Original post:  http://bearlamp.com.au/preference-over-null-preference/

For some parts of life it is better to exist with a prepared preference, for other parts of life it is better to exist without a prepared preference.  This is going to be about looking at the sets of preferences and what might be better in each scenario.

On the object level some examples:

  • I like blue hair
  • I don't like the colour red
  • I like to eat Chinese food
  • My favourite animal is a frog
  • I don't like sport
  • I would rather spend time in a library than a nightclub
  • I love bacon icecream
  • This is my favourite hat

The specific examples are irrelevant but hopefully you get the idea.  Having a preference is about having full set and reducing it to a smaller set.  Example: one colour is my favourite out of the full set of colours.

In contrast, a null preference might look like this:

  • I don't care what kind of pizza we eat
  • I eat anything
  • I just like being with friends, it doesn't matter what we do
  • I love reading
  • I've never really had a favourite animal
  • Use your best judgement for me
  • I can't decide what to wear

While null preferences are technically just another form of preference, I want to separate them out for a moment so that we can talk about them.

Deciding whether you should hold a preference, even if you didn't previously have one - can be an effective strategy for making decisions where there were previously difficulties.  The benefit of having a preference is that it stands as a pre-commitment to yourself to maintain existing choices on certain choice-nodes.

The disadvantage of using this strategy is that if your preference fails to be fulfilled then you are at risk of disappointment.

If you get to the supermarket and can't decide which type of jam (or jelly for american;) to buy, you can consult an existing preference for blueberry jam and skip the whole idea of considering other types of jam.

For preference failure, if you prefer blueberry but the store doesn't have any, you risk leaving without jam, or being left with a choice less desirable like strawberry.

Nothing about your preference on the world effects the world until you interact with it.  For the jam example: deciding you like blueberry will not cause blueberry jam to be available to you.  Modifying the map will not immediately impact the territory.  If you go on an endless tirade everywhere you travel - of demanding blueberry jam, chances are that at some point people will be more motivated to be prepared for the mad blueberry jammer.  However the instant that you decide to have a preference, you have not yet caused any impact on the world.  So the instantaneous effect of having a preference is nothing.

There will be times where you are not in control of the choice nodes available to you.  There are times when you will be.  That doesn't seem relevant to which is better.

There will be times when there will be more choices and times when there will be less.  That doesn't seem relevant.

There will be times when your preference will be easily fulfilled and times when it will be hard or impossible.  That doesn't seem relevant.

There are big expensive important choices, and small irrelevant insignificant choices.  Apart from desiring to spending more time on big expensive important choices, that doesn't seem relevant either.

There will be days with more willpower and days with less willpower, (and days exist on which willpower does not deplete).

Should I change what I do right now?

I don't know.  What do you do now?  Can we derive knowledge from the pre-existing system to make progress on what should change towards the future.

Try this:

  • Think of 10 decisions you have made today (or recently). This might be the hard part.
  • Were they all good decisions?  Do you already know what would have been better decisions in those places?  Can you identify the ones that need improvement already?
  • For each one, think of what metric would allow you to know you have made them better.
    • Better outcomes as a result of your decision
    • Faster decisions
    • Decisions that take something into account
    • Decisions that are more inline with high level or distant goals
    • Decisions that make you look good to your peers
    • Decisions that leave you feeling more of a certain feeling - free, safe, thrifty, skilled, powerful...
  • For each decision and for each metric, is a better outcome likely to come from having a preference, or having a null preference.

As I get to this point I don't have a defining thesis for this concept.  I don't have an answer as to whether preference can be ruled better than a null.  Or that you might want to reduce your identity down until you have all null preferences, leading you to flexibility and freedom (of course such a reduction leads to a burden of maintaining the system of nulls as well).  

I do want to open up this concept to you to decide and influence the use of the idea.  If you hold a preference too strongly you risk the possibility of making the wrong choice over and over.  If you hold it too loosely you risk indifference towards the world (maybe part of the answer is to look at where you are now in terms of decision problems and consider which direction you want to travel towards).  I don't know.

  • How can this concept be used?
  • What comes to mind as a powerful example of preference over null preference, or nulls over active preference?
  • Where do you stand now?  And if you were to move in any direction which would it be?
  • Does the application of preference/null solve or reshape any existing problems in your life?

Meta: 2 hours writing, then I got stuck when I realised I didn't have a concluding thesis (didn't actually have the answers) but I wanted to release the incomplete concept anyway to see if anyone else could come up with ideas around it.

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8 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 6:58 AM


You seem to be posting, like, a lot. This is good, this is what we have personal blogs for.

I do have an issue with syndicating your content straight to here, regardless of state, amount of research, amount of prior discussion with other people, confidence, or epistemic status. This introduces an asymetric opportunity cost on behalf of the lesswrong community; specifically, writing these is much easier, and lower effort, than the amount of effort these will collectively soak up for no gain.

For this reason, I have downvoted this post as is. I will also kindly ask of you to introduce a pre-syndication filter, which respects other people's limited amount of time, and attention; and cross-post only the ones where you have 1, a coherent thesis, and 2, validated interest coming from other people (as in, someone explicitely remarked "that's interesting").


It's not as if LW has a problem of too much material these days.

I can post less if that's what people tell me that they want. I recognised the problem of low-volume writing and am trying to solve it.

First, thank you for trying to solve the problem.

However, I think that the "volume of writing" is not exactly the best thing to optimize. Consider this: during the era of the Sequences, LW only had one article per day, which is about three times less than it has now, and yet people didn't complain that it was "dying", unlike now.

It's natural that when people find a resource they like, their reaction is: "more! more! more!". But getting more content sometimes lowers the quality. And then people complain about the lower quality, but when you try reverting to the previous state, now they would feel angry about the smaller frequency, and you just can't win. And when in the name of higher volume the lower quality gets accepted, many writers lose the incentive to produce higher quality.

(By the way, I am curious how many people complaining about not enough new content on LW still haven't read the Sequences, because that's too long.)

The quality and the volume are in tension. Yes, it is possible to increase both -- in long term, by attracting new good writers, and in short term, by motivating the existing ones to give writing a higher priority -- but if you stretch it too far, you can only increase one at the expense of the other.

The original division of LW to "Main" and "Discussion" tried to be a solution to this problem: keep the high quality in "Main" and the larger volume in "Discussion". It didn't work as expected.

My personal opinion is that as long as we want higher quality, the low volume is something we should expect. We want high-quality texts from the kinds of people who (1) are quite rare in nature, and (2) don't make money writing texts, i.e. they are not professional writers or journalists. Doing real stuff takes time. Learning valuable stuff takes time.

I am afraid that this is a self-reinforcing problem -- greater volume attracts people who spend more time procrastinating online, and in turn, those people demand even greater volume because that's how they prefer to spend their time. And those people are going to dominate the discussions. And even get most comment karma. (Just looking at myself: the lower my productivity in real life, the higher my LW karma. It's almost as if spending hours on LW prevents me from getting real stuff done. Almost as if time is a scarce resource.)

Maybe the whole LW should be redesigned, and split into two completely independent parts: (1) the website with the selected high-quality articles, even if it means one article per month; and (2) the chatroom. Not just two web pages, but two separate communities. There is no reason why the people most active in the chatroom should have more voice about the article publishing; they are in a completely different line of business.

(Plus the elephant in the room: the vote manipulation, and the tech support that cannot solve it. But some of the problems would remain even if this would be solved.)

"volume of writing"

I should clarify because I mixed a few problems into one when talking about them.

  1. low volume of posts on lw
  2. low volume of writing coming from me personally
  3. quality of my writing

while partly trying to solve the community's low volume problem I was trying to solve my own low volume problem. Now that I am fairly happy with my personal solution, I was planning to solve my quality problem, and that should help the LW volume problem properly.

Separate but relevant: All of the posts that I wrote and think are the most valuable posts that I have written - were not possible to predict before writing. So in a sense I have to have written out the idea before realising it's value, and I would say also that I have to share the idea in order to figure out how much people care about it before noticing how important/valuable it is.

For perspective, I find Elo's writing interesting maybe half the time. That's about on par with a random LW post, for me. (Whereas, >99% of facebook posts are uninteresting.)

If he published more than about once a day, or put a little less effort into each post, I think he'd lower the LW average. (According to my subjective judgement.) Conversely, another hour or so on each post, or a slightly higher self-filter might raise the average. (Assuming his idea of what makes a good post is fairly representative of mine.)

another hour or so on each post

I will try to do that. There is a reason why I post the length of time it takes me to write.

So far I wanted to ensure that "actually writing things down" wasn't the cause of my lack of writing. Part of my problem was never allocating time to writing things. Now that I have mostly solved that, I was hoping to push the quality up. I realise that these are sometimes a bit below what I want to see here.

or a slightly higher self-filter

I am trying to improve but that's kind of saying "I know which direction is wrong, so now I can walk in the right direction".

I don't suppose there are ideas you would like to see written about? Or maybe you would like to collaborate on my drafts before they hit the main group (open to anyone who wants to PM me and join the existing draft-readers). It's hard - even for draft readers, to say - "this is wrong because...". I recognise that what I write is not wrong but also not always right.

I have a list of future topics. This one had been on my list for more than 6 months, and I never developed a thesis, so never wrote it out in full. I am still experimenting with styles of posts. You may recall recently the chat-log, model of argument, no negative press, mental models. Mostly my ideas come from conversations with lesswrongers and developing problem solving processes around those conversations.

My basic structure is to go up and down the abstraction ladder while identifying examples and setting up a model.

Edit: I assume when you said this:

writing these is much easier, and lower effort, than the amount of effort these will collectively soak up for no gain

you mean to say that energy required to write contrasted to energy required to read which is far greater when multiplied by the audience size. (Writing might take 2 hours, reading might take 20 people 10 mins each or 200 hours of burden created, leading to concerns about the virtue of silence, being a burden on the community and destroying the commons of "quality posts", given that my posts are not as top-notch as some things we consider sequence posts.

which respects other people's limited amount of time, and attention

I have already left a few posts out of lesswrong. Happy to leave a few more out. My general area of topic comes from the lw slack most of the time.

It's very hard to make judgement calls and I do get them wrong. I would welcome any help you can offer.

As I said just below:

I am still experimenting with styles of posts. You may recall recently the chat-log, model of argument, no negative press, mental models.


I don't suppose there are ideas you would like to see written about? Or maybe you would like to collaborate on my drafts before they hit the main group (open to anyone who wants to PM me and join the existing draft-readers).

I was previously using karma to guide which posts were good or bad or should stay or be honed, but there's currently a spanner in that system.