Intrapersonal negotiation

by datadataeverywhere 4 min read23rd Jan 201142 comments


Related to: Akrasia as a collective action problem and Self-empathy as a source of "willpower".

The Less Wrong community has discussed negotiating with one's conflicting sub-agents as a method to defeat akrasia and other forms of dynamic inconsistency, with some mix of reactions about how possible or effective that strategy can be. This article presents a successful example in my life, though it is probably an extreme outlier for a number of reasons.

I have been diagnosed with bipolar II disorder. It is one of the most significant challenges in my life, and certainly the one with the most dire implications. I can be fairly well modeled as three major sub-agents1:

  • Neutral: asymptomatic. Attempting to control mood swings has resulted in me spending the vast majority of my time as "neutral".
  • Hypomanic: anxious and energetic. I have some trouble focusing, but can be extremely productive. I often exercise several hours a day and sleep an average of two hours a night (often six hours every three days). I've written a 70 page paper in three days, and a 12 KLOC compiler in five days.
  • Depressed: listless, and suicidal. I have serious insomnia, but stay in bed all day. I can't stand other people and would really sincerely prefer not to exist. Ironically, I can credit my inability to motivate myself to do anything with not having killed myself in this state. Sometimes I'm very emotional (crying, etc.), sometimes I'm emotionally dead.
Of course, everything I know is perceived by all three agents, but it is interpreted in vastly different ways. None is rational, but all are biased in different ways. Each agent feels that it is less biased than the others, which is key to successful negotiation, since each thinks that it's getting the better end of the bargain.
Here are desires, both conflicting and otherwise:
  1. Hypomanic loves being who he is and doing what he wants. The main difficulty of transitioning back to Neutral is unwillingness, rather than inability.
  2. Hypomanic despises Depressed, and thinks that Neutral is boring. He recognizes that staying Hypomanic for too long will likely result in a crash followed by Depressed taking over, but still wants "one more day".
  3. Depressed loathes all of us. He doesn't like the others more than himself, but is usually willing to trade knowledge and pain for ignorance and happiness. However, he's unmotivated to bother taking the steps to make that happen. Again, the difficulty in forcing a transition is not really about inability, although difficulty and self-discipline are an issue.
  4. Depressed doesn't really want to kill himself, but he's very desirous of nonexistence. 
  5. Neutral is scared of and pained by Depressed. He is wary of Hypomanic but recognizes his usefulness. He spends much more time thinking of the other two than they think of him, and actively prevents transitions to the other two, which are fairly easy to accidentally trigger otherwise.
  6. Neutral is somewhat careful for his own sake, but all are motivated by other's concern for him. The latter is the only other significant reason Depressed hasn't gone through with a suicide attempt.
Without further ado, a compromise brokered by Neutral: Depressed will not take his life, on the condition that Neutral will free Hypomanic to do more things that might kill him.
This probably sounds like it's a terrible compromise, but it's the most we could agree to. Depressed would really like us to die, but would prefer it look like an accident for the sake of our family and friends. This is actually very unlikely, but becomes most likely when Hypomanic is doing something stupid and dangerous. Neutral thinks that Depressed is overly pessimistic, and is greatly exaggerating how dangerous Hypomanic's activities are2. Hypomanic is rather fearless, and dismisses the possibility of dying on accident. Also, although this is something I'm not supposed to say, my own life isn't that important to any of my agents. An accidental death in the near future is not that bothersome to any of us, even if it's not particularly desirable to Neutral or Hypomanic3. The prospect of causing grief for those around me weighs much more heavily in my mind, and while any death will cause this, I think a suicide will have a much longer lasting impact and make a lot of people feel guilt for something that isn't their fault.
I *don't* have faith that Depressed is sincere in his agreement (he's really not), but I *do* have faith and weak evidence that the existence of this compromise is one more excuse that reduces his motivation, and will still reduce the net likelihood that I will die in the near future. Likewise, Neutral doesn't constrain Hypomanic's activities very well to begin with, but the existence of this compromise ironically makes Hypomanic more likely to have second thoughts about the dangerous things he's about to do.

Neutral feels it necessary to let Hypomanic take control more often to ensure that the compromise has weight to Depressed, but has started using Hypomanic to accomplish goals that are otherwise too exhausting to attain (a several-day code crunch or a need to meet and make a good impression on dozens of people). Meanwhile, Hypomanic has been more responsible lately in relinquishing control within days rather than weeks, partially because of these negotiations, but mostly because of other people in my life who have been conscripted to help monitor and rein me in.

I do not have a great deal of proven success with this strategy. I started doing this less than a year ago, and have not dealt with a full-blown major depressive episode since then. During that time I have also been more successful than ever at preventing myself from slipping into depression in the first place and treating early depression aggressively. In the end, that makes a much more significant difference, but on the two occasions when I became depressed enough to start feeling suicidal I was positively influenced by this agreement.

It seems unlikely that this approach will help many people with anything, but I feel like it is interesting in the debate about dynamic inconsistency, and I encourage others to find mutually-beneficial agreements they can make with themselves if they also feel like they deal with mutually incompatible agents from time to time. Also, this is my first post that is more than a link, so please be constructive.



I've never used names to refer to myself in different states, and don't think of my major sub-agents as individuals, but I felt that it was useful for didactic purposes to refer to myself in different states as different proper nouns.

2 I don't race cars, do drugs, or get in fights (except at the dojo). I do push my physical limits farther than I should (do parkour that I'm not be ready for, run 20km when I usually run 5, etc.), and I have injured myself this way, but just pulled muscles, sprains and once a broken finger.

3 I haven't heard this argument before, but this is the reason I haven't signed up for cryonics.


If it's not obvious, I was in a neutral state when I wrote this. It would have been impossible for me to do while depressed, and unlikely for me to try while hypomanic. I tried to de-bias myself, but no matter what state I'm in, I prefer my own viewpoint, and speak less highly of the others that diverge.