Recently I started picking up French again. I remembered getting something out of Duolingo a few years ago, so I logged in.

Since the last time I was there, they added an “achievements” mechanic:

I noticed this by earning one. I think it was “Sharpshooter”. They gave me the first of three stars for something like doing five lessons without mistakes. In the “achievements” section, it showed me that I could earn the second star by doing twenty lessons in a row flawlessly.

And my brain cared.

I watched myself hungering to get the achievements. These arbitrary things that someone had just stuck on there… in order to get me to want them. I noticed that I could get the second and maybe third star of “Sharpshooter” by doing earlier lessons and googling words and phrases I wasn’t quite sure about…

…which really doesn’t help me learn French.

Yes, we could quibble about that. Maybe perfect practice makes perfect, yada yada. But the point is: I disagree, I think my disagreement comes from knowing what I’m talking about when it comes to my learning, and someone’s arbitrary gold stars immediately overrode all that insight by grabbing my motivations directly.

I don’t have a problem with gamification per se. What bugs me here is that this specific gamification didn’t fit my goals, and that fact didn’t at all affect how well the system grabbed my wanting. I just… wanted those achievements. Because they were there.

If I hadn’t noticed this, and if I’m right about what I need to learn French, then I would have wasted a bunch of time pursuing a useless proxy goal. And I would have felt pleasure in achieving it. I might have even thought that was a meaningful sign that I was learning French — never mind that my goal of holding my own in conversations isn’t really helped by carefully avoiding typos.

Duncan Sabien sometimes talks about “lotus-eating”. He’s referring to a part of the Odyssey where they land on an island of “lotus-eaters”. It turns out that once you eat some of this kind of lotus, all you want to do is eat more. You stop caring about your other goals. The lotus just grabs your wants directly.

I claim you can notice when something grabs your wanting. Just… look. Just pay attention. Here are some lotuses I’ve noticed:

  • Most computer games are full of these. I sometimes play one called Alto’s Adventure. You flip a little character over and land some tricks, and then get a speed boost. If you collect enough coins, you can get special items or level them up to a maximum. If I start playing it, I notice I care about these arbitrary coins and flips and so on. And if I’ve been playing it recently, I notice myself wanting to pull the game out and play it some more. But what is gained by doing so? Maybe something, but if so then that’s a happy accident. My life isn’t any better after unlocking all the made-up achievements on this little made-up game. But each time I land a trick: BAM! A tiny burst of satisfaction, and a wanting to keep going.
  • Scrolling down on Facebook. There’s something about wanting to scroll a little farther. I get a “Yes!” and a “Just a little more” each time I scroll down and see a new post. Just another couple more minutes on Facebook, right? Oops.
  • Email. Where does the impulse to check email several times a day come from? Or to “catch up” on email? What are you trying to do? What does it feel like when you’ve just clicked “Send”?
  • Inbox zero in particular does this a lot for me. If I have just two emails, I want to reply to them right away, so I can get back to that oh so sacred inbox zero state. But then people reply, and I reply back, and my time gets eaten up… but at least I’m maintaining inbox zero, right?
  • Porn is loudly lotuses. The website Your Brain On Porn goes into this a ton.
  • YouTube has lotus nature. It’s actually designed for it, just like Facebook. When you watch a video, it tries to guess what video you might want to watch next, and adjusts depending on what you click or sit through.
  • The card game Dominion has a bunch of expansions. I found myself wanting to buy each expansion as it came out, because then my set would be complete, you see. Notice how the completeness is defined by someone else.

I think this kind of thing isn’t very hard to notice if you try. What suddenly has you caring? What drives you into a kind of action? Just notice.

Also notice when someone else built the want-grabber. Their incentives are probably different from yours. If you don’t pay attention, you’ll get hijacked.

And then you’re prone to rationalizing your addiction — like thinking that Facebook keeps you connected to your friends, but not really caring that maybe that’s false.

I claim you can come to notice what lotuses taste like. Then you can choose to break useless addictions. And it’ll feel good to do so: you’re breaking free of distractions and can tell.

I find this gets easier if you give yourself permission to eat lotuses if you want to. Then I don’t have to lie to myself about whether I am or not. I can just play Alto’s Adventure, or clear out my email, or whatever, and it’s fine. I just pay attention to the actual consequences — including the impact on what I later find myself wanting to do.

I ended up finding the taste of Duolingo’s lotus disgusting. I could tell I wanted more, and that wanting was distracting me from my goal. I could do more, but now I just don’t want to. It feels satisfying and empowering to resist the impulse to go back there and get one more star. I’m listening to French radio instead.

I invite you to learn what lotuses taste like, and reclaim your wanting for yourself.

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I really don't relate to the externalization people use about "lotus-eating", like, "Facebook is making me addicted, even though I want to be productive." Implicitly that means the "real" me is into "good" meaningful stuff. And that's not how it feels. It feels like I have very strong drives towards the bad stuff (like "contacting exes to annoy them") and Facebook is just a tool that enables me to do what I want, which is why I deleted my account a year ago, because some of my wants harm other people. But the wanting is mine.

In fact, sometimes I feel like "I want to do something cravey but I don't have anything cravey to do!" That comes up pretty often, tbh: food is only cravey when I'm hungry, videogames and shopping do nothing for me, I quit social media, etc.

When I want to do something cravey I work on my quantified self stuff. Forms and graphs.

I thought I'd add a few quick notes as the author.

As I reread this, a few things jump out for me:

  • I enjoy its writing style. Its clarity is probably part of why it was nominated.
  • I'd now say this post is making a couple of distinct claims:
    • External forces can shape what we want to do. (I.e., there are lotuses.)
    • It's possible to notice this in real time. (I.e., you can notice the taste of lotuses.)
    • It's good to do so. Otherwise we find our wanting aligned with others' goals regardless of how they relate to our own.
    • If you notice this, you'll find yourself wanting to spit out lotuses that you can tell pull you away from your goals.
  • I still basically agree with the content.
  • I think the emotional undertone is a little confused, says the version of me about 19 months later.

That last point is probably the most interesting to meta-reviewers, so I'll say a little about that here.

The basic emotional backdrop I brought in writing this was something like, "Look out, you could get hijacked! Better watch out!" And then luckily there's this thing you can be aware of, to defend yourself against one more form of psychic/emotional attack. Right?

I think this... (read more)

FWIW I think this sort of thing is actually among the more interesting things to cover in the review phase. Some things I'm most excited about the review phase include: * Figuring out out what the underlying gears were for ideas that were more metaphorical, or flavorful * Figuring out the limits of models * Thinking about how a model fits into the rest of the world
Ah, I didn't realize these post as comments. That's fine, I'll leave this here. I'm also amused by my poor modeling of intending "a few quick notes". I'm smiling bemusedly at myself, and also taking in that this has been a chronic years-long glitch in self-modeling. Oh, humans.
I haven't been deeply involved in the 2018 Review design process, maybe Ben and Ray have specific ideas, but my own vote is that reviewers should feel free to share whatever thoughts they have in response to their posts without worry about them going out of of bounds. I could imagine it being better if non-author reviews try to stay focused, but I'd vote that authors feel quite free to share all their current thoughts.

I was surprised that this post ever seemed surprising, which either means it wasn't revolutionary, or was *very* revolutionary. Since it has 229 karma, seems like it was the latter. I feel like the same post today would have been written with more explicit references to reinforcement learning, reward, addiction, and dopamine. The overall thesis seems to be that you can get a felt sense for these things, which would be surprising - isn't it the same kind of reward-seeking all the way down, including on things that are genuinely valuable? Not sure how to model this.

Is anything genuinely valuable though? I.e. independent of the fact that it generates rewards (feelings of happiness, life satisfaction, eudaemonia). A philosophical stance I know, but a widely held one.

I'd been watching an improv comedy show on YouTube for some time. A family member walked past, and feeling somewhat embarrassed, I switched to an entertaining maths video. Pretty much immediately a wave of tiredness hit me, so much so I had to rest my head on my arms.

The lotus nature of the videos meant I had been ignoring my need for sleep for at least an hour.

I think lotus eating requires a lack of awareness. You feel that quiet tension, as if something's a little off. But once you're in, game over.

This is a good post.

One thing I would add is that susceptibility to “lotuses” (a.k.a. Skinner boxes, in the context of games) seems to vary interpersonally quite a bit.

For example, I:

  • don’t have a Facebook account
  • don’t own a smartphone
  • don’t play Zynga-esque games
  • don’t browse Youtube
  • am actively turned off by “collectible” games, and never play them

The increasingly complete conversion of World of Warcraft from a glorified IRC server with pretty pictures into a series of elaborate Skinner boxes is what made me stop playing.

Now, I could claim that this is because I’m very good at noticing these things, and also have a heroic amount of willpower, but that ain’t so; I just find these things naturally repellent (a website having “achievements” or any other sort of “gamification” is one of the best ways to ensure that I will close the window within moments).

I don’t know to what extent this is “innate”. Part of it may be my field of study / work (knowing “how the sausage is made”, so to speak). Whether that’s causal, or downstream, I can’t say.

But, clearly, there’s considerable variation.

Update, five years later: I’ve been asked whether I still endorse the recommendations in commen... (read more)

Yep. It varies by lotus too. What counts as a lotus, and how strongly, seems to depend on whom we’re talking about. And clearly there are trends. Otherwise Facebook wouldn’t have its business model.

Scott wonders how anyone could ever find this surprising. I think it's like many things - the underlying concept is obviously there once you point it out, but it's easier not to think about or notice it, and easier not to have a model of what's going on beyond a vague sense that it is there and that this counts as the virtuous level of noticing.

My sense over time of how important this is gets bigger, not smaller, and I see almost no one properly noticing the taste of the Lotus. So this seems like one of the most important posts.

This reminds me a bit of my technique for becoming aware of intentions. Lotus-nature, or want-grabbiness, feels like a thing once you learn to notice it. Learning to notice it gives you powers you didn't have before you crystalized the concept and paid attention to it. The same goes for being aware of inner intentions, and, perhaps more importantly, their absence. (For example, if you find yourself vaguely disgusted with yourself for having browsed Facebook for an hour, but you cultivate a sense of your intentions, then you start automatically noticing that the primary reason you're still doing it is that you haven't bothered to formulate an intention to do anything else, so inertia wins by default.) I think there are a number of mental phenomena that we feel controlled by because we never actually notice them in detail. It's a bit like training peripheral vision. You can't train it until you notice it's a thing to be trained.

There's an awesome fictional metaphor of this that's really off-color. The online sex humor comic Oglaf has a two-page bit where the poor teased apprentice ends up so very much wanting a pinecone that he does some NSFW things he clearly would rather not have to do. I'll make you do a bit of work to find it though so you can only blame yourself if you don't like what you see there: oglaf dot com slash pinecone

Also note that the pinecone is enchanted to have exactly this effect, simply for the sadistic amusement of the enchanters.
I find this gets easier if you give yourself permission to eat lotuses if you want to. Then I don’t have to lie to myself about whether I am or not. I can just play Alto’s Adventure, or clear out my email, or whatever, and it’s fine. I just pay attention to the actual consequences — including the impact on what I later find myself wanting to do.

I examined this sentence for awhile, because it confused me. Then I noticed the difference in our experience:

It gets easier for you when you give yourself permission to do it when you want to, because you're ... (read more)

This thread contains interesting discussion of different experiences before, but I think contrast with your own in a complementary way.

Curated this post for:

  • Pointing to an effect which can easily cause one to get sidetracked from their goals, while simultaneously feeling that they are on track to their goals.
  • Being very readable and having good structure with lots of additional examples.

Is delicious food also a lotus? Clearly, it doesn't make your life better after you've eaten it, and that seem to be the criteria you use. But on the other hand, nobody says "I'm quitting delicious food", the same way they often say "I'm quitting facebook".

My point is that there is nothing inherently wrong with arbitrary pleasures that don't improve your life. The problem is when you develop compulsions. There seems to be a difference between simple desire and compulsive desire.

Is delicious food also a lotus?

I think it sort of misses the point to worry about what is or isn't a lotus. The point is to notice what grabs your wanting, and how that affects you later.

Clearly, it doesn't make your life better after you've eaten it, and that seem to be the criteria you use.

Not what I meant to convey. A lotus is something that grabs your wanting directly. When it's designed by someone else, it usually doesn't quite fit what's meaningful to you. Then it's pretty common to find yourself doing whatever it is a lot, and not benefitting much from it, and not caring about that fact.

My point is that there is nothing inherently wrong with arbitrary pleasures that don't improve your life.


The problem is when you develop compulsions. There seems to be a difference between simple desire and compulsive desire.

I don't know what a "compulsion" is. I mean, I know the word. But I don't really know what it is.

The problem I care about here, is that things can hijack what you care about, and the method they use for it doesn't correlate much with value delivered. Seems like something worth noticing when it's happening.

Maybe you mean the same thing. I just don't know what I'd use to sort out "simple desire" from "compulsive desire", so to me right now they're just words.

When I read about "compulsion", it's definitely more than a word to me. From the definition of compulsion. Compulsions are often tied to obsessions. From the Wikipedia article on compulsive behaviour: I don't have OCD, but I've had similar experiences. These are basic sources I'm using, but words like feeling "coerced" or "constrained" by an obsessive part of my mind into compulsively performing a behaviour wouldn't be out of place if I had try pointing out what that experience is like for me. It's often hard to stop doing it even though it feels adverse or painful to perform the behaviour. In the language of psychology, an *obsession* is a thought, while a *compulsion* is a behaviour. A desire is definitely more like a thought than a behaviour, so here when we're using the term "compulsive desire", to me it's ambiguous whether it's a thought or a behaviour. By compulsive behaviours are typically driven by *push* motivations, obsessions to make something go away. I don't experience dependency or addiction to a severe degree in the conventional sense of those words, which seems driven by a *pull* motivation. Addictions driven by pull motivations seem driven by a *desire* to fill an unfulfilled goal; your *pulling* something towards you to fulfill an empty goal-slot you can't fill by other means. (This reminds me of an article in which Diana Fleischman predicts the future impact of sexbots I read earlier today.) So when I think *compulsive desire* I imagine a desire to fulfill an addiction driven in the first place by a strong pull motivator. I know people who have experienced these compulsive desires much more deeply than I have, such as an (ex-)alcoholic friend who has been part of Alcoholics Anonymous for many years. He's told me stories of his and others' addictions, and it strikes me as deeper an addiction than anything I've ever felt. It really reinforces to me the purpose behind psychologists or alcohol and drug abuse awareness advocates
Yes, most pleasures grab your wanting. I'm suggesting that you actually enjoy collecting arbitrary achievements, there is no "hijacking" about it. And I don't understand why collecting arbitrary achievements needs to be meaningful, while delicious food is allowed to be meaningless. There is the issue that these achievements were designed for a goal (improve your learning), and that they fail that goal. However I don't see why this is an important distinction. I worry that the more important distinction between collecting achievements and eating food is that the former is a low-status activity. Good question. I don't think there is any objective measure to tell what desire is ok and what is a compulsion. I think, similarly to the word "disease", a desire is "compulsive" only if you think it causes problems for you.
Okay, seriously? You want to play this game? Meta time: I get that status here comes in part from good arguments. It's a fine metric for truth-seeking. But it isn't the same as truth-seeking, and it Goodharts into disagreement-hunting even where the disagreements don't matter. I'm trying to point at a simple observation: some things grab your wanting directly and yank you off-course. Seems like a good idea to notice when that happens. That's all. I'm not saying that one shouldn't ever let those want-grabbers do their thing. But maybe you can't tell I wasn't saying that; communication is hard. But if you think I am saying that… then can't you just notice that that's stupid, mention that, and highlight the point I should have made? So… I mean, really, you seriously think you're meaningfully refuting my points by saying I enjoy achievements and therefore there's no hijacking? Seriously? Seriously? I mean, I think your next norm-driven move is to say "Yes, seriously." And then do some kind of weird philosophical thing that, I don't know, makes it sound like I'm arguing that some wants are good and others are bad, and then knocking down that strawman. Or something. But… come on! Really? Can we just… not fence for status? </meta> I never said anything about food. Or about what needs to be meaningful. Just that there are want-grabbers that are meaningfulness-symmetric. I don't usually think of good food as lotus-like. Like, here are some pleasurable non-lotuses (for me): * Walks in nature. * Kissing someone I'm dating. * Meditating. * Intense exercise. * Breaking a fast with good food. * Doing an acrobatic flip. I basically never find these yanking me away from what I'm doing. I just like them. Sometimes I want to do some of them more and it's hard to make myself. Very not lotus-ish. Sometimes I don't do these things because I'm busy, I don't know, getting sucked into getting achievements on some game that leaves Tetris effects in my brain. I mean,

I understand the impulse to go "really, you can't be serious", especially given the tendency of LWers to nitpick, but I think one should be cautious about invoking it as long as there are charitable alternative interpretations.

In this particular case, I suspect we're running into a genuine difference between minds here. That is, I've encountered some people who genuinely seem to not experience compulsions: they might still e.g. procrastinate instead of doing something important, but their subjective experience is closer to "I don't want to do the important thing yet, so I'm choosing to do something fun instead" rather than "I know I should be doing the important thing but I can't make myself do it".

In other words, compulsions are usually understood as something ego-dystonic:

The discomfort experienced by an OCD patient is triggered by thoughts that are unambiguously experienced as alien to the patient’s core sense of self. Even in the most serious cases, when the unwanted thought arises—say, a compulsion to wash one’s hands for the tenth time in an hour—the patient is aware that her hands are not actually dirty. That is to
... (read more)
I understand the impulse to go "really, you can't be serious", especially given the tendency of LWers to nitpick, but I think one should be cautious about invoking it as long as there are charitable alternative interpretations.

That's not sustainable. There really are a certain subset of articles that have been suffering 'death by papercuts'. Yes, they get upvotes; yes, they get good comments - but the entire tone of their debates has been pretty thoroughly shredded by whataboutisms.

That actually *needs* a strong pushback. It creates a kind of emotional fatigue on the authors that legitimately drags down the quality of future articles.

That's a reasonable point.

On the other hand, if one wishes to solve this problem, one also needs to have a clear idea of what exactly is causing it. If people's behavior is driven by status-seeking, then that probably warrants different methods for dealing with it than if their behavior was driven by something else.

I have no doubt that some of the thing you described, is driven mostly by status-seeking. But I still maintain that, when evaluating the behavior of any given commenter, one should be cautious about jumping to that conclusion. Because:

1) On LW, "You're just trying to win status rather than caring about the truth" is one of the easiest and most negative assumptions of someone's motives that you can find. And when people are annoyed at something, they really like jumping to easy conclusions that paint the other person in a very bad light. If one does not take the time to look at reasonable alternative hypotheses, it's easy to end up concluding that everyone else is just some shade of "evil or dumb", regardless of whether that was true or not.

2) Ascribing bad motives to someone is a self-fulfilling propechy. Maybe someone is just... (read more)

We have limited cognition and limited emotional investment, much of which has already just been spent on creating what is hopefully a high-quality post. ONE person doing it through status-seeking creates like 10 copy-cats, of which eight probably ARE doing it genuinely.

But giving them all the benefit of the doubt lets the status-seeking saboteur hide among the rest, and separating them all out takes effort that wears down the author.

It's not sustainable.

I think that kaj is talking about "don't read motivations into people as part of your criticism, or at least be more cautious about doing so" – criticize them for the action they're doing if the action is bad.

I think ialdabaoth is saying 'yeah, but right now basically nobody is criticizing or stopping the people doing the death-by-cuts-thing, and whenever anyone tries, the moderators yell at them instead."

(I think right now the death-by-papercutters are basically coming in juuust under a line that the moderators feel awkward about taking action on, and the people criticizing them are coming in juust over that line, and yes, this is a bad dynamic)

I'm currently looking into solutions that are more on the "solve it with technology" side of things than the "solve it with social", but regardless agree that the status quo is bad.

What kinds of technological solutions are you thinking of?

Feel free to talk about it later if the ideas aren't ready for public presentation yet. In general I'm concerned that criticism is important, truth-seeking is hard to separate from status-seeking (authors can be self-deceived as easily as commenters about their judgments/motivations), and whatever solution we adopt not cause more harm than good through unintended side effects.

I touched upon this in a recent meta post, although in a different context. (Basically, I expect small/big upvote distinctions to help with this issue, at least somewhat, while also being positive from a truthseeking perspective. Later on I'll write up clearer thoughts on why I'm expecting this to help)
I anticipate that your tech solution will also help Eliezer come back - my intuition says that this is part of what he feels aversion to wasting energy on.
Oh yeah I have better than intuition, I have Eliezer literally* saying to us "dude I will try coming back when you take care of this shit." *okay okay almost literally

Weren’t the new moderation tools—where someone can make a top-level post and then delete every critical or contrary comment without a trace[1] (or, indeed, any comment at all, for any reason)—supposed to be Eliezer’s precondition for returning? I opposed that change, and still do, but it’s done—and now we’re hearing that it wasn’t enough? How seriously can we take Eliezer’s “I’ll come back when you __” stance this time, and how many other changes do you intend to make in the service of this goal?

[1] By the way, what’s the status of the moderation log feature?

Oh, actually I got a basic version of the moderation log done awhile ago and then I think I forgot to list it in an update post (or maybe I mentioned it but it got lost in the shuffle, unsure). Sorry

In any case, is here. Haven't yet implemented a "link this at the bottom of the comment section" or some-such yet.

Sorry about that.

Neat. Er, are the "User" and "Deleted by user" columns meant to be the same? Because it seems like they *are* the same but I'd have expected the former to contain the name of the user who *posted* the thing-that-got-deleted, not the name of the user who deleted it.
Oh, yeah. (actually come to think of it I may have noticed that bug, though "I'll fix that bug and then announce it, and then never got around to fixing it.")
Sure. But in the meantime, realize that the fact that Val's comment was downvoted into the negatives is a signal about something, and it's about something you and Ben and Ollie and Kaj are doing. And then decide whether you're okay with all the consequences of that.
9Wei Dai
Can you link to some posts that have suffered from this?

I drew from my own experience to make the same point in this comment. I broke it down into:

  • push and pull motivations driving desires
  • *compulsive desire* in context appearing to mean something like a pull-driven behaviour. The distinction between pull and push motivations here is fuzzy, but "compulsive desire" strikes me more as more like "addiction", which is chasing something and pull it toward you, which I expect can also exist in OCD, but some obsessive compulsions in OCD and my own have been driven by push motivations; the urge to *push* something away to get away from it, usually an intrusive thought.
  • In the words you're using, what we colloquially call "addictions" are in psychiatry or other technical fields known as "dependencies", and "addiction" as a word being reserved for especially severe cases. So it seems my experience is of ego-dystonic push motivations, dependency is typically an experience of ego-syntonic pull motivations, but drug addiction may typically be experienced as an ego-dystonic *pull* motivation. I think this reinforces your point about how we're talking about a difference between minds, as the
... (read more)
That's interesting. I definitely never feel like my thoughts or desires are alien to me. That sounds very unhealthy. But, I definitely exhibit compulsions, or at least compulsive behaviors. I think the difference might be different perspectives or mental habits, rather than a real difference between minds. One thing is rationalization - "I'm watching funny youtube videos, that's probably because I want and like funny youtube videos". Another thing is a sort of self awareness - I may feel for a moment "I want to work, instead of watching funny youtube videos", but then immediately remember that, in fact, working is hard, and I don't actually want it that much (although I do want to be a sort of person who works more, not sure to what extent this is "egodystonic").
That's pretty interesting. Some practices seem squarely aimed at converting people who are dystonic to syntonic. Heavy overlap with locus of control training.
I really don't like that sort of status explanation. I'm under no illusion that this is giving me any sort of status. If it does, then I have no idea what that status looks like. It's never bad to notice what you're doing, so I have nothing to say about that. Nobody said "never", but the post seems clearly cautionary to me. You use words like "useless", "addiction", "hijack" which have very negative connotations (as does "lotus" itself). Also, you linked to "Your Brain On Porn", which does promote abstinence, as I understand. More generally, I automatically placed your post into the same mental bucket as various "evil facebook is manipulating you" articles, which should explain why I interpret any ambiguities negatively. It might be unfair, but I can't say that it doesn't fit. Was I not supposed to read your post that way? Yeah, I'm not saying anything smart here, though it's not quite that circular. I mean, compulsion is something you can get diagnosed with, I think. Also, I think, "compulsion" is the correct term for "addictions" that don't actually involve drugs (e.g. gambling, facebook). My point in bringing up "compulsions" was that there is already a word for "desires that cause problems", and I don't really understand why we want a new word, or in what way "lotus" is different. If it is different, I wonder if it is a natural category. That's why I asked whether food is a lotus at the very beginning - I don't really understand what the category looks like. I would have appreciated more analysis on that. My current guess is that non-lotus pleasures are those that have some sort of negative feedback loops in them - e.g. eating isn't a lotus, because once you're full, it doesn't feel as good. On the other hand, work can be a lotus, if you reach a state where you don't want to stop, and there is nothing negative about such "lotus". So it's not exactly "compulsion" but a little more general, though all compulsions are also "lotuses". Is that right?
The core component of the lotus--the reason why Duncan referred to that in the first place--is that the lotus removes you from the plot. What falls into that category depends on what you think the plot is. Someone focused primarily on their life satisfaction will have different views from someone interested in the march of scientific progress, or from someone who is focused primarily on existential risk, or so on.
So a thing is a "lotus" if you desire it, but would prefer not to desire it? Well, that's a meaningful category, but it's very different from the compulsiveness that Valentine seems to describe. Or does a thing need both properties, to be a "lotus". More importantly, what is this "plot" and where does it come from? It's good to have preferences over preferences, but I worry that you're identifying with them way too much.
I'd call delicious food a lotus for me. Sometimes it feels so easy for me to fall into addictions that I could get addicted to cereal. Palatable food may indeed highjack things in our brains leading to negative consequences. I've also personally found that always eating delicious foods will make me subconsciously start looking for food in moments of boredom. I do think it's important to experience pleasures in life, and delicious food is a great treat, but like too many things in our lives, our food supply is being engineered to superstimulus levels and caution is totally warranted.
Feel free to substitute food with any other common short-term pleasure. Yes, it's probably possible to develop an unhealthy relationship with anything. But does that make every pleasure a lotus? If it does then "lotus" isn't a useful term.

I think the following is (1) at least close to what Valentine is saying and (2) obviously not content-free: Wanting and liking are separate things. When we like things, we tend to want them as a result. And sometimes we want things because (that's an "evolutionary" because) they are useful to us. But there are things we want because of processes other than utility->wanting (via evolution) and liking->wanting (via learning). Call these things "lotuses".

I make the following claims.

1. Some things are lotuses in this sense. For instance, those Duolingo "achievements" were lotuses for Valentine. He found himself wanting them before ever getting any (so it's not that he got some, found that he enjoyed getting them, and wanted them for the sake of that enjoyment). And they certainly aren't a close match for anything that makes much difference to evolutionary "fitness".

2. Not everything we want is a lotus in this sense. For instance, we want food because if we don't eat we die and our potential ancestors who cared much less about getting food were less successful. So food isn't a lotus (though you could argue that some ... (read more)

He found himself wanting them before ever getting any (so it’s not that he got some, found that he enjoyed getting them, and wanted them for the sake of that enjoyment).

He found out they existed by getting one.

Regardless, this feels like not quite the thing. It's not that he didn't enjoy getting them. It's that he was trying to learn French, and now suddenly instead he was trying to earn achievements in "learning French". No matter how much he liked those achievements, they got in the way of actually learning French.

With that in mind, I think the answer to "is food a lotus" would be: for some people, in some contexts, yes.

Like, if I go to a networking event intending to meet people, but instead I spend all my time gorging myself at the buffet.

I had a goal, and the food meant that instead of working towards my goal, now I'm doing something that won't help it at all. If food is sufficiently lotus-like for me, I might need to completely avoid networking events with buffets. This is true even if I actually really enjoy food, and endorse that enjoyment in general.

Whoops, you're right about how he found out; my apologies. Still, my reading of the OP is that the craving Valentine felt for earning achievements wasn't primarily a result of the actual pleasure he got when he did it. I agree that the definition of "lotus" I proposed is not quite the thing in the sense that it doesn't quite track what we care about, and said as much in my last paragraph; I think "thing we want out of proportion to its benefits" is pretty close to being the thing, but whether that makes it a better definition to use isn't obvious to me. (If I understand your proposal right, it's maybe different again: something is a "lotus" if we want it, and there's something closely related that would be beneficial or pleasurable for us, but the two don't match. That feels to me like it's again not quite the thing -- something could be perilously want-hijacking, and worth "noticing the taste of", without that sort of proximity to useful wants.)
My food example doesn't feel to me like the food is particularly close to the networking. Which is to say, I agree with your last sentence. (I don't feel like I'm trying to propose a definition here, just gesture vaguely at a cluster and some features of it that seem relevant. Similarly, I don't have particular feelings about your proposed definition. Most of my comment might have been better directed as a reply to someone else.)
It sounds like one rationalist's lotus ponens is another rationalist's lotus tollens.
Thinking of brain-hijacking in terms of a "superstimulus" is probably the best way to think of what people mean by "hijacked" when they use the word on LW, as opposed to a more violent connotation.
4Said Achmiz
Ah, but delicious food does improve my life. I enjoy eating it, after all! Sensory pleasures, aesthetic pleasures, visceral satisfaction—those things constitute improvements to my life. I do not have time to write the comment I’d like to write about this—one with a full analysis of this question—but here are some quick thoughts, things that seem relevant: 1. The difference between “wanting” and “liking” 2. The difference between “wanting” and “wanting to want” (i.e., higher-order desires) 3. Endorsed vs. unendorsed { pleasures, desires, preferences, reactions to experiences } 4. Tradeoffs between preferences / desires / pleasures (If anyone finds the relevance of any of these things to the topic non-obvious, let me know and I’ll write more about it.)
For benefit of people not familiar with the stuff Said is referencing, here's a Scott Alexander post delving into the differences between wanting and liking (including links to previous discussion, which also include "vs endorsing").
Yes, and Valentine apparently enjoys collecting arbitrary achievements. There is nothing wrong with that, though, it seems that he's feeling some guilt about it. I think "wanting to want" is the key difference here. Not sure how much the others apply.
"Enjoy" is too simple to describe what's true here. I find myself motivated to collect them. When I get another one, I get a "I'm getting closer!" feeling. Getting them all gives me a few moments of satisfaction, sort of like having carefully organized a silverware drawer might. And I agree, there's nothing wrong with that per se. I just don't want that process to hijack my effort to learn French. Uh, no. I don't know where you got that impression. I don't feel guilty about eating lotus. I just want to notice when I am, because apparently I can be fed lotus without my asking for it. If I don't notice, then others can tell me what my goals are, even accidentally. I don't like that.
I enjoy candy. If someone gives me candy, that's good. Even if I'm trying to learn French, and someone offers me candy rewards for reaching arbitrary milestones, that's still good. Even if I'm somehow not aware that the milestones are arbitrary and that they don't really help me learn French, it's still good, because I'm getting candy, and I like candy. I would never call that "hijacking". No, I'm exchanging a miniscule bit of French-ability for some candy. It's a trade that satisfies my preferences. I have nothing even slightly negative to say about these candy-givers. You, on the other hand, do use such harsh words as "hijack", which suggests that there are some negative emotions related to the lotus. I'm only guessing that guilt might be the cause (this is "guilt" in the sense of "guilty pleasure"). Also, you used the word "lotus" from the Odyssey, where it is not depicted in a very positive light. Was I not supposed to deduce anything from that choice of a name?
I think all you're missing is words like "lotus" and "hijacked" have developed connotations on LessWrong which aren't as harsh as the basic connotations of those words used outside the context of LW, and that it's those connotations Val sought to bring to mind in his post, and not that of hijacking planes or the Odyssey.
Oh. Can you give me some links to that?
Many people who are overweight do "quit" tasty food in order to lose weight, although it's not really the same thing, because the issue isn't the time-wasting but the unhealthiness. It seems to me that a defining characteristic of lotuses is that they waste time. Eating tasty food doesn't usually take more time than other food. In fact, it's often quite the opposite, given fast food and preprepared junk food.
Fast food wasn't quite what I was thinking of. Instead immagine someone who goes to fancy restaurants often, buys the most expensive wines, etc. We call those people gourmets, I think. Does that make food a lotus? Or is it a healthy hobby?

Promoted to frontpage.

In the past, I've run into a problem where if I start giving up on lotuses in general, I start losing motivation to do anything at all.

Also, mediocre video games suddenly become a lot more appealing when I have work to avoid. :)

Yeah. I think giving up on things that are appealing, doesn't work. That's why I titled this about noticing the taste of lotus, rather than noticing lotuses. We have to use proxy goals. The trick is, noticing when we're getting Goodharted.

This post, and the subsequent comment by Sarah Constantin, really juxtaposed the concept of people who view themselves at war, with good and bad desires, and people who view themselves as at peace, with multiple desires which have different effects on their lives.

If I could nominate the post and comment together, I would.

I get this IRL with people's faces. I want to keep looking at someone to see whether or not they *approve*.

There's a flip side to this, where I notice that if I play a video game, or watch a tv show, I have the sense that I am going to be punished for *getting up and leaving the game*. That exiting the approval system of the game will draw the game's ire.

When I notice lotus-taste, I also look for an expected punishment. I also find that that is helpful, because the expected punishment is somehow easier to source as coming from within me.

In f... (read more)

I think an important point here and with noticing a lot of things in general, is that the taste of lotus is somatically present - you can feel it in your body. I think that if one practices becoming attuned to the physical sensations in your body then a lot of things become available to Noticing. There is just *so much* that goes on in the body when you do things. This is a generalization of a key insight of Focusing - it's not just beliefs that you can get a handle on through your body. Action and decision are present there too (initiate the action o... (read more)

This post provides a useful conceptual handle for zooming on what's actually happening when I get distracted, or procrastinate. Noticing this feeling has been a helpful step in preventing it.

I liked this post, because it reminded me of how virtuous I am for breaking free of the useless distractions I've broken free of!


I agree that this is something you can learn to notice and avoid. I find myself a little allergic to these things such that gamification actually feels repulsive. I tried out Pokemon Go recently, and it was terrifying how the game was set up, such that all your actions gave you little boosts, and the tapping led to bubbles, which burst and gave you colored points, etc.

There's something very much about being "in the thrall" of one of these traps, where you can get sucked in. I think the "one more X" mentality also captures a good part of this (where X is food, porn, videos, games, etc.)


I am in Duolingo learning French, and the one thing I am trying to keep is the "streak", i.e. the long uninterrupted chain of attendance days.

In fact, I am allowed to skip a day or two, if I pay by gems I earned before. (I also regularly earn more gems by constantly renewing the bet, that my streak will not be interrupted, which has a circular self reinforcing effect.)

I basically ignore the incentives other than the "streak", and it works well for me. I am at unit 21 after a year and most people I know did not get this far in any duolingo language.

Edit: T... (read more)

This resonates with me especially for having purchased a manual transmission vehicle specifically so that I would not succumb to the temptation to hurl my tons-heavy machine at everything that isn't an iPhone Retina display and is thus goes unseen.

I think I managed to avoid the Inbox Zero thing by not reading my emails, if the little bit of text that Gmail displays is enough for be to be confident that I don't need to read or respond to the mail. This means that I have a huge, constantly growing number of unread mails in my inbox, so the idea of getting it down to zero isn't really attractive.

I still check my email unnecessarily often, but I don't feel a compulsion to read any new mails immediately.


On a meta note, this LW-specific habit of introducing new names/labels for things that already have clear, well-established terminology is particularly bothering. Especially when the name is completely unrelated to the concept (i.e. lotus leaves). (OTOH, the social forces that drive this habit are easy to intuit).

(On topic, like most if not all of us have dealt with the intricacies of the dopaminergic system, perhaps I will at one point write my experiences on my blog).

So what would be the more standard term here?

What does it look like to be genre savvy about insights becoming cheaper/more numerous over time?

Um… what? Can you say more words?
Variable reinforcement. Decreasing payouts over time in any given domain. But always some new arena to jump to. Insights can be lotus flavored. But then they flow more easily once you can Look. How does that play out? For people at different stages of the addiction cycle?
Oh. You're asking how noticing lotus flavor plays out in domains that make people addicted to insights? I don't know. Seems like it'd work the same as in any other domain. Either you notice and have some choice about whether to get sucked in, or you don't.
The question was somewhat rhetorical. I'm pointing back at the generative seed for this post.
As someone who independently came across this, the generative seed for this idea was using Focusing on why I kept scrolling down on Facebook (which I'm happy is an example here).