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There are four possible effects a habit can have on someone’s preferences that I would like to distinguish. For convenience I have labelled them appreciation, satisfaction, dependency and addiction. For my purposes, appreciation is where you gradually achieve a higher level of welfare doing something the more that you do it. Likely examples would be meditation or watching a lengthy TV series. Satisfaction is where an activity leaves you sated, and therefore better off even if you stop doing it. Pleasant investments in yourself, such as studying something you enjoy, could be an example of this. Dependency is where the gain from doing a fixed amount of something delivers a lower welfare boost over time, with the (net) benefit possibly falling to zero or going negative. Most drugs show some level of dependency. Finally, addiction is when the more you do something, the worse off you will be if you stop doing it. A lot of drugs also have this effect, as do other things you get ‘used to,’ like exercising or having money to spend. These are all shown on the figure below. Many habits exhibit two of these effects or affect different people in different ways.

I have found this framework to be helpful in clarifying my thinking about which habits I should and should not take up.

We should be enthusiastic to accumulate habits that are characterised by appreciation and satisfaction. The stronger the effect the better. Dependency is undesirable, but you can still be better off from the habit if the effect isn’t too strong. Intense dependency is no good because eventually you will end up gaining nothing or losing from the habit. Addiction is not a problem so long as you will always want and be able to continue with the habit. If you will eventually stop, due to dependency, cost or unavailability, addiction will hurt you.

Appreciation and satisfaction combined is the ideal because you win out whether you continue the habit or not.

Addiction on top of serious dependency is the worst case because you will eventually be worse off whether you continue or not. These are the most problematic habits.

Appreciation and addiction together is fine, so long as you don’t expect to have to give up the habit for some reason. If you will, it will be a judgement call as to the initial gain and expected loss later on.

Satisfaction and dependency isn’t perfect but you can’t lose out overall. Even if dependency means you no longer gain from continuing the activity, you will continue to gain for having done it in the past.

The matrix below puts the above into a colourful tabular format.

Appreciation Satisfaction Dependency Addiction
Appreciation Good
Satisfaction Ideal Good
Dependency Impossible Can’t lose Ambiguous
Addiction Ambiguous Impossible Ambiguous but risky Ambiguous

The hard challenge is knowing which habits have which effects and with what intensity, but this framework at least allows you to ask the right questions and know what to do when you get the answers. It also makes it easy to understand and categorise the claims other people make about their habits.

For instance, someone who thinks it is worth ‘getting into’ fine food might claim that fine food is about appreciation. Someone like me who is skeptical of fine food, might think it is actually about dependency and/or addiction. I have in fact been going out of my way to buy cheap clothes, food, wine and beer lately in order to see if any dependency I currently have gradually disappears. If so I will be able to save money buying cheap goods for the rest of my life and be no worse off. I’ll let you know how it goes.

What got me thinking about all this was cleaning up my house on the weekend. I am skeptical of cleaning, beyond that required to stay organised and avoid disease, for the same reason most people are nervous about drug habits. People differ enormously in how much cleanliness they expect. When someone catches the ‘cleanliness bug’, I doubt they are left any better off than someone with low expectations. They could easily be worse off if they have to incur the cost of cleaning just to maintain their original level of well-being. That is to say, I think cleaning exhibits strong dependency and addiction. Amirite?

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 wrote this for the Alternative Law Journal some time ago:

As I was watching the film Avatar and the cinemagoers around me were cheering on the Na’vi heroes in their fight against human invaders, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of us would actually want to live alongside such an uncompromising society. Why is the audience intended to admire the Na’vi’s complete self-satisfaction and unwillingness to deal with humans despite the fact that it is Na’vi isolationism and idealism as much as human avarice which drive the two groups into conflict?

Thinking about it I realised it is hardly an isolated case. In our stories we love idealistic heroes to fight for what they believe in against all odds. But if we were to encounter such uncompromising characters in our families or offices they would strike us as unreasonable lunatics. I am reminded of what Alan Moore, creator of Watchmen, was reported to have thought we would call an archetypical, vengeance-fuelled vigilante like Batman in the real world: ‘in short, a nutcase’.

Why is it that rather than celebrate the values of conflict resolution, tolerance and deal-making, which make our advanced societies function so effectively, our favourite stories continue to be about zero-sum conflicts that are impossible to resolve peaceably? From afar, the kind of conflict found in Avatar seems noble. We can easily imagine one side to be all good and the other all bad. There is no need to dwell on the suffering of those extras who die in battle or the problems that go unsolved back on Earth for want of ‘unobtainium’. A quick cut to the next scene is always just seconds away! But in real life, conflict is painful and messy and something we work hard to avoid.

In fact we are so used to finding compromises in our everyday lives that to make his conflict story hang together, writer and director James Cameron is forced to pile absurdity upon absurdity: an intelligent species totally disinterested in trade with aliens and the magical technology they bring; a business that sees fighting interstellar war as a cheaper way to access ‘unobtainium’ than a peace treaty; a race of people willing to reveal all their secrets to conspicuous spies, but unwilling to negotiate or make concessions to humans even in the face of a catastrophic defeat. The crazy plot twists used to make compromise impossible result in a world unlike anything on Earth and as a result the movie is unable to teach us anything useful about how we ought to live.

Finally, we are led to a deus ex machina moment in which the megafauna of Pandora rise up to repel the human colonisers. To my knowledge, a revolt of Gaia is beyond the powers of the hunter gatherer tribes today struggling to coexist with industrial society, so I’m not sure what they can hope to take away from Avatar. The apparent moral of Avatar, ‘fight hard if you’re in the right and Gaia will provide’, is one only someone very isolated from the real challenges of hunter gatherers could put forward. Why does popular fiction so often favour staunch idealism over the central wisdom embodied in modern political systems and their laws: ‘dealism’? We could tell stories of the countless political compromises reached through well-functioning democratic institutions. We could tell the stories of all the terrible wars that never happened because of careful diplomacy. We could tell the story of the merchant who buys low and sells high, leaving everyone they deal with a little better off. These are the everyday tales which make modern society so great to live in. But will any such movie gross a billion dollars in the near future? I suspect not.

An Australian movie with a very similar plot to Avatar is The Castle, in which the Kerrigan family fights the compulsory acquisition of their home for the expansion of Melbourne Airport. Audiences were predictably united in their support for the charming Kerrigan family in their struggle against big business. In real life, I suspect the public would be strongly divided on the fairness of the acquisition, especially if sticking up for the Kerrigan family meant airport delays and fewer discount airlines. We would want to find a deal which left both the Kerrigans better off and allowed for a larger airport by offering them more and more compensation until they voluntarily moved.

Why split our values like this, some for our stories and others for our own lives? I suspect the answer lies in what we subconsciously want our taste in fiction to say about us. Celebrating the Na’vi allows us to signal how much we value loyalty and justice. Denigrating Melbourne Airport allows us to show our suspicion of greedy and powerful people. In real life, when defending our stated values requires that we make serious sacrifices whether or not we are likely to win, we sensibly value the opportunity to compromise. But when a fictional character will do all the fighting for you, why compromise on anything? Though popular fiction will never say it, we know the best fight is not that won by the righteous but the one nobody needed fight in the first place.

“After more than a quarter century of debate, Yale faculty members are now barred from sexual relationships with undergraduates—not just their own students, but any Yale undergrads. The new policy, announced to faculty in November and incorporated into the updated faculty handbook in January, is “an idea whose time has come,” says Deputy Provost Charles Long, who has advocated the ban since 1983.

In his decades at Yale, Long has seen many faculty-student romances. Most turn out fine, he says, but others are destructive to students. “I think we have a responsibility to protect students from behavior that is damaging to them and to the objectives for their being here.”

Faculty-student liasons repugnant at Yale

Al Roth suggests this ban is because many find such relationships ‘repugnant’ while the Deputy Provost says it’s to prevent something which is destructive to  some and interferes with their objectives at Yale, presumably academic ones. How can we tell who is right? Well we can be pretty sure the Deputy Provost hasn’t got the right explanation. The number of activities which are destructive to some students and sometimes interfere with academic pursuits are numerous. Socialising and drinking in general would qualify and so would all relationships whether with faculty or other students. To my knowledge there is no call whatever to ban these things on the same basis. What’s more it is far from clear why undergrad-faculty relationships should on average reduce an undergrad’s success at university. Older and successful partners are more likely to help and motivate students to reach their level of education and also provide access to networks of intelligent people to help with their career.

Given this we have to turn to another explanation, and our general aversion to mixing relationships characterised by ‘dominance’ with those characterised by ‘sex’ as described by Steven Pinker, would have to be a good candidate.

Will Wilkinson has more.

Robin Hanson explains idealistic outliers:

“Humans are built to be hypocritical, i.e., to give lip service and soft thought to high ideals, while mostly acting to achieve low practical personal ends.  We manage this disconnect both by being stupid, and so not noticing our hypocrisy, and by being insincere, and so caring less when we notice.

Now human characteristics vary quite a bit, and so some folks are both unusually smart and unusually conscientious about their ideals. More than most people, these folks notice their hypocrisy, and try to avoid it.  And since far ideals tend toward incoherence and impracticality, this has led smart sincere folks to invent a wide range of “ideologies” to substitute for their jumbled intuitions, with matching actions that range far from the norm.

But the more recent invention of near-mode-based math/logical style analysis, applicable to far abstract problems, has made it easier for humans to notice and avoid inconsistencies.  So today, the smart sincere syndrome especially afflicts many folks with high math ability.

Now a modest dose of smart sincerity, limited by time, topic or temperament, is a good sign, as it indicates the positive qualities of intelligence and conscientiousness, qualities most any organization can put to good use.  So everyone wants to seem ideological to some degree.  And even a large dose of smart sincerity, if bundled with complements such as beauty, stamina, or charisma, can bring success as a “movement” or spiritual leader.  But without such complements, an overdose of smart sincerity tends toward evolutionary failure, typically achieving less success relative to ability.”

Islamic terrorists fit the pattern:

“…three quarters of my sample came from the upper or middle class. The vast majority—90 percent—came from caring, intact families. Sixty-three percent had gone to college, as compared with the 5-6 percent that’s usual for the third world. These are the best and brightest of their societies in many ways.

Al Qaeda’s members are not the Palestinian fourteen-year- olds we see on the news, but join the jihad at the average age of 26. Three-quarters were professionals or semi- professionals. They are engineers, architects, and civil engineers, mostly scientists. Very few humanities are represented, and quite surprisingly very few had any background in religion. The natural sciences predominate. Bin Laden himself is a civil engineer, Zawahiri is a physician, Mohammed Atta was, of course, an architect; and a few members are military, such as Mohammed Ibrahim Makawi, who is supposedly the head of the military committee.

Far from having no family or job responsibilities, 73 percent were married and the vast majority had children. Those who were not married were usually too young to be married.”


Would we collectively be better off with a lot less of this?

Related to: Why politics is inefficient compared to institutional and technological innovation.

Arepo over at Felicifia does a cost-benefit analysis and suggests that “engaging in developed world politics is a selfish waste of time.” I agree with his reasoning and would suggest that most people involved in developed nation politics, although they believe they are involved because they care about the welfare of others, are a combination of non-utilitarian, naïve, power/status hungry and mostly enjoying themselves by signalling their idealism, intelligence, moral values and tribe loyalty.

As political tussles are competitive, near zero-sum games, increasing the number of hours a nation collectively invests in political campaigning is almost completely unproductive, assuming the new recruits have a similar ideological distribution to those already involved. Indeed those political disputes drain limited resources away from welfare-enhancing activities. As in a defensive military build-up, if all sides could just agree to ‘disarm’ they would get roughly the same outcome while wasting less of their limited resources. What’s more, due to the median voter effect actual policy differences between alternative governments in functioning democracies will tend to be small (this varies a bit depending on the political system). An alien arriving on Earth would surely remark that extraordinary amounts of time and effort were going into negligible differences in outcome.

The evolutionary psychological explanation for why we find it hard to keep our involvement in politics to sensible levels is simple: throughout our evolutionary history political struggles were fought between coalitions of at most dozens of people, with big stakes for whether the tribe would thrive and who would hold power within it. In such small-scale fights the extra efforts of one person could indeed swing the outcome and a failure to be involved at all would lower your status and make it harder to attract a good mate. In other words, those who didn’t have some irrational obsession with politics – be it at the office or national level – didn’t have many descendents.

I have a challenging question to ask everyone actively involved in politics:

Imagine that at the last national election the other side had narrowly won. How much harm, in terms of reduced total experience of welfare, would actually have resulted compared to a narrow win for your side?

Things to keep in mind while assessing this: how different would outcomes actually be (don’t imagine either ideal or dystopian policies being implemented); how much harm would these changes cause in terms of reduced happiness or extra suffering experienced by those affected; be sure to value all people’s experience equally – don’t give your pet social group extra importance. Even when accounting for the above, people are pretty one-eyed about political issues they care about, so you should probably reduce your perceived benefit a bit in order account for this bias.

Having worked out this benefit, divide ‘my effort’ by ‘all of the effort people put into the campaign/party’ and make that proportion your contribution to the outcome. Next, estimate how much money you could earn if you put that effort into a job instead and determine how much good this money could do. For example, an hour’s wage or so (around $AUD25) can restore sight to someone in a developing country and preventing the death of a child through to adulthood costs around $US1000-2000 according to GiveWell.

Finally, compare these different benefits in order to work out if your country’s politics is the most compassionate thing you can be involved in.

If you determine that it is not and you decide to continue being involved, you can conclude that you are involved not out of sincere concern for the welfare of others but in order to fulfil your own personal preferences. This may or may not bother you depending on your philosophy.

P.S. In theory it’s best to consider one’s marginal impact on the outcome rather than one’s average contribution as here. However, in almost all cases the actual marginal impact of a single campaigner is zero (assuming the election is not won by a handful of votes), and very rarely it is huge (if your personal contribution changes the outcome). Using the average gives us some sensible medium between these two outcomes,


Actually, please do.

More posts on immigration.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says:

“People smugglers are engaged in the world’s most evil trade and they should all rot in jail because they represent the absolute scum of the earth,” he said. “People smugglers are the vilest form of human life. They trade on the tragedy of others…”

People smugglers help refugees try to get to Australia so that we will consider giving them asylum from whatever poverty or political persecution they are fleeing. While doing so they often offer refugees places in dilapidated and crowded boats: these boats aren’t coming back and the refugees presumably can’t afford good ones for the single brief trip. It is true that people smugglers rely on the presence of human misery for their business, but no more so than doctors or any other group whose work involves helping people with serious problems.

How can Rudd get away with and indeed benefit from, this hyperbole? I think his reaction is accepted by the public because of this peculiar intuition raised by Katja Grace: someone who avoids having anything to do with a suffering group is unlikely to be condemned for ignoring them but someone who interacts with them, even a little bit, is usually condemned if they don’t do a great job at their own expense. Due to their interaction with asylum seekers people smugglers are condemned for failing to provide refugees with boats in good condition free of charge. But because they refuse to have anything to do with these refugees, the Commonwealth of Australia avoids condemnation for failing to do the same, even though it is in a much better position to assist them with their problems than the people smugglers.

Were those who sold Jews an escape route from Nazi Germany the worst scum in the world? If you accept Rudd’s bluster, presumably he believes they were worse than the people who refused to interact with them at all.

Perhaps the simplest argument for caring deeply about the future is this obvious one: if humanity doesn’t wipe itself out, by far more people will live there than here. If you’re concerned with morally good outcomes, making everyone in China a bit better off is a lot more desirable than making everyone in Guinea-Bissau a bit better place, because you will be positively affecting a far larger number of people.

A lot of people however, do not agree that trying to increase the quantity and quality of positive experiences that occur for future potential people is just as important as improving experiences that are occuring now to people who already exist. They say amongst other things, that as future people don’t  exist they have no preferences to be satisfied or nerves to experience pain. If it turns out that they never exist at all, they can hardly ‘harmed’ by this. Who can say whether they would live hapy lives or not, anyway? And how can one morally compare non-existence with existence in any case? Katja over at Meteuphoric has already done a good job of explaining where these ideas go wrong in Mistakes with non-existent people, so I’ll simply propose some thought experiments that may help us to see how these claims are indeed very strange and inconsistent with our other beliefs.

Do we have an obligation to let people who are unconscious wake up?

Reversible non-existence through general anaesthetic

Imagine that it were possible to take existent people and make them non-existent temporarily. There’s no need to fire up your imagination as this isn’t hard to do; with general anaesthetics used in surgery we can already do this for all practical purposes. A person under a strong enough general anaesthetic is not capable of any desires or experiences of their surroundings.  If you agree that consciousness a necessary condition for having good or bad things happen to you, and if you are truly committed to not caring about potential future people, then a comatose body undergoing surgery ought to have no more value to you than a corpse. Concern for those who love them aside, as soon as a person was under general anaesthetic, you should be indifferent as to whether they get their treatment and go on living, or instead are shot in the head. We cannot compare their present non-existent state with existence; we don’t know they’ll be happy if we don’t shoot them in the head; there is nobody to benefit by not shooting them; etc. When thought about in this way, the flaws in these objections are especially transparent. Read the rest of this entry »

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Robert WiblinHi! I am a young Australian man ostensibly interested in the truth and maximising the total number of preferences that are ever satisfied, weighted by their intensity. I also enjoy reading and writing about the topics listed above. If you share my interests, friend me on , , or or subscribe to my RSS feed .

All opinions expressed here are at most mine alone, and have nothing to do with any past, present, future or far future employers.

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