Pain and gain motivation

Note: this post is basically just summarizing some of PJ Eby's freely available writings on the topic of pain/gain motivation and presenting them in a form that's easier for the LW crowd to digest. I claim no credit for the ideas presented here, other than the credit for summarizing them.

EDIT: Note also Eby's comments and corrections to my summary at this comment.

Eby proposes that we have two different forms of motivation: positive ("gain") motivation, which drives us to do things, and negative ("pain") motivation, which drives us to avoid things. Negative motivation is a major source of akrasia and is mostly harmful for getting anything done. However, sufficiently large amounts of negative motivation can momentarily push us to do things, which frequently causes people to confuse the two.

To understand the function of negative motivation, first consider the example of having climbed to a tree to avoid a predator. There's not much you can do other than wait and hope the predator goes away, and if you move around, you risk falling out of the tree. So your brain gets flooded with signals that suppress activity and tell it to keep your body still. It is only if the predator ends up climbing up the tree that the danger becomes so acute that you're instead pushed to flee.

What does this have to do with modern-day akrasia? Back in the tribal environment, elicting the disfavor of the tribe could be a death sentence. Be cast out by the tribe, and you likely wouldn't live for long. One way to elict disfavor is to be unmasked as incompetent in some important matter, and a way to avoid such an unmasking is to simply avoid doing anything where to consequences of failure would be severe.

You might see why this would cause problems. Sometimes, when the pain level of not having done a task grows too high - like just before a deadline - it'll push you to do it. But this fools people into thinking that negative consequences alone will be a motivator, so they try to psyche themselves up by thinking about how bad it would be to fail. In truth, this is only making things worse, as an increased chance of failure will increase the negative motivation that's going on.

Negative motivation is also a reason why we might discover a productivity or self-help technique, find it useful, and then after a few successful tries stop using it - seemingly for no reason. Eby uses the terms "naturally motivated person" and "naturally struggling person" to refer to people that are more driven by positive motivation and more driven by negative motivation, respectively. For naturally struggling people, the main motivation for behavior is the need to get away from bad things. If you give them a productivity or self-help technique, they might apply it to get rid of their largest problems... and then, when the biggest source of pain is gone, they momentarily don't have anything major to flee from, so they lose their motivation to apply the technique. To keep using the technique, they'd need to have positive motivation that'd make them want to do things instead of just not wanting to do things.

In contrast to negative motivation, positive motivation is basically just doing things because you find them fun. Watching movies, playing video games, whatever. When you're in a state of positive motivation, you're trying to gain things, obtain new resources or experiences. You're entirely focused on the gain, instead of the pain. If you're playing a video game, you know that no matter how badly you lose in the game, the negative consequences are all contained in the game and don't reach to the real world. That helps your brain stay in gain mode. But if a survival override kicks in, the negative motivation will overwhelm the positive and take away much of the pleasure involved. This is a likely reason for why a hobby can stop being fun once you're doing it for a living - it stops being a simple "gain" activity with no negative consequences even if you fail, and instead becomes mixed with "pain" signals.

And now, if you’re up the tree and the tiger is down there waiting for you, does it make sense for you to start looking for a better spot to sit in… Where you’ll get better sunshine or shade or where there’s, oh, there’s some fruit over there? Should you be seeking to gain in that particular moment?

Hell no! Right? Because you don’t want to take a risk of falling or getting into a spot where the tiger can jump up and get you or anything like that. Your brain wants you to sit tight, stay put, shut up, don’t rock the boat… until the crisis is over. It wants you to sit tight. That’s the “pain brain”.

In the “pain brain” mode… this, by the way, is the main reason why people procrastinate, this is the fundamental reason why people put off doing things… because once your brain has one of these crisis overrides it will go, “Okay conserve energy: don’t do anything.”

-- PJ Eby, "Why Can't I Change?"

So how come some important situations don't push us into a state of negative motivation, even though failure might have disastrous consequences? "Naturally motivated" people rarely stop to think about the bad consequences of whatever they're doing, being too focused on what they have to gain. If they meet setbacks, they'll bounce back much faster than "naturally struggling" people. What causes the difference?

Part of the difference is probably inborn brain chemistry. Another major part, though, is your previous experiences. The emotional systems driving our behavior don't ultimately do very complex reasoning. Much of what they do is simply cache lookups. Does this experience resemble one that led to negative consequences in the past? Activate survival overrides! Since negative motivation will suppress positive motivation, it can be easier to end up in a negative state than a positive one. Furthermore, the experiences we have also shape our thought processes in general. If, early on in your life, you do things in "gain" mode that end up having traumatic consequences, you learn to avoid the "gain" mode in general. You become a "naturally struggling" person, one who will view everything through a pessimistic lens, and expect failure in every turn. You literally only perceive the bad sides in everything. A "naturally motivated" person, on the other hand, will primarily only perceive the good sides. (Needless to say, these are the endpoints in a spectrum, so it's not like you're either 100% struggling or 100% successful.)

Another of Eby's theses is that negative motivation is, for the most part, impossible to overcome via willpower. Consider the function of negative motivation as a global signal that prevents us from doing things that seem too dangerous. If we could just use willpower to override the signal at any time, that would result in a lot of people being eaten by predators and being cast out of the tribe. In order to work, a drive that blocks behavior needs to actually consistently block behavior. Therefore attempts to overcome procrastination or akrasia via willpower expenditure are fundamentally misguided. We should instead be trying to remove whatever negative motivation it is that holds us back, for otherwise we are not addressing the real root of the problem. On the other hand, if we succeed in removing the negative motivation and replacing it with positive motivation, we can make any experience as fun and enjoyable as playing a video game. (If you haven't already, do check out Eby's Instant Irresistible Motivation video for learning how to create positive motivation.)

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For naturally struggling people, the main motivation for behavior is the need to get away from bad things. If you give them a productivity or self-help technique, they might apply it to get rid of their largest problems... and then, when the biggest source of pain is gone, they momentarily don't have anything major to flee from, so they lose their motivation to apply the technique. To keep using the technique, they'd need to have positive motivation that'd make them want to do things instead of just not wanting to do things.

This is actually only one of three things that stop naturally struggling people from successfully applying self-help techniques on an ongoing basis.

The first of the other two is simply that, if you're trying to use a self-help technique in order to get away from something, then you are simply perpetuating the negative motivation, so you're still in an essentially struggling state. (I was stuck like that for years.)

Explaining the second requires an explanation about the "mental muscles" concept, but to save time I'll just give a cross-reference and an example. A mental muscle is essentially my term for Marvin Minsky's concept of a brain "resource" (described in his book, "The Emotion Machine"). Examples of mental muscles might be, "explaining how things work" or "figuring out the right answer". In other words, a mental muscle is the brain circuitry that implements a kind of thinking strategy.

Anyway, naturally struggling people tend to favor certain of these patterns at the expense of others, or use them in counterproductive ways. For example, people who spent most of their lives being rewarded for figuring out right answers, and punished for doing things they "don't know how to do yet", will have difficulty applying self-help techniques because they will not want to proceed until they know enough.

However, a fundamental requirement of both positively-motivating techniques and techniques for fixing negative motivations, is that they require you to be curious, and ask yourself questions to which you do not currently know the answer (at least consciously). This can be supremely unsettling to a person who's terrified of not-knowing.

In the “pain brain” mode… this, by the way, is the main reason why people procrastinate, this is the fundamental reason why people put off doing things… because once your brain has one of these crisis overrides it will go, “Okay conserve energy: don’t do anything.”

This was my thinking circa 2008 or so; I have a more refined model of akrasia in general now.

So I would qualify the above quote now by saying that chronic procrastination is almost always the result of a perceived SASS threat (another concept I didn't have yet in '08) associated with the procrastinated task or its outcome. That is, in rough order of frequency:

  • A threat associated with failure to complete the task in some way
  • A threat associated with successful completion of the task
  • A threat associated with the task itself

This may be influenced by selection bias, since people tend to self-select out of the third category before they can become my clients. Either you figure it out pretty easily, or you just avoid getting into situations where you'll have that kind of task. (For example, if you're terrified of initiating conversation with strangers, you probably won't look for a job in door-to-door sales.)

By "SASS threat", btw, I mean specifically that your brain is predicting a situation that it expects to cause a reduction in Status, Affiliation, Safety, or Stimulation below your learned-safe reference levels.

Most of these threat predictions are completely bogus in the modern world, and in any case tend to be based on generalizations from childhood that might be bogus even in the ancestral environment. (The brain prefers to err on the side of safety, though.) They can be cleared up by relatively simple self-reflective techniques to get the emotional brain to notice that they're bogus. (Our brains don't have automatic garbage collection, so they don't re-verify beliefs onece learned, unless it happens situationally. Through reflection, you can easily cause yourself to update, though.)

Another of Eby's theses is that negative motivation is, for the most part, impossible to overcome via willpower.... Therefore attempts to overcome procrastination or akrasia via willpower expenditure are fundamentally misguided.

It would probably be more accurate to say that willpower is negative motivation, or at any rate, a correlate of it. If you are using (what most people call) willpower on an ongoing basis, this is prima facie evidence that you are already being negatively motivated in that moment.

Positive motivation isn't willpower - you just do something you want. And if you didn't have any motivation, you wouldn't be motivated to use willpower, either! Ergo, if you're using willpower, you're responding to a perceived threat, even if you consciously dress it in more socially-acceptable terminology.

For example, instead of "I'm afraid my parents will yell at me or throw me out", our social "far" brain will say, "I want to be a better student and get good grades". And instead of, "I'm afraid people won't like me because I'm an ugly fat loser", it says, "I want to get fit."

This means it's critical to separate these self-deceiving positive spins from your actual threat-based motivation, in order to actually switch off the negative motivation.

In contrast to negative motivation, positive motivation is basically just doing things because you find them fun. Watching movies, playing video games, whatever.

Um, no. Fun is fun. Motivation is the desire to have something good. If I'm hungry, anticipating cooking a nice meal, thinking, "oooh.... I can almost taste it now...", THAT's positive motivation. I may or may not have "fun" making the meal, but I will be positively motivated throughout.

That's an important distinction -- you can easily be positively motivated in the absence of any fun whatsoever.

(Needless to say, these are the endpoints in a spectrum, so it's not like you're either 100% struggling or 100% successful.)

One other refinement I've made since 2008 is that the concept of mental muscles makes it easier to see that being struggling or motivated is a function of which thought processes you're using at a given point in time. At one point, I was under the mistaken belief that there was some sort of switch that got flipped to move you from one to the other, or something to turn on or off semi-permanently.

Now, though, I realize that some of the thinking processes involved in "struggling" are useful in some contexts and not in others. It's a matter of learning which mental muscles are situationally appropriate, and using the ones that help, while relaxing the ones that don't. For example, "finding flaws in advance" is a useful strategy if you have to pass a test or build a bridge -- it's not so useful if your goal is to, say, learn to play a musical instrument, where your flaws can't be known until after you begin making attempts.

So, I now consider "naturally struggling" to simply mean "habitually using the wrong mental muscles for the job at hand, creating self-defeating results".

I love that you point out that we drastically overestimate threats to our safety (and probably status/affiliation). I've often had to call myself, and friends, on exactly that.

Thanks - I edited the OP with a link to this list of corrections.

Thanks! It might also be nice if your article called itself a summary of some of my freely available writings on the topic of pain/gain motivation.

I wouldn't want to hurt my Status by appearing to only have this tiny handful of things to say. ;-)

I can't conceive that anyone familiar with your contributions on this site would think that you only have a tiny handful of things to say. ;-)

:D Fair enough, edited.

So did you think it was a good summary otherwise?

Within that scope, yes. If I had any other issues with it, I wouldn't have been too shy to say so. ;-)

I'm curious about this concern. You don't seem particularly high-status here. You actually seem (at least to me) to have lower status than the average contributor. Are you really concerned about such matters?

Since he uses this material in his business, the results of which are his livelihood, his marketable image is highly important, yes, and this article can show up when potential clients search for his name or materials, making it something he has to protect and correct to the best of his ability.

If a larger business had had their materials similarly summarized, I would have anticipated copyright infringement and takedown notices rather than politely phrased requests for editing.

Surely not if the material being summarized was free promotional material...

Surely not if the material being summarized was free promotional material...

The issue wouldn't be in the summary, but in the presumption that it was a complete summary, which in turn would cause many people to decide that they now know everything there is to know about the subject, and see no reason to pursue it further.

Given that in this case it amounted to only a tiny fraction of the free materials, and was based on outdated models, that would be an inaccurate perception.

So, even though I made a joke about status, I actually do have an interest in ensuring that reviews of my work are accurately qualified.

"Status" was capitalized to reference a specific meaning - my brain's emotional perception of status in the abstract - and it was a joke, hence the ';-)'

You don't seem particularly high-status here. You actually seem (at least to me) to have lower status than the average contributor.

Pjeby has re-branded himself here, reversing the negative status he had acquired. I would judge that he has above average status now.

Pjeby has re-branded himself here,

Ouch. That sounds painful. ;-)

reversing the negative status he had acquired. I would judge that he has above average status now.

I've actually had above-average karma pretty much since the site began, so I wonder what definition of "status" you're using here. Status as perceived by what group, as ranked among what other group?

I've actually had above-average karma pretty much since the site began, so I wonder what definition of "status" you're using here. Status as perceived by what group, as ranked among what other group?

Would you say that your recent contributions have been met with more appreciation than some of the earlier ones? If I recall correctly you mentioned in a recent post that you put effort into adapting your communication style to fit this audience. This has paid off and my perception is that your claims are being attributed more authority now than they were in the past.

A rough indication of your status could be, for example, by how many threads there are in which every pjeby comment is downvoted. I expect most pjeby comments to be upvoted or remain neutral now. This is some indication of higher status. That someone else makes a positive post referring to your work rather than a negative one disrespecting it is also an indication of higher status.

(All of which just means that I disagree with BindBreaker's estimation of your status at this particular time.)

The last time I really checked (which was back in the early days), you had a far higher than normal proportion of posts with negative karma, which is the main thing that I use to evaluate a poster's status. In general I find total karma to be unreliable because karma seems generally linked to post count (in the old days, this link was quite direct).

However, looking back now I see that your recent comments appear to have been much more generally appreciated. I am not as active as I would like and therefore haven't seen many of these comments. This was quite an interesting discovery, as it made me aware of a greater need to evaluate status in the present state and account for shifts over time, so thanks, I guess.

The last time I really checked (which was back in the early days), you had a far higher than normal proportion of posts with negative karma, which is the main thing that I use to evaluate a poster's status. In general I find total karma to be unreliable because karma seems generally linked to post count (in the old days, this link was quite direct).

Back when there was no limit to the number of downvotes one account could make, someone - either several people or one person with multiple accoutns - went through his comment history and systematically downvoted every post. (I inferred this at the time from the fact that the number of downvotes - particularly for out-of-the-way replies and meta stuff - was too consistent. And possibly other evidence I don't recall, which would've come from noticing large shifts in karma at once.)

Yeah, when your karma drops 50-100 points in an hour or so, and it's by almost exactly the number of comments you've made in the last week or so, and it happens every week or so, it's pretty strong evidence of a systematic downvoting campaign.

Hi Eby,

I think with this refinement process you went from something clear, simple and easy to understand to something difficult and technical.

Nevertheless I think your 2008 theory is correct and probably you did not make it worse, it is just harder to understand now.

I should also like to add this: http://lesswrong.com/lw/21r/pain_and_gain_motivation/cipw

Unfortunately, "true" and "easy to understand" are not synonyms. ;-)

Yes :) But you wrote this comment and chapters 6-7 5 years ago, are there any new developments since then?

I tried them and would like to have the following comments:

  • instant motivation does not seem to work for me for the goals where you really, truly, are running away from something bad and there is no positive goal to pursue. Example: stopping smoking: the best possible outcome of not smoking is staying as healthy as today, the worst outcome of smoking is early painful death. Example: the kind of jobs one does only to pay bills. In both cases there are no possible positive outcomes to imagine: the best case outcome is things staying as they are now.

  • I tried chapter 7 on tomatoes, as I hated them since childhood. When I go back to 3 or 4 years old I simply don't remember how I felt hence I have no feeling to overwrite the current body feeling (gag reflex, sour face).

you wrote this comment and chapters 6-7 5 years ago, are there any new developments since then?

Quite a lot of them. Sadly, none of them make the overall picture any easier to understand. There seem to be an almost infinite number of "things that work" for some set of problems, but almost nothing that works for all the problems, for all of the people, all of the time. The basic idea of negative motivation is still valid, though, as is the idea that the primary negative motivations that are problematic derive from identity issues or pseudo-moral "shoulds".

instant motivation does not seem to work for me for the goals where you really, truly, are running away from something bad and there is no positive goal to pursue

Yes, that was explicitly stated as a qualifier on the technique: if you can't pass the "mmm" test, it's not going to work.

Example: stopping smoking: the best possible outcome of not smoking is staying as healthy as today, the worst outcome of smoking is early painful death

For such outcomes, I suggest the methods used by Allen Carr: essentially they work by systematically eliminating all the perceived benefits of the activity you wish to cease. His books are basically step-by-step persuasion walking you through the reasoning to achieve a realization that the thing you think you're getting is in fact of no value to you. (This is quite different from negative motion or deciding the act isn't "worth" it: rather, it is the systematic demolishing of any positive motivation towards the act, through deliberately induced disillusionment.)

Example: the kind of jobs one does only to pay bills. In both cases there are no possible positive outcomes to imagine: the best case outcome is things staying as they are now.

The trick to this kind of issue is realizing that your brain is using the wrong baseline for measurement of gain/loss. The correct baseline to use in such a scenario is not how things are now, but how they would be if you didn't have the job. Not having the job is the default case, since if you do nothing, that is the result you will get. ;-)

(I am, of course, omitting any details of how to do this change-of-baseline in this comment, due to the difficulty of describing it briefly, in this medium, in a way that would actually be implementable by anyone without the prerequisite skills of introspection and mind-changing.)

I have no feeling to overwrite the current body feeling (gag reflex, sour face).

You're probably overthinking the technique, which doesn't involve higher cognition at all. Certainly, there is nothing in it about "overwriting" anything. The method is simply intensifying a response long enough to trigger a refractory period, during which the response can't be re-triggered at the same intensity as before, leading to having a new experience or reaction in the context of the original triggering thought or external stimulus. (Not entirely unlike "flooding" as a desensitization technique, though I have no idea whether the mechanism is really the same.)

By the time I wrote about that technique, though, I had already mostly stopped using it, because I'd exhausted all the low-hanging fruit in my personal experience. Some people also get much more value out of it than others; I've had a few people who used it extensively and came back gushing to me about completely transforming their lives... while others are like "meh".

The optimum use seems to be for situations that trigger an immediate and visceral conditioned response that interferes with your ability to think clearly. It can be used to eliminate beliefs when the belief was formed later and as a result of the conditioned feeling, but does not work when it's the other way around.

(That is, if the feeling and belief arose at the same time, from the same event, or if the feeling is the result of a belief, then the feeling elimination technique will probably be of little value. Of course, your conscious estimation of which situation applies is unreliable, which means that until you've exhausted your own low-hanging fruit, it's better to just go ahead and try it, rather than guessing.)

In contrast to the feeling elimination technique, most everything I teach these days can be considered -- in one way or another -- a Ritual For Changing One's Mind. Or, more precisely, I recommend rituals developed by other people, and my work focuses more on identifying what it is in your mind that needs changing, and how to know what to change it to.

And unfortunately, the methods of Changing One's Mind are the relatively easy part of that. Sort of like knowing how to use an IDE (programmer's development tool) doesn't tell you what code to write or how to know where a bug is in your code.

For such outcomes, I suggest the methods used by Allen Carr: essentially they work by systematically eliminating all the perceived benefits of the activity you wish to cease.

I have read Allen Carr's Easy Way To Stop Drinking Alcohol. I got the impression he is playing on the reader's pride basically. He did not deny alcohol numbs in the brain whatever bothers you, he said the price is that it numbs everything else to. So basically he was playing a "you don't value the everything else in you?" game and maybe it is just a quirk of mine, I don't know, but whenever people try to play my pride I charge head-in, such as "Yes, I am absolutely worthless.Now what? Your move." I don't really know why I do this. Partially sometimes really feeling like this but partially really not liking the pride play as a method... I just think building anything on people's self-worth is really fragile, right?

The trick to this kind of issue is realizing that your brain is using the wrong baseline for measurement of gain/loss. The correct baseline to use in such a scenario is not how things are now, but how they would be if you didn't have the job.

Is this related to the old saying "learn to desire what you have" or "count your blessings" or the Stoic technique of negative visualization i.e. how much it would suck to lose what you have? Visualize not having it, then having it, pass a mmm-test, that sort of thing?

The optimum use seems to be for situations that trigger an immediate and visceral conditioned response that interferes with your ability to think clearly.

I see - this is why the examples are like foods one dislikes or social anxiety for speaking or I assume approach anxiety at dating etc. I will try it with physical challenges, I remember feeling inferior when I was a child when I was clumsy at things like climbing up ropes and it is possible it is keeping me away from trying such sports.

In contrast to the feeling elimination technique, most everything I teach these days can be considered -- in one way or another -- a Ritual For Changing One's Mind.

Do you write about this i.e. new websites as TTD or DS are not maintained much lately?

I don't really know why I do this.

Any self-help technique can be trivially defeated by arguing with it. And anything can be argued with, because the whole point (evolutionarily speaking) of our critical faculties is to find things we can attack in that which we have defined as our enemy. The truth, relevance, or usefulness of the argument is beside the point.

When I read that book I didn't even notice anything about pride or self-worth, honestly. I wasn't reading it because I drink (I don't), but as research into his approach. I found it fascinating because the various arguments I noticed seemed pretty universal to almost anything one might want to quit.

Anyway, I wasn't looking for things to argue with, so I didn't find any. In general, it's not useful to read a self-help book looking for things to argue with: skim over those, and look for things you agree with, or at least things you can consider with an open mind. Carr's books explicitly point out the need for this consideration at the beginning, and you will get more value out of them if you heed that advice.

Do you write about this i.e. new websites as TTD or DS are not maintained much lately?

Mostly I do online workshops with my paying subscribers, and the occasional tweet about things I'm noticing or realizing as they come up.

[SASS threats] Most of these threat predictions are completely bogus in the modern world.

This rings true in general, and yet I can see at least one or two negative hangups in my own life and the life of friends and family where there is a significant non-bogus threat associated with failure (or success) of a particular task.

Do you have techniques which address such situations? It would seem getting rid of the negative motivator completely could be impossible in such situations, short of delusion or intentional forgetfulness/detachment.

It would seem getting rid of the negative motivator completely could be impossible in such situations, short of delusion or intentional forgetfulness/detachment.

You need to remember that positive and negative motivation are managed by distinct brain subsystems. You can have a positive preference for something, without also having a negative preference for the lack of it.

For example, I can have a strong preference for health, without being in constant fear of getting sick.

It's also true, for instance, that failure to look both ways when you cross the street carries a "significant non-bogus threat", but for a normal person, this doesn't induce any negative motivation.

In short, removing the negative motivation is not the same as eliminating your preference -- the two motivational systems have a fairly high degree of redundancy.

I don't seem to have positive motivations, or at least very few. I play video games to stave off feelings of boredom and loneliness as much as because I enjoy playing them. That, and it gives me a fake feeling of achievement in lieu of achievements that actually affect social status.

"Should you be seeking to gain in that particular moment?...Hell no! Right? Because you don’t want to take a risk of falling or getting into a spot where the tiger can jump up and get you or anything like that. Your brain wants you to sit tight, stay put, shut up, don’t rock the boat… until the crisis is over. It wants you to sit tight. That’s the “pain brain”."

Yet procrastination mostly consists of finding more fun things to do.

Yet procrastination mostly consists of finding more fun things to do.

Chronic procrastinators don't usually have fun procrastinating. They do something safe, familiar, and unambitious -- to pass the time while they're waiting for the tiger to go away, and to take their mind off the fear.

A number of them find browsing LessWrong safe, familiar, and unambitious, it seems.

Wait, did I say "them"? I meant "us".

Oddly, I found video games to become vastly more appealing when I had work to avoid. Having something to do, and not doing it, felt exciting.

I am skeptical of the evolutionary explanation he poses for inactivity.

I don't believe large numbers of people were typically thrown out of hunter gatherer bands for incompetence, surely not more than inactive people (http://books.google.com.au/books?sitesec=reviews&id=ljxS8gUlgqgC). And in how many crisis situations is doing nothing really the best option? Hiding from a predator would surely be one of only a few.

Uh, whenever getting food is expected to yield less of some necessary nutrient than is consumed by getting the food is a time when doing very little is the best option -- at least if the nutrient situation will probably get better in a few months. Also, if you are male, whenever you are seen as effective sexual competition by a male or coalition of males who are in a position to kill you or permanently damage you with little risk of bodily or reputational harm to themselves is a time when doing nothing impressive is the best option -- and in the EEA simply doing well at hunting, farming or making tools was probably seen as impressive by the women. Heck, I've gotten significant signs of interest from women just for sitting in a cafe in San Francisco and looking like I was productively engaged in writing things down on pieces of paper when the woman had no way to know what I am writing. Many writers say that industriousness is attractive to women. And, heck, in junior high school, I remember being attacked and my study supplies kicked around on the street by another male for appearing industrious.

In summary, it seems to me that one of the most profound differences between the EEA and modern life (at least modern life in the relatively well-run jurisdictions) is that in modern life, there is no reason not to spend a significant part of every day in effortful activity either physical or mental -- and note that effortful mental activity consumes many times more calories than "subsistence" mental activity does (I think: I should actually research that; personal experience is my main reason for believing it) and that mental activity accounts for 25% of the calories consumed by a human being (and I'm fairly certain of that last point)

And if getting thrown out of the band were not a large source of loss of reproductive fitness in the EEA, then please explain the natural human fascination with the theme as evidenced by the mass appeal of shows like Survivor (plot: every week, contestants vote to see which contestant gets thrown off the island) or Big Brother (plot virtually identical). Emotional reactions and tastes as strong and salient as that which are widespread in the human population should be assumed to be the result of selection pressures unless and until there is a good reason to believe otherwise IMHO. Well, I think I need to say a little bit more on this point. Yes, I am aware that many people, and a large fraction of the more thoughtful people, have an aversion to shows like Survivor and Big Brother. At least in the case of Big Brother I think much of the aversion comes from the natural human tendency to hold privacy violations (even when the violated have voluntarily ceded their privacy) as moral transgressions. And I think some of it comes from the fact that thoughtful people have noticed that this fascination with who is in and who is out and who is in danger of getting thrown off the island tends to have negative effects in modern environments such as your typical white-collar workplace. But mostly I think I have over the years gotten pretty good at telling which reactions are learned and which are innate, and the revulsion of many people toward shows like Survivor strikes me as a learned antibody to an innate interest in the theme.

Possibly doing nothing is a good idea for hunter gatherers in case of starvation, but that seems worth checking in the anthropology research. If starvation were a frequent risk, lethargy would surely been prompted by insufficient food intake, which is rare for humans today. We wouldn't just be lazy for that reason all the time; during times of abundance you ought to gather and store as much food as possible.

Apparently hunter gatherer bands were egalitarian, so it's unlikely people would have been beaten up by (non-existent) leaders just for hunting and gathering well, especially given food was shared. Again the conditions under which people would be picked on in bands are something we can find out by looking at existing anthropology research. Nonetheless it's hard to imagine that hunter gatherer bands which would push out members merely for contributing to the food intake of the group would be the most successful. We don't favour do-nothings over well-meaning incompetents today as far as I can tell.

In any case, I'm not convinced we just have paleolithic brains.

The fact that we've got a lot more paleolithic ancestors doesn't mean there hasn't been selection and change since then. And we don't know that much about how they lived.

I believe we have paleolithic adaptations (smallish group living, need for small grained variation (going barefoot on rough ground), need for movement (not exercise!), lowish carb eating, possibly a need to eat insects which is sadly neglected in the modern world), primitive farming adaptations (comfort in hierarchies, tolerance of drudgery, willingness to forgo gratification, tolerance of grains and perhaps a need for them,), and urban adaptations (comfort with strangers, strong immune systems, tolerance of noise and crowding, enjoyment of novelty, ability to handle strong drink). None of these lists are expected to be complete or entirely accurate, but it's worth noting that to some extent, they're pulling in different directions.

Is people being unwilling to move away from smoke best explained in terms of paleolithic motivations, or as a result of civilized, and perhaps cultural, overlays?

Good points. I freely admit that my comment which is the sibling of your comment contains many more inferential steps and many more places where you just have to trust my judgement than the most successful conversations on Less Wrong contain. I think that if enough people persist in explaining material that is many inferential steps away from what the majority here believe and accept or if participants just accept such material uncritically because the consequences of the material being valid is so tantalizing, then Less Wrong will become less useful as a place to teach and to learn the kinds of (nifty) things that have been sucessfully taught and learned on Less Wrong.

In other words, I suggest that participants (and voters) embrace the view that it is at the least bad manners and at most toxic to the community for a participant to persist in many long comments over many months which tend to take place too many inferential steps away from what most of us comprehend, believe and accept even if that participant is a successful wielder of the material. (ADDED: and for that reason, I will stop using certain supports from evolutionary psychology even though I have long believed and accepted them).

ADDED. when Eliezer wanted to bring readers many inferential steps, he was careful to take us one step at a time and, after each step, to observe how many comprehended (accepted) it. I humbly suggest that if your name is not "Eliezer", then if an attempt to take us one step in some direction is not met with widespread acceptance, then you refrain from using Less Wrong to try to take us a second step in that direction.

Well said. This thread is very useful and I think I've already learnt a great deal that will help me be more productive. That being said; your right about people's tendencies to make completely off the wall statements about the underpinnings of human behavior.

I submit that there are people who make it their business to understand other people so that they can manipulate them. These people are sometimes very successful, which indicates that they might know something; if you're not riding an equally high wave of popularity and love; perhaps you are not qualified to make these assertions regarding humanity's secret thoughts.

...if you're not riding an equally high wave of popularity and love; perhaps you are not qualified to make these assertions regarding humanity's secret thoughts.

No, the estimated quality of the conclusion should be a function of the quality of the argument and the supporting evidence, not the identity of the arguer. To do otherwise is to commit the classic argument-by-authority or ad-hominem fallacies.

And from the grandparent of this post::

In other words, I suggest that participants (and voters) embrace the view that it is at the least bad manners and at most toxic to the community for a participant to persist in many long comments over many months which tend to take place too many inferential steps away from what most of us comprehend, believe and accept even if that participant is a successful wielder of the material. (ADDED: and for that reason, I will stop using certain supports from evolutionary psychology even though I have long believed and accepted them).

That's rationalizing groupthink. IMO you should speak the truth as best you can, and change your estimated truth based on the arguments you read and the evidence presented, not on guesses about what your audience is willing to listen to.

I hope you were being sarcastic.

How do we know how good the supporting evidence is if we have no way to assay it for ourselves? At that point, aren't we just forced to take poster's word for it? That's not even as good as evaluating their performance because it's completely results independent. A lot of the time, logical fallacies just come up as an excuse for the poster to say whatever they want without having to back it up.

Assuming that we could see how people implement their own theories, we would have a feedback loop; however, many theories inside less wrong operate inside a vacum. We used to depend on logic to evaluate theories, then we stopped and moved into the scientific method, because pure logic doesn't work outside of a closed environment. It only works when you have a solid grasp of the intial variables.

That's rationalizing groupthink. IMO you should speak the truth as best you can, and change your estimated truth based on the arguments you read and the evidence presented, not on guesses about what your audience is willing to listen to.

From your complaint it sounds like they're forcing you to march in lockstep with everyone while chanting slogans; compared to being asked to back up your assertions.

Call it what you will, they believe it has a positive correlation with group success, so I approve of them pursuing such a course of action.

How do we define group success?

I thought it was being rational and participating in a process that converges on the truth, and that looks like exactly what they're proposing to give up. Perhaps you have a different definition?

I don't think the paleolithic hypothesis is a total waste-- it seems to have paid off on going barefoot-- but I think it should be used as a source of testable hypothesis, not as a premise for making up explanations of anomalous behavior.

I used to be able to edit my LW comments. Has something changed on the site, or is there a time limit or something?

If it is the same problem that I had then you will be able to edit it after you click the permalink.

I don't believe large numbers of people were typically thrown out of hunter gatherer bands for incompetence,

The number of people who have fears of being discovered as incompetent (e.g. "impostor syndrome") strongly suggests a biological explanation.

In any case, my model is slightly broader than Kaj's summary implies -- this sort of fear-of-discovery applies to any acts or personal qualities that, if known, would lead to lower tribal status. You don't have to be actually thrown out of your tribe in order for discovery of a negative quality to alter your reproductive opportunities (or your probability of surviving long enough to have some).

How is impostor syndrome different from having low self esteem?

How is impostor syndrome different from having low self esteem?

Er, one is a fear of being discovered as incompetent, and the other is low self-esteem? ;-)

Obviously, having a low opinion of your abilities would be a prerequisite for fearing that others will come to share that opinion. So, I'm not sure I understand your question.

"Low self-esteem" is usually interpreted to mean, "having a lower opinion of self than is merited" -- so if you fear discovery of your incompetence, the incompetence itself could be either actual or imagined, and only in the imaginary case would the "low self-esteem" label also apply. ;-)

Okay, the two "examples" of akrasia that come to mind most easily are procrastination and addiction. If you're procrastinating, then you're failing to do something, and so you need some positive, "gain brain" motivation. If you're addicted, then you're failing to not do something; does this mean that you need some negative, "pain brain" motivation? If I'm addicted to heroin, should I try to visualize all the horrible things that will happen to me if I don't overcome my addiction?

If I'm addicted to heroin, should I try to visualize all the horrible things that will happen to me if I don't overcome my addiction?

That would be a negative motivation.

Now, I'm going to speculate a little, so I want to clearly mark the following as speculation:

I have had one person who told me they had significantly cut back their dose of a painkiller they were addicted to, by removing the negative feelings that prompted their use of it. This is just one example, though, and there are way too many confounding factors. (Inlcuding the part where they had only reported cutting down, not quitting entirely yet.)

All that being said, I would guess that the distinction between being addicted to something and simply enjoying it a lot, is the same as the distinction between negative and positive motivation. People might start smoking, drinking, or drugging for the purpose of receiving pleasure, but once they're an addict, the overwhelming motivation is to avoid withdrawal and/or the lousy life they might otherwise have to face.

I expect this is equally true for addictions like excessive internet usage, for example.

Anyway, I'm just putting the "speculation" disclaimer here because I don't treat people for drug, sex, alcohol, or gambling addictions. I've helped people quit smoking, sure, and I've cured my previously compulsive addiction to lesswrong, but that's about it. ;-)

I wouldn't recommend pain to people who have learned to self-medicate with addictive behaviors. I would recommend enough 'gain brain' motivation to encourage whatever positive action is required to combat the addiction. (eg. Finding someone to tie you down and inject you with suitable chemicals till the worst of the chemical addiction is gone.)

I don't think addiction IS a form of akrasia.

Why, pray tell, not? Surely heroin addicts would rather not be heroin addicts, and yet they are.

Are you sure about that? Beware generalizing from a sample of one.

Heroin addiction is in most cases carefully cultivated by the addict, for a variety of reasons, and stopping is not really difficult.

I recommend Theodore Dalrymple's insightful book Romancing Opiates: Pharmacological Lies and the Addiction Bureaucracy for clarification as to why akrasia and heroin addiction are not related.

I'm generalizing from a sample of zero, in fact.

That's the wittiest expression for "I'm reporting my prior" that I've seen in the last five minutes! :D

"You just have to imagine that every bruise is a hickey from the universe," Finn says, "and everyone wants to get with the universe.".

  • Adventure Time

Well, I may have wasted 10 minutes on that video . . . but at least I have a clean desk.

If you haven't already, do check out Eby's Instant Irresistible Motivation video for learning how to create positive motivation.

Interesting. In fact, it seems to mesh with the process I've successfully used to do things like cleaning my desk.

Unfortunately, many of the tasks I have to do don't lend themselves to the visualization in step 1. How does one visualize having studied for an exam, or completed an exercise routine?

In the middle of writing this comment, I realized that I have no experience with IIM, so I'm not qualified to speak from experience. Therefore, please believe what I'm saying only because logic requires that it be true.

For the exam, visualize yourself knowing the material, or getting a good grade, or finishing school, or getting a good job. The technique requires you to feel the desire to achieve in your body, so keep moving forward until you hit something that gives a physical reaction. Boom, you've completed the first two steps, so now you can do the third step: compare your current situation to that, while still feeling good about "that". According to what Eby says, your brain should then start planning how to achieve "that", working down from whatever goal you discovered until it hits what you need to do next--which may or may not be actually studying for the exam.

For the exercise routine, same thing. Visualize yourself at the gym, or exercising, or having finished your routine, or being in good (or better) shape, or looking attractive, or living longer.

In the middle of writing this comment, I realized that I have no experience with IIM, so I'm not qualified to speak from experience. Therefore, please believe what I'm saying only because logic requires that it be true.

I thank you for placing this qualification on your statement. As it happens, you are entirely correct, but that's very often not the case when you try to apply far-brain logic to near-brain emotions. I have to teach people to distrust logical answers, because emotional logic isn't based on understanding things. Your emotional brain is more of an outside-view frequentist than an inside-view Bayesian, you might say. ;-)

At any rate, it's subject to a different set of biases than the "far" brain, so far-brain reasoning tends to use a very wrong "theory of mind" when guessing at one's own emotional motivations.

I have to teach people to distrust logical answers, because emotional logic isn't based on understanding things.

You can trust logic; you can't trust that your brain is logical. I did the former.

You can trust logic;

Not from flawed premises, you can't. And most of the premises people typically assume about their own motivations are seriously flawed. Thus, people can use perfectly valid logic to construct reasonable, elegant theories about their behavior that are nonetheless 100% irrelevant to how they're actually generating those behaviors.

you can't trust that your brain is logical.

Actually, your brain is logical, in the sense that a computer is - it does what it's programmed to do, even if what it's programmed to do is stupid. ;-)

I did the former.

I should probably clarify what I mean by "distrust logical answers". I should've said, "distrust logical answers to emotional or experiential questions", or "distrust 'far' answers to 'near' questions". The question of one's motivation for doing a thing is "near", so generating an answer from the "far" side of the brain is pure confabulation. Thus, a logical, abstract, sophisticated answer to that question is not actually an answer to that question.

How does one visualize having studied for an exam, or completed an exercise routine?

You don't; you visualize whatever it is you're going to get by having done those things.

As you'll notice in the video, one of the major functions of the visualization is to engage the feeling of desire - that's why the questions are "what's good about that? what do you like about it?"

Since you probably don't actually desire (in the emotional, feeling sense) having studied for an exam or completing an exercise routine, it wouldn't work for that even if you could visualize those things.

So, visualize something you DO desire about those things. (Yes, his is still tricky, precisely because you're probably trying to set up these actions in order to avoid bad consequences like failing the exam. As long as this is the outer frame in which your thinking is taking place, the technique won't work very well -- the pain brain usually wins over the gain brain.

The way that I fix this with clients is to teach them to identify the specific emotional SASS threat (i.e. Status, Affiliation, Safety, or Stimulation), and disconnect it. Once the threat is gone, positive motivation operates naturally.

The way that I fix this with clients is to teach them to identify the specific emotional SASS threat (i.e. Status, Affiliation, Safety, or Stimulation), and disconnect it. Once the threat is gone, positive motivation operates naturally.

I am confused as to how this is possible, and how the second follows from the first. If I only work to put food on the table, and I stop worrying about putting food on the table, how does that help me to get my work done, instead of spending all day playing World of Warcraft until I starve to death?

I am confused as to how this is possible, and how the second follows from the first. If I only work to put food on the table,

Stop right there -- the first error is in the word "only".

If you are operating under negative motivation, it tends to appear as though that negative motivation is the only thing keeping you going, because negative motivation suppresses awareness of positive motivation. There are actually dozens of possible positive motivations you could have for working.

Which brings me to the second error -- that the motivation is really to "put food on the table", vs. say, "not starve". Note, however, that you could also be putting food on the table because you like eating better than not-eating. ;-)

IOW, for every possible negative motivation there is generally a plethora of alternative positive motivations available, all of which will bring anticipated pleasure, in place of the anticipated absence of pain that's all a negative motivation can provide you with.

And last, but not least, this also means that you are probably not working only to "put food on the table". Unless you have personal experience of starvation being linked to not working, you're unlikely to have a Safety link to working (other than one instilled by your parents scaring you as a kid). Most people's choice to work is actually Status or Affiliation driven, whether or not they're aware of it.

[Important note: I am not saying people work because they get status or affiliation from it -- though that's possible -- but rather, that most people have been taught that a person who doesn't work is low-class (Status) or unworthy/inadequate (Affiliation).]

Stop right there -- the first error is in the word "only".

Yeah... I think I get it, at least somewhat. But what if you think that you have stronger positive motivations to do something else, say, World of Warcraft?

Which brings me to the second error -- that the motivation is really to "put food on the table", vs. say, "not starve". Note, however, that you could also be putting food on the table because you like eating better than not-eating. ;-)

Well, I was using "put food on the table" in the usual metaphorical sense. (And if I could deal with the whole "not being hungry" thing without actually eating, I would; I don't get all that much pleasure from food.)

In terms of my own situation, though, I'm not working...

You say you have clients. How do I sign up?

But what if you think that you have stronger positive motivations

Motivation is measured in feeling, not thinking. Thinking about what feelings you might or might not have is like dancing about architecture -- it might be entertaining, but it's not very informative. ;-)

to do something else, say, World of Warcraft?

You're only assuming that it's a positive motivation, and in your shoes (if I understand your situation correctly) it's not a great assumption, even if the vast majority of Warcraft players are primarily positively-motivated.

Myself, I got bored with WoW after a couple of months, so I can't speak for the WoW players out there.

(More relevant comments will come later, after I think of some.)

I wasn't talking about myself in particular there. I was trying to be more abstract.

Okay, here's something.

When I was in college, I often had something that I wanted to be doing, but I had all that damn homework to do. When I sat down to do my homework, all I could think about was how awful it was and how much I'd rather be doing something else. But if I went and did something else, I had to deal with having a lot of homework to do and not doing it. I eventually found what turned out to be a satisfactory way to resolve the dilemma.

I dropped the course, and felt very relieved afterward.

As I've mentioned before, I can honestly say that I only graduated because of my parents' pressure. If I dropped out of college after my second or third year, I think I could have avoided a lot of unnecessary suffering; so far, the only real benefit I've gotten from my college degree has been that my parents are satisfied with the amount of education I have.

So, I'm not entirely clear, but I get the impression you're presenting this as an example of something that you wouldn't do if you dropped the negative motivation for it.... and implying that this is somehow bad.

If so, then I'd point out that if indeed the only positive result you got from your degree is your relief with your parents' satisfaction, then you could've gotten that result a lot easier and quicker by deleting your brain's evaluation of their dissatisfaction as a SASS threat.

FWIW, both I and my clients have passed through periods that I've tongue-in-cheekly called, "the dark night of the soul" -- a period where you've removed one or more major negative motivations, and then realize you have no idea WTF you're doing with your life or want to do with it in the future.

However, a period like this is not the result of having no negative motivation - it's the result of having removed only one level of negative motivation, without reaching your fundamental values or criteria yet. (That is, you no longer have negative motivation, but you're still judging your life by negative criteria.)

Once you get the criteria as well as the motivation, things start to turn around, and you begin (re)discovering all the things you actually like about life and the world. One of the key issues for me was realizing that I cannot "figure out" or "solve" what I want. (As I said, thinking about feelings is like dancing about architecture.)

What I've realized is that I have to actually ask myself what I already want, and that when I ask that question, there are answers, so long as I do NOT engage in trying to figure out what I should want, or what would "make me happy", or any other sort of goal-oriented process.

Fundamentally, positive motivation is not something that you use in order to get something else. As long as you treat it as a tool to get yourself to do something, you're still stuck in the same box -- your real motivation at that point is whatever problem you're trying to solve by adding positive motivation.

If so, then I'd point out that if indeed the only positive result you got from your degree is your relief with your parents' satisfaction, then you could've gotten that result a lot easier and quicker by deleting your brain's evaluation of their dissatisfaction as a SASS threat.

Having your parents tell you "If we are sufficiently dissatisfied, you'll be homeless" is kind of scary. :(

Getting a college degree is supposed to be of great benefit - and if I had gone on to have a career as an engineer or programmer or something, it would have been. And at least I have the social status associated with "college graduate" instead of "college dropout".

FWIW, both I and my clients have passed through periods that I've tongue-in-cheekly called, "the dark night of the soul" -- a period where you've removed one or more major negative motivations, and then realize you have no idea WTF you're doing with your life or want to do with it in the future.

That sounds like me right now.

I feel like I ought to do something impressive with my life. Many of the other students in my high school thought I was some kind of super-genius who was going to end up as the next Bill Gates or something, and I feel that, by not living up to my potential, as it were, it would be like I'm letting them down. I have a fantasy that I go to sleep one day, spend the next ten to fifteen years as a philosophical zombie, and become consciousness after having done something impressive enough that I can retire and not worry about having to do anything else. (Like in those mediocre movies "13 Going on 30" and "Click".) I'm embarrassed whenever someone asks me what I do for a living, and ashamed that I'm . I want to be respected, but I'm not willing to do what it takes to earn that respect in either the most common manner (become an employee) or the next most common manner (become an entrepreneur). And I'm worried about what will happen when my parents get too old to support me. (I'm 27, and they're both 61.) I've tried my best to deal with this by simply not caring about what happens to me in the future, but that's hard, and eventually the future happens anyway.

I think there should have been a paragraph break in there somewhere. :(

I feel like I ought to do something impressive with my life.

What pushes you forward, holds you back. That is, it is precisely this feeling of "ought" that is the problem.

When you have an ought or a should, it is generally shorthand for "something bad will happen if I don't". The something bad is not expressed, because then whenever you comply with your "should" you appear more "moral" to your compatriots, than if you are "merely" complying out of duress.

It's essential to identify the precise nature of the unconsciously-represented threat (which is where SASS comes in), and to flip it around to the positive form of that need.

Many of the other students in my high school thought I was some kind of super-genius who was going to end up as the next Bill Gates or something, and I feel that, by not living up to my potential, as it were, it would be like I'm letting them down.

And are you afraid they won't like you, or won't respect you?

Don't analyze - just feel what it's like to let them down... is it more like being lonely and rejected, or ashamed and humiliated? Are you a less-good person for doing this, a less-important person, or something else?

Ok, Status then. What would it be like if your parents were proud of you, regardless of whether you ever accomplished anything or not? (Again, don't think... just ask the question and feel the answer.)

Relieved. And a bit guilty.

It's like I tricked them or something - what do they have to be proud of, if all I do is stay home and do nothing? Now I'm feeling confused. My father has told me that it reflects badly on him as a parent if I don't, say, arrive at high school on time. (He's also said that now that I'm legally an adult, I'm not his responsibility any more, and he can't be dragged into family court over my behavior, so I can do what I want. He also told me that a friend of his actually did have to go to family court because his daughter was always late to school.) And now I'm rambling again. Anyway, at this point, they're perfectly happy to accept "self-sufficient" as enough from me; they don't want me to be homeless and starving after they can't support me financially any more, and have repeatedly made the point that "there's no government welfare for single, non-disabled, childless men who don't work" in the United States.

Now, this is where the fun bit comes in. Pay attention to how your brain just successfully defended you against changing your assumptions.

Specifically, the assumption that your parents need to be proud of something... when, in fact, normal healthy parents are proud of their kids when they make mudpies or say "gaga" or something.

To put it another way, your brain has habituated to assuming that your parents' pride is supposed to be conditional on you doing something, and that it's therefore somehow "not right" for you to feel pride in yourself, unless you're doing something that would get your parents to be proud of you.

This is the way SASS imprinting works -- we pay attention to what our parents and peers give us positive and negative SASS for, and then we internalize the algorithms we observe them using, for when to give ourselves (and other people) positive or negative SASS.

This is how we acquire our (effective) value systems, and the way to undo it is by changing the rules under which our self-supplied SASS pellets and shocks are delivered.

Part of doing this is just realizing that it's really you who controls your own SASS allocation. Just now, by me asking you how you'd feel if your parents were proud of you, you began to feel some of the relief that you'd feel if you increased your self-delivered level of Status. (Specifically, in the "pride" part.)

Of course, as discussed elsewhere in this thread, you stopped imagining as soon as you found an objection to the experience.

Notice how you then quickly changed what you were imagining to restore your previous world model -- you were to imagine what would happen if your parents had unconditional pride in you, and you immediately began asking, "but what do they have to be proud of?"

And the reason you're "feeling confused" is because I just asked a question that draws on your brain's information in a way that leads to a contradiction in your current mental model... similar to the confusion a theist feels when an atheist argument hits too close to home.

The response is also similar: defend the existing belief structure by treating the original belief as axiomatic... and the rest of what you wrote is, as you said, "rambling"... a successful distraction to get you away from even temporarily accepting a premise that would annihilate a chunk of your current worldview.

One of the reasons this sort of thing is difficult is because children are wired to believe their parents are intrinsically perfect, and that therefore any negative consequences of interacting with parents are considered to be your fault. If your parents aren't proud of you (giving you Status pellets), then you must be defective.

Of course, later on in life, we do gain the ability to criticize our parents, their values and behaviors. But by that point, the damage is already done: we've already adopted their rules for SASS allocation, tucked away out of conscious awareness. And thus, we rarely question them.

Now, the questions I've asked you are part of the process of pulling your imprinted SASS allocation rules into the light, where they can be destroyed by reflection. They don't work, however, if you back away from the question. Your desire to experience something new -- to learn more of the truth, if you will -- has to exceed your desire to remain comfortably within your existing world view.

If you repeat the question -- and this time, actually allow yourself to experience what it would be like if your parents had always been proud of you... then a portion of your current worldview will die, but YOU will become more free.

And that's because your current SASS rules are over-constrained compared to a normal, healthy human being -- one who knows in the back of their mind that their parents were always proud of them, always loved them... and thus has set their internal Status and Affiliation setpoints to a higher minimum setting than yours.

So, if you've ever wondered what the difference was between you and those other people, now you know. And you also have a piece of what you need to know to DO something about it.

The rest is really up to you.

I don't normally do the sort of thing I've been doing with you, with people who aren't paying me money to do so. But that's not as much a matter of needing to make a living, as it has to do with the fact that people who haven't put something important on the line in order to get my advice, aren't usually that motivated to stick with it through their resistance to the actual process of changing.

When somebody's paying me money, though, they implicitly grant me a role and a degree of Status in their mind that facilitates their complying with my instructions, even when it's difficult. It also allows me to hand them back some of that Status, through my paying attention to what they're saying, and showing persistence in sticking with the interaction myself, even if it's as difficult for me as it is for them.

(This same sort of transaction also occurs in therapy, coaching, and other paid interactions between human beings, btw. Because by default, we assume that at least our Status and Affiliation have to come from other people. The irony, however, is that the people who really have SASS in their lives are the ones who learned good rulesets from their parents for when to give themselves (and others) positive SASS.)

Anyway, now I'm rambling, too. ;-)

Okay, more thoughts. I haven't read your response to the other comment because I haven't finished reacting to this one yet. (And, for the record, I feel like this has already helped me more than most of the in-person therapy I've ever had. It's easier for me to write these kinds of things online than it is for me to tell them to a therapist I've been dragged to.)

I don't know if the focus on my parents specifically is quite right. What about peers (past, present, or imagined)?

Specifically, the assumption that your parents need to be proud of something... when, in fact, normal healthy parents are proud of their kids when they make mudpies or say "gaga" or something.

Anyway, now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure my mom is proud of me in the way you describe. My father, I'm not so sure. I don't think he's good at understanding other people's emotions, and he has a tendency to be very critical. I'm a little afraid of him, too.

If you repeat the question -- and this time, actually allow yourself to experience what it would be like if your parents had always been proud of you... then a portion of your current worldview will die, but YOU will become more free.

I'm getting a little better at imagining it, and I can believe it of my mom, but I don't know if it's actually true of my father. And I think it would be good to want to believe the truth, whatever it is. Litany of Tarski, Litany of Gendlin, and all that. Right now, I do want my father's approval, very much so - but I think it might be possible for me to throw that out the window, by adopting the attitude that if he doesn't think that, say, beating Battletoads is a worthy accomplishment, that's his problem, not mine. The guy can't even sing! (Should I try this?)

I think I need to get out and see more people, some of them on a regular basis. Sitting in the house alone or with my parents isn't helping. According to legend, "There is life outside your apartment", but I'm not sure where to find it. I'll sign up for that Lesswrong NYC Meetup group, and maybe I'll try to get some phone numbers from people at the local bookstore - and this time, actually call them. Anyone have any suggestions that don't involve getting a job, taking a class, or spending a lot of money?

All right, now I'll go read the reply to my earlier half-comment.

What about peers (past, present, or imagined)?

They can also be imprimers, but your parents tend to get first crack at you and lay down a lot of stuff before you even have any conscious/verbal comprehension of what's going on. Fixing a block generally has to happen at the earliest point where a rule was created, not where it was later simply reinforced. Otherwise, they have a tendency to come back, which is really annoying.

I'm getting a little better at imagining it, and I can believe it of my mom, but I don't know if it's actually true of my father. And I think it would be good to want to believe the truth, whatever it is.

If I set the thermostat on my wall to a temperature that it's not at, does that mean I'm disbelieving the truth of the current temperature?

The objective here is not for you to believe something happened that didn't happen. Rather, it's to correct your mistaken judgment that your level of self-pride is to be determined by your quantity of effortful and worthy accomplishments, as judged by others.

Specifically, what happens when you imagine that your parents were always proud of you, is that your brain is forced to realize (emotionally, not just intellectually) that its current set of SASS rules are not The One True Rules For Survival In Your Tribe, but simply one possibility out of many.

That's what I mean by "a portion of your worldview will die, but YOU will become more free." The confusion you experienced when you first imagined it, was your brain's reaction to the battle between your apologist and revolutionary. The rambling that followed was the apologist trying to repair the damage.

Right now, I do want my father's approval, very much so - but I think it might be possible for me to throw that out the window, by adopting the attitude that if he doesn't think that, say, beating Battletoads is a worthy accomplishment, that's his problem, not mine. The guy can't even sing! (Should I try this?)

No - that entire concept is still stuck in the same worldview you have now, where people's status is determined by the worth of their accomplishments in the eyes of another. That's the bit of your worldview that needs to die, not be reinforced!

More specifically, it's the rule that says your status is lowered by not having such accomplishents. It's perfectly okay to believe that having more accomplishments raises your status, so long as the lack of accomplishments doesn't take you below the level of status required for health and happiness.

That's how people with healthy motivation act -- they feel more pride when they accomplish things, but there's no threat to their pride when they're not doing anything... and thus no vicious cycle of negative motivation.

I think I need to get out and see more people, some of them on a regular basis. Sitting in the house alone or with my parents isn't helping. According to legend, "There is life outside your apartment", but I'm not sure where to find it. I'll sign up for that Lesswrong NYC Meetup group, and maybe I'll try to get some phone numbers from people at the local bookstore - and this time, actually call them. Anyone have any suggestions that don't involve getting a job, taking a class, or spending a lot of money?

I'm about to drop this thread of conversation, because it seems to me that you're starting to think I'm your therapist or life coach or something. If you want to fix your brain, I'll help, but I'm not going to keep dragging you back to pay attention to the part of things that actually needs fixing.

The part of my work that I enjoy and would do to some extent without pay is the part where I actually help people... not the part where I have to beat them about the head and shoulders (figuratively speaking) to keep them focused on the bit that will actually help.

But so far, every attempt I've made to help someone in a significant way for free, has resulted in the person drifting off as soon as they realize that it's still going to cost them something (in the personal/emotional sense) to change. (No matter how much they previously protested that they would be different.)

And I could be wrong, but from this comment and the other one, that's the direction this looks like it might be taking.

No - that entire concept is still stuck in the same worldview you have now, where people's status is determined by the worth of their accomplishments in the eyes of another. That's the bit of your worldview that needs to die, not be reinforced!

More specifically, it's the rule that says your status is lowered by not having such accomplishents. It's perfectly okay to believe that having more accomplishments raises your status, so long as the lack of accomplishments doesn't take you below the level of status required for health and happiness.

That's how people with healthy motivation act -- they feel more pride when they accomplish things, but there's no threat to their pride when they're not doing anything... and thus no vicious cycle of negative motivation.

Again, thank you for the whack from the Clue Stick. Sometimes you have to hear the same thing in several different ways before you understand it.

Oh, and I really am feeling a lot better now. At least for the moment.

I'm about to drop this thread of conversation, because it seems to me that you're starting to think I'm your therapist or life coach or something. If you want to fix your brain, I'll help, but I'm not going to keep dragging you back to pay attention to the part of things that actually needs fixing.

That was the part where I start acting on my positive motivation. ;)

Oh, and I really am feeling a lot better now. At least for the moment.

One thing you should be aware of is that SASS rules are often highly contextual, and removing the action of a rule in one context doesn't necessarily mean you've gotten rid of it in another context, or that you don't have overlapping and partially-redundant rules.

So, even if you've now removed the "unworthy if you don't accomplish to standards" rule (and I'm not certain you have, without testing), be aware that this doesn't equal removing all your status-negating rules, let alone your rules for other types of SASS.

By being aware of that, you'll be less likely to conclude the whole thing is a failure, the next time a SASS-threat feeling occurs.

(This is important, btw - I went through a lot of ups and downs before I realized that the mere existence of another SASS threat after I thought I'd fixed something did NOT equal "I failed as a person and a self-help guru" and therefore justify further lowering my SASS! Recursion and paradox are always a mindhacker's close companions, though luckily not in an exponential-blowup kind of way. More like a loops-implemented-with-recursion way. But I digress.)

That was the part where I start acting on my positive motivation. ;)

Ah, ok, good then.

By being aware of that, you'll be less likely to conclude the whole thing is a failure, the next time a SASS-threat feeling occurs.

Okay.

Specifically, the assumption that your parents need to be proud of something... when, in fact, normal healthy parents are proud of their kids when they make mudpies or say "gaga" or something.

To put it another way, your brain has habituated to assuming that your parents' pride is supposed to be conditional on you doing something, and that it's therefore somehow "not right" for you to feel pride in yourself, unless you're doing something that would get your parents to be proud of you.

Isn't unconditional praise empty praise? Is getting a trophy at "Everyone Gets A Trophy Day" meaningful?

One of the reasons this sort of thing is difficult is because children are wired to believe their parents are intrinsically perfect, and that therefore any negative consequences of interacting with parents are considered to be your fault. If your parents aren't proud of you (giving you Status pellets), then you must be defective.

My parents were proud of my academic achievements. I wasn't, not really. Doing very well in school feels more like something that happened to me, rather than something that I achieved. On the other hand, my parents don't care that I've beaten Battletoads, or ascended in Nethack, or beat Space Megaforce on Tricky difficulty without continuing, but, dammit, I'm certainly proud that I managed to do it! (Unfortunately, as the saying goes, that and $3.99 plus sales tax will get you a pack of Magic cards - I have no way of making any actual money off of this.) For a long time, I've gotten at least some pride from sources my parents have disapproved of. On the other hand, I used to have peers to impress with my mad game-playing skillz. ;)

Of course, later on in life, we do gain the ability to criticize our parents, their values and behaviors. But by that point, the damage is already done: we've already adopted their rules for SASS allocation, tucked away out of conscious awareness. And thus, we rarely question them.

I've been arguing with my parents about the merits of video games since I was, what, twelve? My mom is still convinced the use of the word "boss" to describe the powerful enemy fought at the end of each level was a Japanese plot to make American workers less productive by making them unable to cooperate with their supervisors at work.

Because by default, we assume that at least our Status and Affiliation have to come from other people. The irony, however, is that the people who really have( SASS in their lives are the ones who learned good rulesets from their parents for when to give themselves* (and others) positive SASS.

Um...

I don't normally do the sort of thing I've been doing with you, with people who aren't paying me money to do so. But that's not as much a matter of needing to make a living, as it has to do with the fact that people who haven't put something important on the line in order to get my advice, aren't usually that motivated to stick with it through their resistance to the actual process of changing.

Thank you. I appreciate this. Really.

I have more to say in addition to the nit-picking I've already done in this comment, but I need to take a bit of a break right now, because I'm hungry and feeling a little down right now; I need to do something turn off the self-pity before I can start imagining myself into a different emotional state.

Isn't unconditional praise empty praise? Is getting a trophy at "Everyone Gets A Trophy Day" meaningful?

What you've just said is isomorphic to a theist arguing that their holy book is holy because it came from a god, and that they know this because it says so in the book.

Be a rationalist. How do you know what you think you know? You believe in this "empty praise" concept, because it's part of your framework for SASS allocation, and your brain defends it for that same reason. If you want to know the truth, you need to be prepared for the possibility that it may shatter all of your premises.

If your parents had offered you a different worldview, you would currently believe something else than what you currently do. And plenty of less-rational people than you are winning more at life than you, simply because they received a slightly-more functional set of SASS allocation rules by an accident of birth.

I've been arguing with my parents about the merits of video games since I was, what, twelve?

And yet, just by having that argument, you had to have accepted the core premise that pride should be based on accomplishments stemming from personal effort -- you were only arguing about which accomplishments fit this description. Other families might place pride in knowing things, being a part of the family, showing loyalty, outsmarting people, knowing the right people, or any of dozens of other possible behavioral categories.

Um...

Sociometer theory is somewhat isomorphic to the truth, but it's lacking in important distinctions. It ignores the fact that there are people who pride themselves in being nonconformists, or the actions of people who practically beg to be persecuted, and then wear their persecution like a badge of honor. In order to make sense of such behaviors, you have to understand that your esteem isn't really measured by other people, except to the extent that you've been imprinted to measure it that way.

If a kid picks on you as a child, and your parents stand up for you, you learn that what others think may not be all that important. But if your parent teases you for being a crybaby, or tells you to ignore the other kids (and implicitly dismisses your fear), or tells you that you should just learn to fight back... you learn that your sociometer needs to be calibrated more from the outside than the inside.

In principle, a fully-developed human being would not require SASS from others, but rather give SASS to others. "Natural" schools of PUA, and charisma trainers of most other types already know this: making others feel important, liked, safe, and entertained is the best way to receive these values in return.

And you can't genuinely give any of those things to other people, unless you know how to give them to yourself.

Okay, now I've read it. Oddly enough, I don't have too much to say. (The fact that it's almost 4 AM may have something to do with that.)

And plenty of less-rational people than you are winning more at life than you

I'm not so sure about that, mostly because I still haven't figured out what it means to be winning at life. I don't have a job, but at least I don't have a job I hate. For a long time, I've been determined to avoid ending up living Thoreau's "life of quiet desperation" or, to use a more recent metaphor, living in a Dilbert cartoon. And I'm not living in a Dilbert cartoon. I don't want to be Dilbert, yet another cog in the corporate machine. I'd rather be Dilbert's garbageman, the only person in the whole strip who isn't stupid, evil, or a victim of someone who is. My brother currently works at Goldman Sachs, and he's getting up early so he can spend all day putting numbers into spreadsheets and then go home and collapse into bed. I don't know if I'd trade places with him. In the fable of the grasshopper and the ant, I sort of take the side of the grasshopper, or at least that's what try to convince myself of.

Now, if I could only stop worrying about what happens when the axe eventually falls...

I'm not so sure about that, mostly because I still haven't figured out what it means to be winning at life. ... Now, if I could only stop worrying about what happens when the axe eventually falls...

You may not know what it is, but surely you know what it's not. ;-)

Isn't unconditional praise empty praise? Is getting a trophy at "Everyone Gets A Trophy Day" meaningful?

No, but unconditional praise is not the same as unconditional love. (The latter seems to be closer to what PJ was talking about as parental pride, if I'm reading him correctly.) They are too often confused. Unconditional love is important, but unconditional praise is harmful, as is conditional praise that is predictable enough that the child learns to anticipate it and act based on it, praise that is given like a reward (a "status pellet") rather than as a genuine expression of gratitude or impressedness. Alfie Kohn has written a lot of interesting things on this and related subjects.

This is reminding me of Branden's idea of "primitive self-affirmation" which is prior to self-esteem. Unfortunately, I haven't seen anything where he pursues the idea further.

It also reminds me of something I read when I was fairly young-- it was advice to parents who have a kid with a fatal disease-- to just enjoy the present with the kid. At the time, this seemed like reasonable advice, except that I had no idea of what it would mean in practice.

It may not be a coincidence that I have bad problems with akrasia.

Note also Eby's comments and corrections to my summary at this comment.

You also could've searched the "Pain and Gain motivation" post page for the first reference to SASS.

(Perhaps someone should make a wiki entry for it, though.)

Okay, a Status threat is a threat to your status, a Safety threat is a threat to your safety. I can sort of guess what an Affiliation threat is--something like "people like me don't do this, so I had better not". A Stimulation threat, I have no plausible guess for. "If I don't do this, I'm going to be bored"?

Okay, a Status threat is a threat to your status, a Safety threat is a threat to your safety. I can sort of guess what an Affiliation threat is--something like "people like me don't do this, so I had better not".

Not that sophisticated, actually. Affiliation is a catch-all for being loved, liked, accepted, supported, understood, empathized with, etc. Bonding.

A Stimulation threat, I have no plausible guess for. "If I don't do this, I'm going to be bored"?

Yep. Stimulation isn't usually all that important, most of the time. I see Status and Affiliation threats involved in maybe 60-80% of cases, while Stimulation is more like 2 or 3%. But it does show up from time to time, and it makes for a nice acronym. ;-)

A rough chart of the (negative) emotions involved:

Status - anger, humiliation, hurt pride, indignation, embarassment

Affiliation - loneliness, rejection, unworthiness, inadequacy

Safety - fear, anxiety, uncertainty, stress

Stimulation - boredom, apathy, hopelessness

There are, of course, corresponding positive emotions for when you get each of the four values. (Like excitement and fun and joy, in the case of Stimulation.)

Anyway, whether positive or negative, these four kinds of things seem to essentially be the brain's terminal values - if you control a person's self-perceived levels of these things, you can pretty much imprint them however you like.

We spend our childhoods doing just that, actually -- learning associations between our built-in triggers, and either our environment, our actions, or other social constructs.

So for example, I learned over a good chunk of my childhood not to do almost anything exciting because my mother yelled at me until I matched her fear for my Safety, until I indeed loathed any sort of surprise or unexpectedness / unpredictability. I used to hate being around crowds and strangers because who knew what they might say or do?

(I only recently became aware of this link and removed it.... damn I've been missing out!)

Safety - ... uncertainty ...

I think I've discovered the source of my Internet addiction. I hate the feeling of not knowing! Oddly, I used to pride myself on my ignorance of current events. It's just that the more I learn the more it feels like I need to know. Classic addiction pattern.

I think I've discovered the source of my Internet addiction.

Probably not. First off, that's entirely too logical. ;-) Second, the aspect of behavior you describe is more parsimoniously explained by simple dopamine-driven behavior modification.

The reason you're surfing the internet instead of some more interesting source of dopamine, however, might well be something to do with a SASS threat, but you won't know what, specifically, unless you investigate.

Information that comes from outside you and sounds logical is generally the least likely source of good information about why you're doing what you're doing.