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Ever had a long term goal you wanted to achieve, like publishing a paper, getting fit or maintaining a blog, that you always put off and never actually got done? You and me both!
I’m not sure whether it’s because I have more ambitious goals than others or just less discipline, but I only rarely feel I’m using my spare time as well as I could. I spend too much time on easy things like reading and talking and too little doing substantive research.
Why is this akrasia such a common experience? If you’ll permit me some evolutionary ‘just-so story’ telling, and I know you will, my guess is that hunter-gatherers did not have to deal with many far off goals that required the determination to stick with unrewarding, difficult or tedious tasks. Hunting, gathering and socialising all offered pretty immediate payoffs so humans are not programmed to do the things the modern world requires of us. As a result discipline – who has it and how to achieve it – is a huge concern through farmer and industrial culture.
Whatever the cause, I think I have found a partial cure. For the last month I’ve been using the website Beeminder to set myself goals and stay on track to meet them. I signed up on the recommendation of two close friends who said it had dramatically enhanced their lives and it has had a similar impact for me.
The strategy of Beeminder is to remove procrastination as an option. Beeminder takes whatever long term goal you are aspring towards and sets out a linear trajectory until it is reached. If you ever fall below that trajectory you have failed at your goal. As a result you regularly face days when you must make some progress towards your goal, or lose. If you do extra today, then you build up a buffer that takes the pressure off tomorrow. The system does rely on you being honest about what you have done, though you could give your account to a friend and let them enter the data for you. It’s very satisfying to see your graph grow as you inch towards your goal, and once you have made some progress, it feels tragic to let your graph get frozen and have to start from scratch.
The first time you attempt a task there is no penalty for failure – apart from whatever disappointment and shame you happen to feel – but if you want to reattempt it Beeminder prompts you to put some money on the line. That money is taken from you if you fail and choose to attempt again. The financial penalty grows three-fold for each subsequent attempt, so you can pretty quickly end up with a lot of cash on the line, if you weren’t otherwise sufficiently motivated. These penalties are how the Beeminder folks hope to make money.
I now approach my evenings and weekends in a much more structured way. On Saturday morning I knew for example, that I had to work-out twice, write two blog posts and get at least three unreplied emails out of my backlog before the weekend was over. Rather than drift through until the early afternoon, as I often used to do, I mentally set out a schedule that allowed me to achieve all of those things. When I’m not working on Beeminder tasks I get to enjoy true ‘down-time’ and the fact that I have ‘things to get done’ means that I treasure and use that time much more effectively than I otherwise would. The fact that I have satisfied my pre-defined targets also means I don’t feel guilty when I do relax.
Some people who hear about Beeminder are nervous about the apparent loss of control over their lives. While it is true that the ‘momentary you’ loses some control, it is only giving up control to your ‘past self’. You can always change your goals with a week’s notice, so you are only ever a slave to a very recent past ‘you’. And while it can be a pain to have to complete a task on a particular day, once you notice that, you will naturally work up a buffer so you can always take the day off if something urgent does come up.
Other people feel that Beeminder will crowd-out their ‘true’ discipline, which is what they should be relying on. If you care about outcomes the proof will be in the pudding; for now at least this tool has enhanced my apparent discipline. The immediacy Beeminder creates does mean I need less willpower to motivate myself to do some things, but I see that as a postive rather than a negative. Drawing on willpower is exhausting.
Others value carefree spontaneity over the kind of focus Beeminder is designed to foster. Certainly a Beeminder task mandating that you ‘relax and enjoy the moment’ would have a touch of irony – though if I ever do a PhD I think I’ll need one. If you are comfortable with how much you satisfy your second-order desires or your first-order and second-order desires coincide – lucky you - then feel free to ignore this post.
But for the rest of us there’s now Beeminder.
I’m going to do a back-of-the-envelope calculation on ‘local food’ and then later ‘fair trade’ to explain why I don’t think they are worth putting much effort into. I hope it will inspire you to do the same for whatever approaches you currently use to make the world a better place.
As you probably know, local food or locovorism is where people aspire to buy food made near to where they live. On a recent trip to the States I was astonished at the size of the local food movement. Everywhere I went people would beam with pride about how nearby their food was produced. There are several proposed benefits of local food  but probably the most common one is wanting to reduce the environmental damage caused by food transport, so called ‘food miles’. For this to be the best thing for someone to dedicate their attention to a few things need to be true:
- environmental degradation and climate change would need to be valuable things to direct attention to on the margin;
- reducing your personal environmental footprint would need to be an effective thing to do about those problems;
- buying food produced near you would need to be a cost-effective or effort-effective way to achieve that.
Let’s assume for the moment that environmental degradation were the most important problem to work on. Reducing the effect of your personal consumption would be only one way to direct your effort. Others would include working to change environmental regulations, convincing others to do more themselves, expanding humanity’s ability to adapt to environmental degradation (for instance through poverty alleviation, migration or geoengineering) or assisting researchers developing green technology. Intuitively I expect all of those to pack a bigger punch per hour than trying to change your own consumption habits. But let’s say my instinct is wrong about that.
If you wanted to reduce the environmental impact of your own consumption, would buying food produced nearby be an effective approach? Let’s get some indication of the good you could hope to do:
Desrochers and Shimizu cite a comprehensive study done by the United Kingdom’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) which reported that 82 percent of food miles were generated within the U.K. Consumer shopping trips accounted for 48 percent and trucking for 31 percent of British food miles. Air freight amounted to less than 1 percent of food miles. In total, food transportation accounted for only 1.8 percent of Britain’s carbon dioxide emissions.
In the United States, a 2007 analysis found that transporting food from producers to retailers accounted for only 4 percent of greenhouse emissions related to food. According to a 2000 study, agriculture was responsible for 7.7 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. In that study, food transport accounted for 14 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with agriculture, which means that food transport is responsible for about 1 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
So if we assume that buying local food eliminated all emissions from food transport you could hope to cut 1-2% of your total greenhouse gas emissions. Then there are some offsetting effects. A strong preference among consumers for local food would tend to drive agriculture towards places where it is otherwise less efficient, requiring more machinery, labour or land to produce the same food. This would also be bad for the environment. On top of this, as indicated in the quote above, retail-to-home transport has about the same impact as farm-to-retail transport. If someone drives further to the farmers’ market to buy local, they could end up producing more food miles overall. How significant these offsetting effects are will vary depending on the person and the food they are buying, but they suggest that 2 per cent is a generous upper bound.
What would be the rough value of a 2 per cent reduction in your emissions? Let’s say you are a big polluter and produce 20 tonnes of CO2 equivalent each year. Let’s also take a high value of emissions reductions of $100 per tonne. This is several times the current marginal cost of reducing emissions and is probably more than enough to get us climate stabilisation at 450 CO2e, but let’s use it anyway. A 2% reduction in your emissions would then be worth $40 of good to the world (20 tonnes * $100 * 2%). This seems small to me for a year’s work buying local food, and that is the best case scenario. Insulating your home, not eating livestock or holidaying by plane, or buying up and ‘retiring’ carbon credits in carbon markets are likely to offer much more bang for buck.
Could eating local still be worthwhile? Sure. If you would eat food produced nearby for selfish rather than altruistic reasons, or are tossing up between a local and foreign item it’s little or no difference to you to choose the local one, go ahead. But if your goal is to effectively convert your time and money into good outcomes for the world it would be very surprising if ‘eating local’ were something worth making a fuss about.
 Other reasons I’ve heard offered are ‘I enjoy having a relationship with the farmer/land or helping small growers’ or ‘I like knowing how the animals/land are treated’. Insofar as you are eating local food because you enjoy it more you can disregard this post. As for being more informed about the effects of the farming techniques employed, or wanting to support small scale farming over big the same considerations apply. Does this really offer a high return on your effort? My other question would be: should you really have to eat locally to know how your food is produced? It seems like a less elegant solution than certification labels like ‘organic’ or ‘free range’.
For those concerned about the future there are a lot of things to worry about. Nuclear war, bioterrorism, asteroids, artificial intelligence, runaway climate change – the list goes on. All of these have the potential to devastate humanity. How then to pick which one is the most important to work on? I want to point out a reason to work on machine intelligence even if one thinks that there is a low probability of the technology working.
Preventing catastrophes like nuclear war does avoid human extinction and keep us on the path of growth and eventual space colonisation. However, it is unclear how pleasant this world will be for its inhabitants. If a singleton does not develop, that is ”a single decision-making agency … exerting effective control over its domain, and permanently preventing both internal and external threats to its supremacy,” the logic of survival means that we will eventually end up regressing to a competitive Malthusian world. That world is one where vast numbers of beings compete for survival on subsistence incomes, as has been the case for most creatures on Earth since life first appeared billions of years ago. The creatures working to survive could be mind uploads or something else entirely. In this scenario it is competitive pressure and evolution which determine the long run outcome. There will be little if any path dependence. Just as it was not possible for a group of people planted on Earth millions of years ago to change the welfare of the beings that exist today after evolution has had its way, so too it will be impossible for anyone today to change what kinds of creatures win out in the battle for survival millions of years from now. The only impact we could have now would be to reduce the risk of life disappearing altogether at this brief bottleneck on Earth where extinction is a real possibility. The difference between the best and worst futures possible is that between the desirability of life disappearing altogether and the desirability of a Malthusian world.
As competitive pressures do not necessarily drive creatures towards states of high wellbeing, it is hard to say which of these is the better outcome. I hope that technology which allows us to consciously design our minds and therefore our experience of life will lead to a nicer outcome even in the presence of competitive pressures, but that is hard to predict. Whatever the merits of the competitive future, it falls short of what a benevolent, all-powerful being trying to maximise welfare would choose.
On the other hand if a singleton is possible or inevitable, the difference between the best and worst futures is much greater. The desires of the singleton which comes to dominate Earth will be the final word on what Earth originating life goes on to do. It will be free to create whatever utopia or dystopia it chooses without competitors or restrictions, other than those posed by the laws of physics. In this world it is possible to influence what happens millions or billions of years from now, by influencing the kind of singleton which takes over and spreads acoss the universe. The difference in desirability between the best and worst case is that between an evil singleton which unrelentingly spreads misery across the universe, and the ideal benevolent singleton which goes about turning the entire universe into the things you most value.
If you think there is much uncertainty about whether a singleton is possible, and want to maximise your expected impact on the future, you should act as though you live in a world where it is possible. You should only ignore those scenarios if they are
What technology is most likely to deliver us a singleton in the next century or two, giving you a chance to have a big impact on the future? I think the answer is a generalised artificial intelligence, though one might also suggest a non-AI group achieving total dominance through mind uploads, ubiquitous surveillance, nanotechnology, or whatever other emerging technology.
So if any of you are tempted to dismiss the Singularity Institute because the runaway AI scenario seems so improbable: you shouldn’t. It makes sense to work on it even if it is. The same goes for those who focus on the possibility of an irreversible global government.
Update: I have tried to clarify my view in a reply to Carl Shulman below. My claim is not that the probability is irrelevant, just that it is only part of the story and that working on low probability scenarios can be justified if you can have a larger impact, which I believe is the case here. Nor do I or many people working on AI believe that an intelligence explosion scenario is particularly unlikely.
One of the big challenges in life is finding friends and colleagues who support and bring out the best in you. This is especially the case when your goals are unusual and you are less likely to be assisted by the people you already know. I expect that the lack of social networks and esteem are important reasons why few people invest many of their resources into effectively improving the world, even when convinced on a philosophical level that it is the right thing to do. The supportive social networks are so much larger for ineffective forms of altruism that it is no surprise many more people are drawn to them.
For that reason I am very happy to see the growth of the 80,000 Hours organisation, which is a part of the Centre for Effective Altruism. They are collecting people who are researching and writing about how to most effectively make a difference, encouraging folk to commit to doing good, and then providing support for them the meet their giving goals. Their mission statement is to “help you be an effective altruist by providing a supporting community of dedicated members who share their insights and experience.”
Similarly, whatever their imperfections, it is very valuable to have the Less Wrong community and Singularity Institute as magnets for people who are concerned with existential risk, clear thinking and the future, who might otherwise give up from the lack of anyone to talk and work with.
If you haven’t thought much about how you can have a big positive impact on the world, watch the short video below and then the longer presentation underneath and consider taking the 80,000 Hours pledge. By giving a bit of thought to how you can best contribute you can do a lot more good for others at no extra cost to the rest of your life.
I have spent almost all of my life in formal education. One of the most stressful things about high school and university, at least for a diligent (indeed perhaps, obsessive) student like me, is the open-ended nature of study. No matter how much time I dedicated I could always learn more and get better results. My work was never done and for much of the year this left me feeling guilty and distracted whenever I wasn’t studying.
This is a a very common experience among many people I know, especially the academically successful ones. It is doubly an issue for postgraduates, who on top of everything get little meaningful feedback on how they are performing and whether they are doing enough. I know people who are avoiding doing PhDs specifically because they dread never being able to walk away.
As my friends and I make the transition from study to work, the most common reaction is that of relief. Work may be challenging at times, but for most it is a contained part of life. I certainly don’t feel bad that I lack the discipline to go into the office every weekend.
Study guilt may be gone for now, but I still feel a lot of guilt when it comes to trying to be a good person. If I were to life consistently with my values, I would forgo all Earthly pleasures – except those required to stay healthy and productive – and dedicate myself to existential risk reduction. The expected return to putting effort into reducing existential risk is very high, I would never run out of very important things to do, and I would never get feedback on whether what I was doing was enough or even making any difference. Knowing this is a serious drag: every dollar I spend on myself is a dollar not given to savings future generations from annihilation.
At the moment, guilt is necessary to motivate me to do good things, but however much it motivates me to do, it will still taint the rest of my life. I am not sure what to do about this, but I have a few options I’m looking into.
One option is to set a maximum target amount of effort to put into study or do-goodery and then commit myself to not doing more. I would convince myself that that is a target I should be happy with and not feel any need to exceed. While this may be successful at preventing me from working too hard and burning out, I’m not sure that it would necessarily help me focus properly when doing other things.
Another better option would be to cultivate the ability to focus and control my state of mind hour to hour. Friends have suggested to me that learning to experience flow or meditating regularly help with this.
Another idea would be to switch from being motivated primarily by guilt and horror at bad things that could happen, to hope for a better future or something else more pleasant. I am not clear how to do this but presumably there is advice out there.
A final possibility is to irrevocably commit myself to doing good, for instance with a contract obliging me to give away some share of my future income to a given cause. I would then be free to cultivate much less concern for existential risk (or the problems of the world in general) as I will no longer need to feel guilty for motivation.
Being able to switch off and enjoy life is important. I would like to achieve a lot for the world, but preferably without being a martyr. I am unlikely to be able to keep up a lifestyle I don’t enjoy in the long run. I’d be keen to hear your thoughts if you’re in the same situation, or better yet, if you’ve been here before and can suggest what has worked for you.
TLDR: It is commonly alleged that there is a persistent gender pay gap which is unjustified by the productivity of male and female employees. If this is true, businesses should be able to make lots of free money just by choosing to employ more women. Why is this ‘pay gap’ usually presented as a moral issue rather than just an error by businesses that they can profit from correcting?
It is frequently claimed that across the developed world there is a persistent gender pay gap which is unjustified by the relative productivity of male and female employees (for example, here and here). This is presumably because business managers and owners underestimate the (market) value of the work done by women. Women undervaluing their own work or being bad negotiators would not be much of an explanation if businesses assessed productivity correctly; competition between potential employers would bid up the wages of women regardless.
Most people oppose the wage gap because they oppose gender discrimination. But if women are such a bargain to hire, it’s also clearly a chance for employers to make free money. This is a message businesses are more likely to be receptive to. The one non-sexist firm in a market of sexist firms would make a killing! So rather than frame the wage gap as an issue of moral condemnation, why not present the wage gap as an error that businesses can profit from correcting? A few possible reasons:
- Campaigners want to seem idealistic and opposed to sexism more than they actually want to solve the ‘problem’.
- The pay gap is in fact justified by productivity differences, and if the reasoning above were known more widely this would soon become obvious.
- Campaigners on the issue don’t understand economics.
- The campaigners care about the issue because they oppose discrimination, and they assume others (should) feel the same way.
If the wage gap were real and could be demonstrated (for example by studies showing businesses with a greater proportion of female employees were more profitable), businesses should be falling over themselves trying to employ more women, just as businesses work hard to save money and be efficient in lots of other ways. In doing so, they ought to drive the wages of women up until there were no free profits to be made just from employing more women. I can only see a few ways an ‘unjustified wage gap’ could persist for long:
- The pay gap is unjustified but this cannot be convincingly demonstrated and no business has yet thought to try the ‘employ more women’ model.
- Almost all businesses owners, managers and potential competitors for those positions are sexists who are biased against women and manage their businesses based on these intuitions rather than profit maximising principles they think up.
- The ultimate customer actually values the same product less if it is produced by a woman. In this case there really is a difference in the productivity of men and women from the business’s point of view, though this is still due to sexism.
- Almost all businesses owners, managers and potential competitors for those positions are sexists who are willing to sacrifice profit just to maintain a wage gap.
None of these seems likely to me. By contrast the reasons women might be less productive employees on average are all reasonable: the possibility of pregnancy, a greater likelihood of working part time, lower dedication to one’s career and a preference for low wage professions.
We also have the mystery of why politicians, the media and business groups don’t just call the campaigners out on their silly strategy and the basic implausibility of a gender pay gap as outlined above. Perhaps looking cynical about this issue is just too dangerous so they must all go along with the idea that the pay gap makes sense. Lucky I’m not worried about my reputation, so I can tell you this.
Anna Salamon, Research Fellow with the Singularity Institute, does a back-of-the-envelope calculation on how much impact a single person could have by contributing to a good Singularity (or reducing other existential risks). The answer: a huge amount!
The greatest concentration of concern about issue X is usually found where the best performance on issue X has already been achieved. For a variety of reasons, most people focus on improving things near to them more than things far away. Combine these two facts and you get that ‘activism’ on issue X is frequently concentrated where it is least needed and the smallest incremental gains are still to be found.
Some possible examples of this effect:
- A great concentration of feminist activism is found on Western university campuses and in related professions where women are already found in larger numbers and have great freedom.
- Environmentalists work hard to be extra green in their own actions, when greater gains might be found by redirecting their effort to changing the behaviour of others.
- Social justice crusaders often try to reduce inequality or poverty in their own country, even when it is rich and egalitarian by international standards.
- Economists write a lot about the policies of the countries they live in, even though most good economists live in countries with relatively sound economic policy (because of the concentration of policy expertise).
- Rationalist, scientific and skeptic groups work hard to ensure they are especially rational and their beliefs are especially accurate, even when they are already much more rational and scientific than the general population.
- The most rabid and best funded civil liberties organisations are found in countries where civil liberties are already comparatively well protected.
- Religious services are usually delivered to believers rather than to non-believers.
There can be good reasons for focussing one’s effort locally. Maybe it’s very hard for university feminists to get to the places where women are most oppressed, and maybe they’d be ignored there anyway. Maybe environmentalist organisations need to be especially pure to show it can in fact be done or avoid damaging accusations of hypocrisy. Maybe it’s very too hard to get non-believers to listen to a religious sermon let alone convert them.
However, these seem like post-hoc justifications for our locally-focussed actions, so we should at least be skeptical of them and double-check that they are true.
For example, while of course it’s costly to learn Hindi and travel to rural India, I would bet a feminist in a rich liberal could do more good for women (and humans for that matter) by getting a job and sending the money to a feminist organisation run by Indians in India (or locals in a host of other less liberal countries) than they could by working to improve the status of women in Europe, the US or Australia.
I found this flyer in a lecture theatre today:
“Join in an amazing two week volunteer and adventure program in South America or the Fijian Islands this year. The first week will see you commuting via canoe to a remote Amazonian village or living with a host family in Fiji; where you will be restoring a primary school, teaching children English and helping to provide a village with access to fresh water. The second week you will be off on an Amazonian adventure trekking, fafting and exploring the unique biodiversity that the jungle has to offer. Or in Fiji, sail from island to island, snorkelling, swimming diving; the world is your oyster! Join us this year and make a difference.”
Such a trek is no more condemnable than any other adventure holiday, but it’s amazing people can get a warm fuzzy feeling out of it given it has to be among the most conspicuously cost ineffective ways of assisting poor people imaginable. Never underestimate our ability to deceive ourselves into thinking what is good for us is good for everyone else. All the more reason to watch your actions, not your feelings if you want to see what you really care about.
Now I wonder what we should make of the way so much foreign aid goes to pay expensive Western wages to get rich people to do what poor locals could do at a fraction of the cost.
Similar fun from Half Sigma:
I think the following quote from a NY Times article about the busy summers of affluent teenagers is especially ironic:
for example, Putney Student Travel, a private company, offers a five-week summer program of seminars at Yale and a trip to Cambodia to address poverty issues for $6,990
It costs how much to learn about poverty? Poor people manage to learn about poverty for free.
Related to: Don’t help refugees, you bastards
A while back I wrote that to know what you as a whole mind really wants, you should look at what you do, not at what the little conscious voice in your head says you care about. We are very good at making ourselves believe we care about things we never do anything about, so we must watch carefully.
On this measure we can be pretty confident we in the West don’t much actually care about the welfare of the Haitians’ whose plight we claim to be distressed by:
“The contrast between the oh so visible US concern and US planes flying around Haiti with loudspeakers warning locals not to try to boat it to the US is quite striking. Clearly at some level US folks realize they could help Haitians most by letting them immigrate. If we (thought we) cared less and were instead eager to gain migrant farm workers and household servants, we might end up helping Haitians more.”
Has your country announced an increased immigration intake from Haiti? No? I guess it (or at least its median voter) doesn’t actually care.
Right after writing a post on cynical explanations of human behaviour I read Yvain over at Less Wrong:
“Interesting new study out on moral behavior. The one sentence summary of the most interesting part is that people who did one good deed were less likely to do another good deed in the near future. They had, quite literally, done their good deed for the day.
In the first part of the study, they showed that people exposed to environmentally friendly, “green” products were more likely to behave nicely. Subjects were asked to rate products in an online store; unbeknownst to them, half were in a condition where the products were environmentally friendly, and the other half in a condition where the products were not. Then they played a Dictator Game. Subjects who had seen environmentally friendly products shared more of their money.
In the second part, instead of just rating the products, they were told to select $25 worth of products to buy from the store. One in twenty five subjects would actually receive the products they’d purchased. Then they, too, played the Dictator Game. Subjects who had bought environmentally friendly products shared less of their money.”
This does not prove that environmentalists are actually bad people – remember that whether a subject purchased green products or normal products was completely randomized. It does suggest that people who have done one nice thing feel less of an obligation to do another.
This meshes nicely with a self-signalling conception of morality. If part of the point of behaving morally is to convince yourself that you’re a good person, then once you’re convinced, behaving morally loses a lot of its value.”
The implication is that when someone chooses to do something ‘good’, it will often simply crowd out something else good they would have done later. If people are buying green cleaning products, they may also be slacking on household cleaning.
How then can we increase aggregate do-goodery? Giving people more opportunities to do good will not work. In fact giving people opportunities to do insubstantial feel-good things, like giving ‘gold coin’ donations or not using plastic bags, may ultimately be harmful as they provide satisfying alternatives to more effective but costly actions. Instead we need to raise the standards people feel they need to meet in order to consider themselves halfway decent people. Next time someone performs a token act of goodness in front of you, give them a look as if to say ‘is that all’.