[Instrumental Rationality Sequence 5/7]
[This Interlude once again goes over two additional ideas that are separate from the well-researched stuff: There Is No Akrasia and Recovering from Failure. The first endorses a reductionist, specific view towards tackling akrasia, while the second is about having a policy of self-care when you inevitably fail at your endeavors.]
There Is No Akrasia:
[This essay is about how the term “akrasia” isn’t too useful. I argue against using any sort of general label for the feeling of “anti-wantiness”, i.e. when you don’t want to do something. Instead, I push for a reductionist approach to look at the problem.]
“Akrasia” is a term often used to mean “weakness of will”, aka the intention-action gap we covered in Scaling Up in Instrumental Rationality 4.2. It’s when you somehow “want” to do something, yet you still don’t actually do it.
I also think it's an idea that incurs potentially major costs when you hold it in your bag of mental models. I claim that:
Akrasia is often treated as a “thing” by people who learn about it, and this can lead to problems, even though akrasia a sorta-coherent concept.
If we want to move forward and solve the problems that fall under the akrasia-umbrella, it’s better to Taboo the term akrasia altogether and instead employ a more reductionist approach that favors specificity
First off, I do think that akrasia is a term that resonates with a lot of people. When I’ve described this concept to friends, they’ve all had varying degrees of reactions along the lines of “Aha! This term perfectly encapsulates something I feel!”
It does seem, then, that this concept of “want-want versus want” or “being unable to do what you ‘want’ to do” seems to point at a real group of things in the world, at least from a perception standpoint.
However, I think that this might have inadvertent problems.
Once people learn the term akrasia and what it represents, they can now pattern-match it to their own associated experiences. I think that, once you’ve reified akrasia, i.e. turned it into a “thing” inside your worldview, problems can occur.
First off, treating akrasia as a real thing gives it additional weight and power over you:
When you start to notice the patterns, you can start see akrasia everywhere, even in places where it might not be immediately useful. One example is when people may try less hard because they suddenly realize they’re in the grip of this terrible monster called Akrasia, which seems so big and scary.
I think this sort of worldview ends up reinforcing some unhelpful attitudes towards solving the problems akrasia represents. As an example, here are two paraphrased things I’ve overheard about akrasia which I think illustrate this.
“Akrasia has mutant healing powers…Thus you can’t fight it, you can only keep switching tactics for a time until they stop working…”
“I have massive akrasia…so if you could just give me some more high-powered tools to defeat it, that’d be great…”
Both of these quotes seem to have taken the akrasia idea a little too far.
As I’ll later argue, “akrasia” seems to be dealt with better when you see the problem as a collection of more isolated disparate failures of different parts of your ability to get things done, rather than as an umbrella term.
I think that the current akrasia framing actually makes the problem more intractable.
I see potential failure modes where people end up using it as an excuse (perhaps not an explicit belief, but as an implicit one) that impacts their ability to do work. Akrasia is one of those things that can feel like an explanation in the same way that genetics can; it can feel like something that you can't fight against. And part of this feels like it could be due to a self-fulfilling attitude.
Just giving people the ability to recognize the bigger pattern and saying, “Hey, all these pieces represent a Thing called akrasia that’s hard to defeat,” could be bad. Having new things in your world model can harm you.
How can we make the akrasia problem more tractable, then?
I claimed earlier that akrasia does seem to be a real thing, as it seems to be relatable to many people.
I think this may actually because akrasia maps onto too many things. It’s an umbrella term for lots of different problems in motivation and efficacy that could be quite disparate problems. The typical akrasia framing lumps problems like temporal discounting with motivation problems like internal disagreements or ugh fields, and more.
Those are all very different problems with very different-looking solutions!.
In the above quotes about akrasia, I think that they’re an example of having mixed up the class with its members. Instead of treating akrasia as an abstraction that unifies a class of self-imposed problems that share the property of acting as obstacles towards our goals, we treat it as a problem onto itself.
Saying you want to “solve akrasia” makes about as much sense as directly asking for ways to “solve cognitive bias”. Clearly, cognitive biases are merely a class for a wide range of errors our brains make in our thinking. The exercises you’d go through to solve overconfidence look very different than the ones you might use to solve scope neglect, for example.
Under this framing, I think we can be less surprised when there is no direct solution to fighting akrasia—because there isn’t one.
I think the solution here is to be specific about the problem you are currently facing.
Once again, we’re back to explication from Act Into Uncertainty from Interlude I.
It’s easy to just say you “have akrasia” and feel the smooth comfort of a catch-all term that doesn’t provide much in the way of insight. It’s another thing to go deep into your ugly problem and actually, honestly say what the problem is.
The important thing here is to identify which subset of the huge akrasia-umbrella your individual problem falls under and try to solve that specific thing instead of throwing generalized “anti-akrasia” weapons at it.
Is your problem one of remembering to do the thing? Then perhaps set up a reminder system. Maybe try out a TAP that works with your routine.
Is your problem one of hyperbolic discounting, i.e. of favoring short-term gains? Then figure out a way to recalibrate the way you weigh outcomes. Maybe look into precommitting to certain courses of action.
Is your problem one of insufficient motivation to pursue things in the first place? Then look into why you care in the first place. If it turns out you really don’t care, then don’t worry about it. Else, find ways to source more motivation.
The basic (and obvious!) technique I propose, then, looks like:
Identify the akratic thing.
Figure out what’s happening when this thing happens. Break it down into moving parts and how you’re reacting to the situation.
Think of ways to solve those individual parts.
Try solving them. See what happens
Potential questions to be asking yourself throughout this process include:
What is causing your problem?
EX: Do you have the desire but just aren’t remembering? Are you lacking motivation?
How does this problem feel?
EX: What parts of yourself is your current approach doing a good job of satisfying? Which parts are not being satisfied?
Is this really a problem?
EX: Do you actually want to do better? How realistic would it be to see the improvements you’re expecting? How much better do you think could be doing?
You’re basically just applying reductionism to the problem at hand.
Here’s an example of how I worked through one instance of this:
“I suffer from akrasia.
More specifically, though, I suffer from a problem where I end up not actually having planned things out in advance.
This leads me to do things like browse the internet without having a concrete plan of what I’d like to do next. In some ways, this feels good because I actually like having the novelty of a little unpredictability in life.
However, at the end of the day when I’m looking back at what I’ve done, I have a lot of regret over having not taken key opportunities to actually act on my goals.
So it looks like I do care (or meta-care) about the things I do everyday, but, in the moment, it can be hard to remember.”
Now that I’ve far more clearly laid out the problem above, it seems easier to see that the problem I need to deal with is a combination of:
Reminding myself the stuff I would like to do (maybe via a schedule or to-do list).
Finding a way to shift my in-the-moment preferences a little more towards the things I’ve laid out (perhaps with a break that allows for some meditation).
I think that once you apply a reductionist viewpoint and specifically say exactly what it is that is causing your problems, the problem is already half-solved. (Having well-specified problems seems to be half the battle.)
A better framing, then, might be one where there is no akrasia.
There's only situations that have yet to be unpacked and understood.
Recovering from Failure:
[Thoughts on how to recover from failing yourself. Assumes your feelings are well-intentioned and takes a self-care approach to understand exactly why things are happening.]
I recently broke a commitment I made to myself. Needless to say, this also wasn’t the first time. Yet, after I broke my promise to myself, there was a general feeling of deflation as I realized I’d failed myself once more. This feeling was accompanied by a vicious cycle of a downward spiral of negative emotions.
Here, we'll be endorsing a general policy of being more understanding with yourself when you inevitably fail, in a way that hopefully bypasses a lot of the snowballing negativity.
My broken promises most often happens in cases of time-inconsistent preferences, where the internal weighing of short-term and long-term rewards gets messed up such that I could want something "now" but also regret it later on.
For example, say that I’ve decided to avoid playing video games because I know it leads to unhealthy reward associations in my brain. But some part of me craves the gaming experience.
So one day, I end up violating my self-imposed injunction and play a bunch of matches. At the end of this, I may say, “Never again! I made this mistake again, and I’m terrible for doing so, but I won’t do it again!”
And of course I'll probably later on go and do it again.
Clearly, then, there’s an important conversation to be had about why I found myself violating the commitment. Perhaps it’d be good to have an in-depth examination to which one of my needs are being satisfied when I break a promise to myself.
There's also another, thing, though, before all that happens, on a level higher up, about a conversation to be had about being able to both take failure in stride and have a philosophy for trying to minimize future “self-failures”.
Thus there’s two things happening here:
Making sure I don’t fall into a negative spiral following a self-failure.
Figuring out how to solve time inconsistency problems in the future.
A good start for the first thing is figuring out what sort of response pattern would be most conducive to moving forward. So here's a bit of an emotionally charged mantra-of-sorts for your System when you do feel yourself sinking into a spiral:
First off, look at the whole of things. Unless you’re consistently breaking commitments, it will be the case that, more often than not, you’re doing the right thing. You’re not trying to have a perfect streak; you’re trying to maximize your total impact, over time. A single failure in this point in time is not a signal to fail with abandon.
When you’re playing the long game, nothing matters except moving forward and improving your ability to keep doing things.
If anything, failures are to be expected. You should anticipate messing up because it’s ridiculously unlikely you can maintain a perfect streak forever. Still, that’s not a reason to try and less hard.
You can both say, “I was very sure this would happen because base rates said they would and I can't be extraordinary all the time,” and also say, “I am going to take this in stride and continue improving.”
Take the initial sucker punch of negativity, and end the spiral right here. If you have a well-developed response to failure, there’s no reason to let these negative emotions overwhelm you. The dark feeling of self-loathing is merely a preset function your body comes with that attempts to put you in a better position. If you have a better response than your body’s default, then bypass your defaults.
Skip to the end of your negative emotion cycle
But also don’t lie to yourself. You can’t just pretend that your self-failure didn’t happen—something somewhere isn't being fulfilled. The truth is important. Look at the stain and know that you will see many more stains in the future, and this is what it is.
You don’t have to accept it, but you do need to acknowledge it.
Humans are inconsistent. You are inconsistent. We don’t yet have the ability to make binding commitments. If we’re inconsistent, we can hold commitments and yet break them. But we can also break commitments and yet strive to do better.
Once you’re suitably oriented and strengthened, we move to the question of rebuilding a broken promise to ourselves. We’re looking to see what happened to go wrong to try and patch 2.
I think a crucial part of starting this process this is knowing when you’re lying to yourself.
Back to the video game example, imagine that I think to myself, “Man, how great would it be to play a few matches today?” I could then say things like, “Nah, that’s not a good idea, let’s study some machine learning instead.”
But even as I list out those alternatives, I can feel myself already drawn to the video game idea.
Then what actually happens is that I realize I had absolutely no intention to study machine learning in the first place. I already knew that I was going to play some video games, and the other alternatives were generated halfheartedly.
That’s what I mean by lying to yourself.
By the time you violate your own commitments, the internal shift to violate them has already happened somewhere earlier along the line.
You’ve already made your decision to break the promise.
Any number of metacognitive safeguards might flare up—like that nagging voice that asks, “Hey, but didn’t we just agree not to fall for temptation last time?”—but they’ll be useless.
In effect, what’s happening is that you’re already determining the bottom line. If you already made your decision internally, then any attempt to figure out “alternatives” is just paying mere lip service to the idea that you “have yet to make up your mind”.
One important skill, then, is being able to examine where this shift happens.
If you can notice the trigger where you make the true, internal decision (and begin to lie to yourself, pretending that you are still neutral), then you’ve identified a key step to intervene.
This is in line with the bigger idea of figuring out why you broke your own commitment, as I mentioned earlier. This means probing into your own thoughts and being honest with yourself.
Questions to ask yourself, then, might be with regards to:
Prior to the breaking:
1. What physical and mental states lead to my thinking about the commitment in general?
2. Under what circumstances do I feel such a compulsion to violate my commitments?
Moments before breaking:
1. What are the direct thoughts that lead to my breaking?
2. Are there any stories / narratives I tell myself when I consider breaking?
The actual breaking:
1. What parts of me are being fulfilled when I do break a commitment?
2. What feels good about breaking the commitment?
3. What might my desire to break such a commitment mean about what I want / need?
After the above, you want to ask questions with regards to:
1. What goes right when I manage to think about breaking a commitment and yet don’t?
2. What other actions could satisfy myself in the same way that breaking my commitment does?
As an example, here are some of my answers to some of the above questions:
Q) Under what circumstances do I feel such a compulsion to violate my commitments?
A) Often, it’s when I just finished something large, and I feel like celebrating / relaxing. There's a rush of happiness, something like, "Yay! We just did something Hard! Now we deserve a break!"
Otherwise, it’s when I feel bored / have nothing to do. Then, it slowly pops into my mind as an option. And at other times, it’s when I feel tired and want something that’s not very demanding.
Q) Are there any stories / narratives I tell myself when I consider breaking?
A) Yes. I’ll often tell myself that I won’t break the commitment all the way. Or, I’ll focus on how tempting it feels to fail with abandon (there, I said it! failing with abandon is a seductive option!) and part of my brain uses the strong emotional affect associated with the fantasy to overpower the other sides.
Q) What might my desire to break such a commitment mean about what I want / need?
A) I want a way to relax sometimes. It’s also about finding good breaks, of course, but part of this is that sometimes I really do want to have some good ways of relaxing…but maybe that says something about what sort of person I am? Maybe I want to work on changing how I see breaks?
Once you’ve got a feel for which things are affecting your decision to break the commitment to yourself, you can make a plan of attack on making a more robust self-commitment system.
Two skills that I’ve found to work well after having gone through the above are that of Generating Good Alternatives and Metacognitive Affordances.
Generating Good Alternatives:
If you feel the temptation to break a commitment and then pay lip service to generating other choices, you’re obviously lying to yourself—you’ve already determined the bottom line without doing any real reasoning.
But now that you’ve got a more clear understanding of yourself in relation to your desires and commitments, you can hopefully start to actually take different choices.
By taking a more judgment-free attitude to your actions, when faced with the impetus to break your commitment, you can respond by actually suspending a decision for the time being. You can look to see what needs your body has and how different actions can satisfy them.
The skill of Generating Good Alternatives is to use this improved self-knowledge to fuel an improved search through the space of possible actions you can take. You do this such that you can actually find novel actions that both satisfy your hidden need and don’t compromise your values and commitments.
As an example, instead of seeing a desire to play video games as something about your inherent preferences, you can see it as your body trying to cash out some sort of need.
My internal dialogue might look like, “Hey, I notice I want to play video games. I wonder that this is a symptom of? I recall that I often feel like this when I need to take some time to just cool off…”
From there, I can try to feel out different actions which might also satisfy the need in a better way.
Your metacognition is that awareness you have inside your head that reacts to your thoughts. It’s the part of your brain about your brain.
Often, my metacognitive safeguards, as I wrote above, will not work. They will flare and sound the alarm saying, “Alert! You are doing a Bad Thing! This will not pan well for your mind!”.
Of course, I don’t really listen that much to it.
Something that has helped me here is having the knowledge that following my metacognition is available to me. There’s some sort of weird self-fulfilling prophecy happening here where if I know that my metacognition will work, this leads me to expect that it will, such that when it actually fires, I'll actually find it useful.
It’s sort of like a meta-metacognitive awareness. I know that paying attention to my thoughts should work. Thus, then my internal safeguards now flare up, I feel the wordless impulse and think “Ah, yes! This thing! It works and is useful!”
You want to think of your metacognition as more of a lever that is available to you. It’s about making metacognition more of an affordance.
With regards to self-promises, I don’t think this resolve everything. I myself still have trouble; this isn’t a cure-all. But I do think that it’s an important key part of self-care and moving forward. The shift and reorientation feels like a key step, and I hope the ritual, question, and techniques help with the overall process.