Where to Intervene in a Human?

"Make new mistakes" has been my New Year's Resolution for several years now. I highly recommend it (as long as it's understood to refer to social risks and not physical ones).

Where to Intervene in a Human?

by lukeprog 2 min read3rd Jul 201271 comments

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The "What is Rationality?" page on the new CFAR website contains an illuminating story about Intel:

Semiconductor giant Intel was originally a memory chip manufacturer. But by 1985, memory chips had been losing them money for years. Co-founders Andy Grove (CEO) and Gordon Moore met to discuss the problem. The mood was grim. At one point, Andy turned to Gordon and asked, “If we get kicked out and the board brings in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?”

Gordon replied without hesitation. “He would get us out of the memory business.”

“Okay,” said Andy. “Then why shouldn’t you and I walk out the door, come back, and do it ourselves?”

That year, Andy and Gordon shifted the focus of the company to microprocessors, and created one of the greatest success stories in American business.

I presume Andy and Gordon had considered intervening at many different levels of action: in middle management, in projects, in products, in details, etc. They had probably implemented some of these plans, too. But the problem with Intel — it was in the wrong market! — was so deep that the place to intervene was at a very low level, the foundations of the entire company. It's possible that in this situation, no change they could have made at higher levels of action would have made that big of a difference compared to changing the company's market and mission.

In 1997, system analyst Donella Meadows wrote Places to Intervene in a System, in which she outlined twelve leverage points at which one could intervene in a system. Different levels of action, she claimed, would have effects of different magnitudes.

This got me thinking about levels of action and self-improvement. "I want to improve myself: where should I intervene in my own system next?"

My bet is that if the next greatest leverage point you can push on is something like neurofeedback, then you're pretty damn self-optimized already.

In fact, I suspect almost nobody is that self-optimized. We do things like neurofeedback because (1) we don't think enough about choosing the highest-leverage self-interventions, (2) in any case, we don't know how to figure out which interventions would be higher leverage for ourselves, (3) even if there are higher-leverage interventions to be had, we might not successfully carry them through, but neurofeedback or whatever happens to be fun and engaging for us, and (3) sometimes, you gotta stop analyzing your situation and just do some stuff that looks like it might help.

Anyway, how can one figure out what the next highest-leverage self-interventions are for oneself? Maybe I just haven't yet found the right keywords, but I don't think there's been much research on this topic.

Intuitively, it seems like hacking one's motivational system is among the highest leverage interventions one can make, because high motivation allows on to carry through with lots of other interventions, and without sufficient motivation one can't follow through with many interventions.

But if you've got a crippling emotional or physical condition, I suppose you've got to take care of that first — at least well enough to embark on the project of hacking your motivation system.

Or, if you're in a crippling environment like North Korea or Nigeria or Detroit, then perhaps the highest level intervention for you is to get up and move someplace better. Only then will you be able to fix your emotions or hack your motivational system or whatever.

Maybe there's something of a system to this that hasn't been discovered, or maybe there's no system at all because humans are too complex. I'm still in brainstorm mode on this topic.

  • What do you think are some generally highest-level self-improvement interventions that more people should be tackling before things like neurofeedback?
  • What algorithm could be used for discovering the next best intervention one can make to improve oneself?
  • Has there been any research on this issue?

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