Approving reinforces low-effort behaviors


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Scott Alexander

In addition to "liking" to describe pleasure and "wanting" to describe motivation, we add "approving" to describe thoughts that are ego syntonic.

A heroin addict likes heroin. He certainly wants more heroin. But he may not approve of taking heroin. In fact, there are enough different cases to fill in all eight boxes of the implied 2x2x2 grid (your mileage may vary):

+wanting/+liking/+approving: Romantic love. If you're doing it right, you enjoy being with your partner, you're motivated to spend time with your partner, and you think love is a wonderful (maybe even many-splendored) thing.

+wanting/+liking/-approving: The aforementioned heroin addict feels good when taking heroin, is motivated to get more, but wishes he wasn't addicted.

+wanting/-liking/+approving: I have taken up disc golf. I play it every day, and when events conspire to prevent me from playing it, I seethe. I approve of this pastime: I need to take up more sports, and it helps me spend time with my family. But when I am playing, all I feel is stressed and angry that I was literally *that* close how could I miss that shot aaaaarggghh.

+wanting/-liking/-approving: The jaded addict. I have a friend who says she no longer even enjoys coffee or gets any boost from it, she just feels like she has to have it when she gets up.

-wanting/+liking/+approving: Reading non-fiction. I enjoy it when I'm doing it, I think it's great because it makes me more educated, but I can rarely bring myself to do it.

-wanting/-liking/+approving:
Working in a soup kitchen. Unless you're the type for whom helping others is literally its own reward it's not the most fun thing in the world, nor is it the most attractive, but it makes you a Good Person and so you should do it.

-wanting/+liking/-approving:
The non-addict. I don't want heroin right now. I think heroin use is repugnant. But if I took some, I sure bet I'd like it.

-wanting/-liking/-approving:
Torture. I don't want to be tortured, I wouldn't like it if I were, and I will go on record declaring myself to be against it.


Discussion of goals is mostly about approving; a goal is an ego-syntonic thought. When we speak of goals that are hard to achieve, we're usually talking about +approving/-wanting. The previous discussion of learning Swahili is one example; more noble causes like Working To Help The Less Fortunate can be others.

Ego syntonicity itself is mildly reinforcing by promoting positive self-image. Most people interested in philosophy have at least once sat down and moved their arm from side to side, just to note that their mind really does control their body; the mental processes that produced curiosity about philosophy were sufficiently powerful to produce that behavior as well. Some processes, like moving one's arm, or speaking aloud, or engaging in verbal thought, are so effortless, and so empty of other reinforcement either way, that we usually expect them to be completely under the control of the mild reinforcement provided by approving of those behaviors.

Other behaviors take more effort, and are subject not only to discounting but to many other forms of reinforcement. Unlike the first class of behaviors, we expect to experience akrasia when dealing with this latter sort. This offers another approach to willpower: taking low-effort approving-influenced actions that affect the harder road ahead.

Consider the action of making a goal. I go to all my friends and say "Today I shall begin learning Swahili." This is easy to do. There is no chance of me intending to do so and failing; my speech is output by the same processes as my intentions, so I can "trust" it. But this is not just an output of my mental processes, but an input. One of the processes potentially reinforcing my behavior of learning Swahili is "If I don't do this, I'll look stupid in front of my friends."

Will it be enough? Maybe not. But this is still an impressive process: my mind has deliberately tweaked its own inputs to change the output of its own algorithm. It's not even pretending to be working off of fixed preferences anymore, it's assuming that one sort of action (speaking) will work differently from another action (studying), because the first can be executed solely through the power of ego syntonicity, and the second may require stronger forms of reinforcement. It gets even weirder when goals are entirely mental: held under threat not of social disapproval, but of feeling bad because you're not as effective as you thought. The mind is using mind's opinion of the mind to blackmail the mind.

But we do this sort of thing all the time. The dieter who successfully avoids buying sweets when he's at the store because he knows he would eat them at home is changing his decisions by forcing effort discounting of any future sweet-related reward (because he'd have to go back to the store). The binge shopper who freezes her credit cards in a block of ice is using time discounting in the same way. The rationalist who sends money to stickk is imposing a punishment with a few immediate and effortless mouse clicks. Even the poor unhappy person who tries to conquer through willpower alone is trying to set up the goal as a Big Deal so she will feel extra bad if she fails. All are using their near-complete control of effortless immediate actions to make up for their incomplete control of high-effort long-term actions.

This process is especially important to transhumanists. In the future, we may have the ability to self-modify in complicated ways that have not built up strong patterns of reinforcement around them. For example, we may be able to program ourselves at the push of a button. Such programming would be so effortless and empty of past reinforcement that behavior involving it would be reinforced entirely by our ego-syntonic thoughts. It would supersede our current psychodynamics, in which our thoughts are only tenuously linked to our important actions and major life decisions. A Singularity in which behaviors were executed by effectively omnipotent machines that acted on our preferences - preferences which we would presumably communicate through low-effort channels like typed commands - would be an ultimate triumph for the ego-syntonic faction of the brain.