Optimize Your Settings

by katydee4 min read29th Jul 201317 comments


Personal Blog

Related to: The Good News of Situationist Psychology

Perhaps the most significant teaching social psychology has to offer is that most of our behaviors are determined by situational factors inherent to our settings, not by our personal qualities.[1]

Some consider this depressing-- for instance, the Milgram experiments in obedience to authority and Stanford prison experiment are often cited as examples of how settings can cause otherwise-good people to participate in and even support unethical and dangerous behavior. However, as lukeprog points out in The Good News of Situationist Psychology, this principle can also be considered uplifting. After all, if our settings have such an effect on our behavior, they are thus a powerful tool that we can employ to make ourselves more effective.[2]


Changing Your Physical Settings

One relatively easy place to start making such changes is in your personal life. I have found that great productivity increases can be gained through relatively minor changes in lifestyle-- or even seemingly-trivial matters such as the position of physical (or sometimes digital) objects in your environment!

For instance, I recently noticed a tendency in myself to "wake up" and then waste the next twenty or thirty minutes aimlessly browsing the Internet on my laptop in bed before actually getting up and eating breakfast, showering, going to work, etc. Since I value time, especially morning time, substantially, I decided that action should be taken to avoid this.

At first, I figured that once I had noticed the problem I could simply apply willpower and avoid it, but this proved less than effective-- it turns out that my willpower is not at its strongest when I first wake up and am still a little groggy![3] I then decided to apply the principles of situational psychology to the situation. The most obvious setting contributing to the problem was that I was using an alarm app on my computer to wake up in the morning, and turning off this alarm caused me to interact with the computer.

So I picked up an IKEA alarm clock, turned off my alarm app, and moved my computer to the kitchen instead of my room-- problem solved. In my new settings, browsing in bed was outright ridiculous-- I'd have to wake up, go downstairs to the kitchen, pick up my computer, and bring it back up to my room with me. Not a likely course of events!


Changing Your Mental Settings

While physical environments can certainly produce changes in behavior,[4] social and intellectual environments can too.

For instance, one of my friends from undergrad took an interesting approach when choosing what major to take. He knew that he wanted a solid private-sector income that would allow him to support a family, but didn't particularly care what field it was in. Overall, he wanted to ensure that whatever major he chose would have the highest possible chance of getting him a good job without unusual effort or circumstances.

Therefore, during winter term of his sophomore year, prior to declaring, he went around to all the seniors he could get to talk to him and asked them what their major was, what they were doing post-graduation, and how much money they anticipated making. He found that the CS majors tended to have more private-sector job prospects and higher average starting salaries than students in other fields, so he decided to declare a CS major.[5]

While I don't think my friend's approach is necessarily the best possible option for determining what to do with your life, it certainly beats the sort of unstructured guessing that I've seen many others do. By considering academic majors as settings and examining what setting produced the best result on average, my friend managed to find a field and career that he's by all indications quite happy in-- and with a minimal amount of risk and stress involved.



Human psychology is greatly influenced by situational factors, and in more ways than a naive reasoner might expect. If you're looking to improve your life across any particular axis, one good way to start is by examining your current physical, social, and intellectual settings and paying close attention to how changes in those settings might help accomplish your goals.


[1] If you don't believe that this is true, I advise simulating that you do and going on anyway. I find this method effective enough for me and others and easy enough to implement that it seems well worth testing, even if you don't fully believe in the claims behind it. At worst, it might become a potential epistemic/instrumental tradeoff.

[2] See for instance Joseph Heath and Joel Anderson, Procrastination and the Extended Will (2009).

[3] In the course of researching and writing this post, I encountered some objections to the resource expenditure theory of willpower (many of which have already been summarized here by Jess_Riedel). I believe my beliefs regarding willpower loss while tired/just awakening may be limiting in the same sense that believing willpower is a limited resource appears limiting, but have yet to test at the time of this writing.

[4] If you're interested in seeing other examples of ways in which we can structure the physical objects around us in order to become more productive, you may wish to check out Alicorn's How to Have Things Correctly and fowlertm's related How to Have Space Correctly. Several of Alyssa Vance's Random Life Tips also relate to this matter.

[5] The friend in question is now employed as a software engineer at a tech company and by all indications loves his job. Note though that this post isn't saying "you should be a CS major." Things change over time, and what was a good choice for one person and one time may not be a good choice for another person or another time.


16 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 1:01 PM
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Completely agree. For example, if you're feeling suicidal, please don't kill yourself at least until you have moved to another country.

Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, just surrounding yourself with assholes.

William Gibson

I'm actually doing this. I don't feel suicidal (never would) but I do feel that people around me were so different that if I stay here, my Self will implode socially.

A suggestion for people who are at the point where moving seems like a decent alternative: In OKCupid, the match-making website, there is a long set of questions you can respond about yourself. If you fill those up (say 90 out of hundreds) you can ask the algorithm to find people who are high matches to you as Friend, and high matches to your romantically (correlated but distinct measurements).

If you ask the match making algorithm for those who are similar everywhere, you'll see where you may fit in better. The vast majority of people that show 90% or more correlation with me are concentrated in 2 areas of the world, New York city and California (SF Bay in particular), this is one of the indicators I choose for where I'll try to live.

The vast majority of people that show 90% or more correlation with me are concentrated in 2 areas of the world, New York city and California (SF Bay in particular), this is one of the indicators I choose for where I'll try to live.

Maybe you checked, but is it possible that the vast majority of OK Cupid users overall are in SF or NYC? This wouldn't surprise me at all.

Had not checked. Easier way to check was to look for my enemies. (there is an enemy match) Seems that I'll have a bad bad time in Greece, India, Southeast Asia, Florida and all those american states that when you are from outside the USA, you have no idea where they are.

I do have enemies in California, so I'm guessing Cali does indeed have many cupid people. None of them is the Bay Area though.

The vast majority of people that show 90% or more correlation with me are concentrated in 2 areas of the world, New York city and California (SF Bay in particular)

I tried the same experiment and got the same results, modulo London. That seemed odd to me, so I punched in a couple of smaller cities where I've met reasonably interesting people and asked for match results back. Sure enough, it returned a few screens of 90+% matches in both cases -- comparable to the "everywhere" results, in fact.

Although I don't feel like putting enough effort into this to figure out exactly what's going on, it seems clear that the "everywhere" query isn't searching the entire database. I'm located in the SF Bay Area, so I'm guessing local results are overrepresented in what I'm getting back; it seems excessively convenient that I'd just happen to be living in my best possible social scene. NY and London are both among the largest English-speaking cities, though, so not much surprise there.

If I'm right, it'd be hard to use these results to gauge social compatibility unless you could correct for the missing matches. If it's dropping some geographically or demographically asymmetrical subset of possible matches, it might not be possible at all.

[-][anonymous]8y 3

NY and London are both among the largest Engish-speaking cities, though, so not much surprise there.

Related xkcd comic

A quick note: there are a good number of LWers in SFbay and NYC. I am guessing that OKC would match you closely with them (especially as there are a whole-frakkin-lot of questions about "spirituality" and the "supernatural" -- I am guessing that many LWers would mark their answers to these questions as high-importance, also.) So having lots of 90+% may mean that there is a small sub-community that you might get along well with while not being super indicative of the flavor of the city/region as a whole.

Actually I don't respond most spirituality questions in OKcupid, only those that deal with absolutely impossible to accept levels of stupidity (anti-evolution).

If I did, I would only get really bad matches in Brazil, since most women here are spiritual, religious etc... This is a country where you can't afford to select for atheism if you want to select for other awesome traits. (See why am I leaving?)

Does OKCupid let you weight the importance/willingness to change these factors? If so, it seems like it could potentially be an extremely useful tool for finding optimal places to live.

This seems a bit too generalized. Certainly any situational/physical adjustment which allows one to achieve the same results with less willpower is a good idea. Like not having any ice cream in the house or using the Cold Turkey app on one's laptop. But I am not sure what you mean by "mental settings". Asking people around seems pretty situational. Do you have any other examples of mental settings?

How about intentionally surrounding yourself with people who are excited about the thing you want to be excited about?

While this is a good idea, it may not always be practical. Many other factors go into setting which people surround you.

Your identity (though be wary), what types of people you interact with, what types of media you consume, etc. Not all of these are necessarily usable for any specific case-- I believe the principle and mindset is more important than the specific levers you use to change your settings.

By coincidence, I'm listening to a self-help program by Eben Pagan (the former David DeAngelo from the PUA community) entirely based on the idea of situational adjustment, called "the seed of success". Quite interesting, I'll see if there's anything relevant to post here.

You probably think you're getting downvoted because the people here are sheeple who can't cope with any challenge to their belief system. Actually, I'm afraid, you're getting downvoted because you're being obnoxious without saying anything interesting enough to outweigh the obnoxiousness.