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.
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.
I thought I'd add a few quick notes as the author.
As I reread this, a few things jump out for me:
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)
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.
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:
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.
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
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.
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.
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)
Curated this post for:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:... (read more)
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.
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 (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?
 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, https://www.lesswrong.com/moderation is here. Haven't yet implemented a "link this at the bottom of the comment section" or some-such yet.
Sorry about that.
I drew from my own experience to make the same point in this comment. I broke it down into:
... (read more)
- 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
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. :)
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 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)
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)
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 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.)
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.
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!
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).
What does it look like to be genre savvy about insights becoming cheaper/more numerous over time?