Akrasia and Shangri-La


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Eliezer_Yudkowsky

Continuation ofThe Unfinished Mystery of the Shangri-La Diet

My post about the Shangri-La Diet is there to make a point about akrasia.  It's not just an excuse: people really are different and what works for one person sometimes doesn't work for another.

You can never be sure in the realm of the mind... but out in material foodland, I know that I was, in fact, drinking extra-light olive oil in the fashion prescribed.  There is no reason within Roberts's theory why it shouldn't have worked.

Which just means Roberts's theory is incomplete.  In the complicated mess that is the human metabolism there is something else that needs to be considered.  (My guess would be "something to do with insulin".)

But if the actions needed to implement the Shangri-La Diet weren't so simple and verifiable... if some of them took place within the mind... if it took, not a metabolic trick, but willpower to get to that amazing state where dieting comes effortlessly and you can lose 30 pounds...

Then when the Shangri-La Diet didn't work, we unfortunate exceptions would get yelled at for doing it wrong and not having enough willpower.  Roberts already seems to think that his diet ought to work for everyone; when someone says it's not working, Roberts tells them to drink more extra-light olive oil or try a slightly different variant of the diet, rather than saying, "This doesn't work for some people and I don't know why."

If the failure had occurred somewhere inside the dark recesses of my mind where it could be blamed on me, rather than within my metabolism...

If Roberts's hypothesis is correct, then I'm sure that plenty of people have made some dietary change, started losing weight due to the disrupted flavor-calorie association, and congratulated themselves on their wonderful willpower for eating less.  When I moved out of my parents' home and started eating less and exercising and losing more than a pound a week, you can bet I was congratulating myself on my amazing willpower.

Hah.  No, I just stumbled onto a metabolic pot of gold that let me lose a lot of weight using a sustainable expenditure of willpower.  When that pot of gold was exhausted, willpower ceased to avail.

(The metabolically privileged don't believe in metabolic privilege, since they are able to lose weight by trying! harder! to diet and exercise, and the diet and exercise actually work the way they're supposed to... I remember the nine-month period in my life where that was true.)

When I look at the current state of the art in fighting akrasia, I see the same sort of mess.

People try all sorts of crazy things—and as in dieting, there's secretly a general reason why any crazy thing might seem to work: if you expect to win an internal conflict, you've already programmed yourself to do the right thing because you expect that to be your action; it takes less willpower to win an internal conflict you expect to win.

And people make up all sorts of fantastic stories to explain why their tricks worked for them.

But their tricks don't work for everyone—some others report success, some don't.  The inventors do not know the deep generalizations that would tell them why and who, explain the rule and the exception.  But the stories the inventors have created to explain their own successes, naturally praise their own willpower and other virtues, and contain no element of luck... and so they exhort others:  Try harder!  You're doing it wrong!

There is a place in the mind for willpower.  Don't get me wrong, it's useful stuff.  But people who assign their successes to willpower—who congratulate themselves on their stern characters—may be a tad reluctant to appreciate just how much you can be privileged or disprivileged by having a mental metabolism where expending willpower is effective, where you can achieve encouraging results, at an acceptable cost to yourself, and sustain the effort in the long run.

 

Part of the sequence The Craft and the Community

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