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.
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)
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.
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)
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.)
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.
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 h... (read more)
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.
The frequently heard advice to "get out more" might be related to this.
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 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)
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.
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.
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?
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?
The article in question from slate.com found via the cogsci subreddit
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:... (read more)
Article on the history of pica: http://www.laphamsquarterly.org/essays/balanced-diets.php?page=all
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)
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.
Which did you find more satisfying:
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?