Warcraft-players. Pica, by contrast, can be harmful... (read more)

Someone who is well-integratedly happy to play WoW for a lifetime sounds weird, but not akratic, to me. As for whether, if the desire for WoW is a misfiring of the brain in response to some unconscious impulse that could be more efficiently satisfied by watching a space shuttle take off (for example), "need" is the right word to apply to the experience of watching a space shuttle taking off, I don't know. It doesn't seem like an ordinary-language-compatible use of the word "want" to call it a want (or by the same token a desire), so I appropriated the word "need" in much the same way one might use it to say "I need a hug" or "I need a minute" or "I need a cigarette" even when one's long-term physiological health doesn't depend on affection/time/nicotine.
Not according to theories I'm familiar with. It seems like such a person would have bad character; lacking acculturation to the relevant human virtues, one would miss out on essential parts of the good life. But then, maybe WoW is a better proxy for social interaction and such than I'm giving it credit for.
I'd be curious as to what parts of the good life are essential, what virtues are relevant, and what evidence supports said claims. I admit that it's very unlikely that playing video games for most of one's life corresponds with the culturally-infused values many people have, but it doesn't seem that it must be fundamentally opposed to the values that one develops. It's decidedly unlikely one would develop the values necessary to enjoy gaming for one's whole life, but it certainly seems possible. Then again, if it were fully consistent with your values, it wouldn't be akratic. And CronoDAS is right; if you're not familiar with WoW, you might not know that almost all of the people who are really addicted are also involved within the game socially. At a certain point it becomes impossible to progress without 9-24 other human players who usually coordinate via VOIP, so while players may be sitting in their parent's basement, they are actually socializing to some degree. This (combined with the random reward system) is why it's so addictive.
Some people really do manage to get a high level of social interaction out of WoW; there are a lot of actual people involved that you can interact with, and the more difficult challenges tend to require the kind of organization and teamwork you'd find in a local sports team. On the other hand, I personally am not one of them.
Yes, but will (s)he reproduce? Iron deficiency impedes survival and reproduction. Same with WoW -- instead of spending resources on raising one's tribal status, getting a good mate and having their children survive to reproductive age, one is spending time and resources on raising status in a nonexistent tribe -- its members very rarely meet, let alone mate.
I feel like we ought to start letting go of evolutionary goals as if they are our own. I explicitly do not wish to reproduce. I'd enjoy being a father but I'd be plenty happy adopting and raising a child who already exists and is parentless. A higher incidence of shared alleles and some related cultural temporal idea of "my genetic child" mean nothing to me. There's some gut instinct for being a genetic father, but it's minor. Evolution doesn't really give a shit about my happiness (i.e. utility function) and the feeling is mutual.
Last I checked, I do not live in the savanna. These qualities are no longer associated with reproductive fitness in Western societies with even moderate social support networks. More to the point, why should I care? You were out there having kids, I was in here getting epic loots and pwning n00bs. You like what you did. I like what I did. There's nothing to say that either of us was "right." As a fact about the world, more of your alleles will exist in future generations. Also as a fact about the world, my avatar will have more achievement points than yours. We'll both be thoroughly dead. You are more successful by evolutionary standards, and probably by social ones as well, but I don't care, because I'm more successful by my standards, which frankly are the only ones I care about, and reason alone cannot say that your standards are in any sense better than mine.

Study the habits of highly effective people.

We don't really have access to unfiltered information about lives of other people. No matter if that's someone we know, or someone famous people bother to write about, the information we get is filtered and distorted by people's idea of what it should be like so many times, it has nothing to do with reality.

Well, if, say, you had a spouse, you might have a good idea of what (s)he did during downtime. Or a roommate or very close friend.
And from great amount of data you will focus on things you think are supposed to affect happiness. Observation without theory is blind, and we don't have good theories.
I think it would be more productive to focus on activities that are different from what one is already doing. If my non-akratic roomie and I are both doing activity A, then even if activity A is helping my roomie, it won't help me - it's already failing at the task. Things that my roomie does that I don't, whether they seem intuitively likely to affect happiness or not, would be the targets of investigation.

Which did you find more satisfying:

  • sucking on the ice and letting it melt
  • chewing it to bits
The former. I only chewed on ice that I'd already been sucking on for a while that had gotten very small.
I knew that the punch line of the ice-eating anecdote would be that you had an iron deficiency because Seth Roberts has mentioned it on his blog. He's drawn an analogy between pagophagia and a deficiency of fermented food. He spells it out here, but your report is distinctly at odds with his evolutionary explanation for ice-eating. I think this is evidence that he's got some good ideas but his standards for verification are too low.

A rewrite, using Feeling words: if you feel happy, content and fulfilled, you will be better able to do the things you have to do. If you believe that doing those things is likely to accomplish a goal you have, you will be better able to motivate yourself to do them. If you cannot bring yourself to do what you have to do, find something which will make you feel happy, content or fulfilled; or if you cannot do that, play Tetris or whatever which will at least take your mind off the guilt, until it comes back worse later.

What will make you feel fulfilled? What will make you feel that doing the task you have to do will make achieving your goal more likely?

The goal is the satisfaction of greatest utility, and akrasia seems to come into play when that isn't the path of greatest perceived immediate reward, or is a path of a lot of perceived initial difficulty. Accomplishing the greatest total utility is the real goal, not necessarily experiencing fulfillment, happiness or contentment any time soon. Indeed some of the things that make me feel happy and otherwise content just drive me to do more of them, which isn't my real goal. What I strive for more than those three things is motivation, and indeed I look for activities that the more I do them, the less happy I am about doing them and not doing what I know I ought to. At least if I'm not currently working towards the real goals themselves. But yes, I will at least agree that it's harder to be productive if you really feel like crap, so a certain level of contentment is important. This is an idea and strategy I've found a lot of success with, working to align what brings fulfillment with what I rationally expect to bring the greatest utility. This is feeling content about doing the things I have to though, not in order to do them.
Fight Akrasia by playing tetris???