Would Your Real Preferences Please Stand Up?

by Scott Alexander3 min read8th Aug 2009132 comments


MotivationsRationalityWorld Optimization

Related to: Cynicism in Ev Psych and Econ

In Finding the Source, a commenter says:

I have begun wondering whether claiming to be victim of 'akrasia' might just be a way of admitting that your real preferences, as revealed in your actions, don't match the preferences you want to signal (believing what you want to signal, even if untrue, makes the signals more effective).

I think I've seen Robin put forth something like this argument [EDIT: Something related, but very different], and TGGP points out that Brian Caplan explicitly believes pretty much the same thing1:

I've previously argued that much - perhaps most - talk about "self-control" problems reflects social desirability bias rather than genuine inner conflict.

Part of the reason why people who spend a lot of time and money on socially disapproved behaviors say they "want to change" is that that's what they're supposed to say.

Think of it this way: A guy loses his wife and kids because he's a drunk. Suppose he sincerely prefers alcohol to his wife and kids. He still probably won't admit it, because people judge a sinner even more harshly if he is unrepentent. The drunk who says "I was such a fool!" gets some pity; the drunk who says "I like Jack Daniels better than my wife and kids" gets horrified looks. And either way, he can keep drinking.

I'll call this the Cynic's Theory of Akrasia, as opposed to the Naive Theory. I used to think it was plausible. Now that I think about it a little more, I find it meaningless. Here's what changed my mind.

What part of the mind, exactly, prefers a socially unacceptable activity (like drinking whiskey or browsing Reddit) to an acceptable activity (like having a wife and kids, or studying)? The conscious mind? As Bill said in his comment, it doesn't seem like it works this way. I've had akrasia myself, and I never consciously think "Wow, I really like browsing Reddit...but I'll trick everyone else into thinking I'd rather be studying so I get more respect. Ha ha! The fools will never see it coming!"

No, my conscious mind fully believes that I would rather be studying2. And this even gets reflected in my actions. I've tried anti-procrastination techniques, both successfully and unsuccessfully, without ever telling them to another living soul. People trying to diet don't take out the cupcakes as soon as no one else is looking (or, if they do, they feel guilty about it).

This is as it should be. It is a classic finding in evolutionary psychology: the person who wants to fool others begins by fooling themselves. Some people even call the conscious mind the "public relations officer" of the brain, and argue that its entire point is to sit around and get fooled by everything we want to signal. As Bill said, "believing the signals, even if untrue, makes the signals more effective."

Now we have enough information to see why the Cynic's Theory is equivalent to the Naive Theory.

The Naive Theory says that you really want to stop drinking, but some force from your unconscious mind is hijacking your actions. The Cynic's Theory says that you really want to keep drinking, but your conscious mind is hijacking your thoughts and making you think otherwise.

In both cases, the conscious mind determines the signal and the unconscious mind determines the action. The only difference is which preference we define as "real" and worthy of sympathy. In the Naive Theory, we sympathize with the conscious mind, and the problem is the unconscious mind keeps committing contradictory actions. In the Cynic's Theory, we symapthize with the unconscious mind, and the problem is the conscious mind keeps sending out contradictory signals. The Naive say: find some way to make the unconscious mind stop hijacking actions! The Cynic says: find some way to make the conscious mind stop sending false signals!

So why prefer one theory over the other? Well, I'm not surprised that it's mostly economists who support the Cynic's Theory. Economists are understandably interested in revealed preferences3, because revealed preferences are revealed by economic transactions and are the ones that determine the economy. It's perfectly reasonable for an economist to care only about those and dimiss any other kind of preference as a red herring that has to be removed before economic calculations can be done. Someone like a philosopher, who is more interested in thought and the mind, might be more susceptible to the identify-with-conscious-thought Naive Theory.

But notice how the theory you choose also has serious political implications4. Consider how each of the two ways of looking at the problem would treat this example:

A wealthy liberal is a member of many environmental organizations, and wants taxes to go up to pay for better conservation programs. However, she can't bring herself to give up her gas-guzzling SUV, and is usually too lazy to sort all her trash for recycling.

I myself throw my support squarely behind the Naive Theory. Conscious minds are potentially rational5, informed by morality, and qualia-laden. Unconscious minds aren't, so who cares what they think?



1: Caplan says that the lack of interest in Stickk offers support for the Cynic's Theory, but I don't see why it should, unless we believe the mental balance of power should be different when deciding whether to use Stickk than when deciding whether to do anything else.

Caplan also suggests in another article that he has never experienced procrastination as akrasia. Although I find this surprising, I don't find it absolutely impossible to believe. His mind may either be exceptionally well-integrated, or it may send signals differently. It seems within the range of normal human mental variation.

2: Of course, I could be lying here, to signal to you that I have socially acceptable beliefs. I suppose I can only make my point if you often have the same experience, or if you've caught someone else fighting akrasia when they didn't know you were there.

3: Even the term "revealed preferences" imports this value system, as if the act of buying something is a revelation that drives away the mist of the false consciously believed preferences.

4: For a real-world example of a politically-charged conflict surrounding the question of whether we should judge on conscious or unconscious beliefs, see Robin's post Redistribution Isn't About Sympathy and my reply.

5: Differences between the conscious and unconscious mind should usually correspond to differences between the goals of a person and the "goals" of the genome, or else between subgoals important today and subgoals important in the EEA.