Measuring aversion and habit strength

by Academian4 min read27th May 201115 comments

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HabitsAkrasiaIntrospectionEmotions
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Not me! tl;dr: Strong aversions don't always originate from strong feelings (see Ugh fields). It's useful to measure the strength of an aversion by how effectively it averts your thoughts/behavior instead of how saliently you can feel it, or even remember feeling it. If there's a low cost behaviour that you somehow always "end up not doing", there's evidence for a mechanism steering you away from it. Try to find it, and defy it.

Story

Right after writing Break your habits: be more empirical, someone asked me to a live music show, and I declined, with some explanation about being busy. This felt a little forced, and I realized: I always decline live music shows. This counts as a habit. The interesting thing was that I declined them for many different, unrelated reasons. This was evidence for something more systemic, because it would be a coincidence if random, unrelated reasons always came up to prevent me from attending live music.

So I asked myself if I really disliked live music. Emotions returned: "Not really. It's not awesome, but it's not terrible." Now, there was a time when I would have stopped thinking there. My time is valuable, and mediocrity is enough to stop me from doing anything, right?

But wait... is it? Is it enough to always stop me? If it was only mediocre, and not terrible, than surely on one of the many occasions I could have seen live music, there would have been sufficient justification to go... a particularly good composer, a particularly interesting group of people go with, a particular need to get out and do something different... but no, somehow I always didn't go.

And that's when I realized I probably had an aversion to live music: some brain mechanism that consistently and effectively averted me from seeing it, and in this case, not something I could feel. In particular, it wasn't accompanied by any sense of "Ugh". So since I couldn't feel the aversion, I took an outside view to ask what could have caused it, if it indeed exists...

My first guess was the fact that I used to perform live music a lot, until I suffered a hand injury. Huh! That could totally have been emotional at some point.

Could that be the cause of my current aversion? I instrospected on how I might have felt at live music show shortly after my injury, and the answer was "excluded". I felt disappointed that I wasn't, and couldn't be, one of the performers. I began to suspect my aversion was conditioned from this "ugh" response that had lost salience many years ago.

Solution: shortly afterward I went to the symphony with a very dear friend, and sat in the front row behind the brass section where I could read their music and feel like I was involved. It worked! The experience was very cathartic. I cried a little bit, thanked my friend, and have been to many more live music performances since.

Some lessons to learn here:

Look at the picture at the top of the post... this man's face doesn't show any strong emotion averting him from the many feminine hands that reach for him, yet he avoids them. If he does this a lot, and he's not gay or already taken, he should be curious about what aversion mechanism might be causing this behavior... because however it works, it's working! In general,

  1. Alarm bells should go off when there's a small-cost option you always avoid (or a small-gain option you always pursue).
  2. Measure the strength of the aversion (or propsensity) by how effectively it averts (or attracts) your thoughts/behavior, not how saliently you feel it.
  3. Search for the underlying aversion or propensity mechanism.
  4. Combine introspection with an outside view in your search, especially when you can't easily feel the mechanism, and don't forget,
  5. Break the habit when it's not costly to do so!

Operationalizing aversion and propensity

I've been using 1-4 a lot more ever since I realized them explicitly back in October, and I must say it has been a helpful and eye-opening experience.

Aversions — habit mechanisms that steer you away from a thought or behavior — are more general than ugh fields in that they don't have to originate from bad feelings, even though my example did. They can also originate from anchoring, or other biases. That's why I want to promote an attitude of measuring aversion by effect instead of salience. Whatever the mechanism — an ugh field, an anchor, or pink elephants — we need an operationalized notion of aversion to search for and notice in our daily lives.

The same goes for propensities (or apetites): habit mechanisms that steer you toward a behavior. If you always take the bus, even though it's only slightly shorter than walking, there's probably a very effective mechanism in place for it. Are you curious how it works?

Now, I'm no behaviorist. The outside view should complement, not replace, the inside one. My introspection at the end of the story helped me finish the search for my aversion, but it was an outside view that made me notice it in the first place.

So, let us go forth to notice aversions to small costs, and propensities for small gains. And then defy them :)

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I've found that I have the opposite problem. When given the opportunity to try something new, I take it, thinking "maybe this time", and invariably regret doing so.

Now I order the same food every time in restaurants, never go to shows, and am a happier person for it.

Do you think you had an aversion to repetition? Or a propensity for variety?

The latter. Actually, I guess I still consume a lot of unknown things, but now almost exclusively online, where when the thing sucks, you can instantly move on to something else.

Much better to download a movie and watch five minutes of it and delete it than to coordinate going to the theater with someone, buy overpriced popcorn, watch a bunch of ads, then sit through an hour and a half of something you don't really like.

I can't really tell whether this is me failing to appreciate some aspect of human experience, or just that the way people tend to do things is stupid.

I can't really tell whether this is me failing to appreciate some aspect of human experience, or just that the way people tend to do things is stupid.

Or you just have different preferences from some other people.

I can't really tell whether this is me failing to appreciate some aspect of human experience, or just that the way people tend to do things is stupid.

I wonder the same about myself all the time. Sometimes I feel less..., uh, "human" (?) for it. At those times, I ask myself, "would you rather be doing X?" and the answer is invariably that I would not. I seem to be happier for not doing these things because when I give in and do them, I get bored or annoyed.

[-][anonymous]11y 13

I don't disagree with people verbally if they're loud and confident.

I wouldn't have thought I was afraid of speaking my mind, but I just... never do.

The injunction to measure aversion strength by effect on behavior is one I think I will find particularly useful - in particular because I already consider myself good at dealing with strong feeling aversions. If an aversion feels strong, it tends to make me question myself rather pointedly about why I feel that way, whereas those that feel only like a mild preference or a case of 'have better things to do' have not, in the past, set off those alarm bells. I quite enjoyed this post.

Very thought-provoking post. I know that I have lots of 'aversions'...I seem to develop them easily to anything that's 'unknown' and thus scary, and attempts to make a habit of 'doing something scary every day' help at the time but not permanently...once I no longer try to maintain the habit, I go back to avoiding leaving my comfort zone.

On the other hand, a lot of my 'small-gain' habits are deliberate, and benefit me a LOT in the long run. My habit of hardly ever eating out and always packing food from home saves me hundreds or thousands of dollars a year over my friends, not to mention improving my health. And this isn't why I have the habit...I can rationalize it now, but the truth is that I have it because my parents have it.

I recently had a similar revelation were I realized I had an aversion to versions to a specific problem with a common lyric mod in many covers California Dreaming. I wrote about it in my Simple Atheist Blog article "A Story of California Dreaming" http://simpleatheist.blogspot.com/2011/04/story-of-california-dreamin.html

I think it's an interesting question in terms of evolutionary psychology and cognitive science as to why we have two separate systems for pleasure/pain and motivation/demotivation. We clearly do---there are certain chemicals and modes of stimulation that will make you feel extremely motivated to do something that you nonetheless find painful, and others which will make you massively enjoy something that you never feel motivated to do.

At first glance, it seems like natural selection would favor a single system---what is good for fitness, feels good; what feels good, you are motivated to do---but apparently this isn't what happened. Why not? What advantage, in fitness terms, is there to being able to enjoy something you are motivated not to do, or to be motivated to do something that causes you pain?

IAMAEB, but the conjunction of system A and B, both of which have properties to which selection pressure applies, into system C which has all of those properties, doesn't strike me as the sort of solution that evolves easily. There may not be any fitness advantage at all.

Maybe you don't have to figure out the reason for aversion at all. Couldn't you just start choosing the option that feels less forced?

edit. I just broke my habit of NOT taking all the best candy from a candybag when being the first person to choose. :)

The example of 'live music' here is distracting because in a lot of cases 'live music' shows entail a kind of socialization that only extroverts enjoy. So the aversion could have been much more complex and less likely to be solved by introspection alone had you not been so confident that it was your hand. Should we not qualify, then, that some kinds of aversions are systematic to one's personality as a whole and so less likely to be revealed by introspection?