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I have recently been working through the HBO series Six Feet Under and highly recommend you do the same. It is the best television I have watched since The Sopranos and deals with issues in ways that cut closer for me as a middle class white geek than a show about the mafia really could. Fear of death, belonging, duty, regret, self-knowledge; it’s all excellent.
It takes advantage of two techniques I have rarely seen used elsewhere. We often see imagined conversations between the main characters of the show and dead or absent people from their lives. We are also frequently treated to actions the characters imagine performing – typically crazy-brave ones – before cutting back to reality where they do something different. It is not always obvious to the viewer whether you are in their imagination or reality, which keeps you on your toes.
This technique is highly effective at giving us insight into the characters without requiring overacting, or contrived conversations between them. It makes the show more like a book, where it is easier for the author to let us into the mind’s eye of their characters. It is so effective I wonder why it isn’t more often used.
Dreams are frequently appropriated for this purpose, but they are only part of our internal lives and to my mind a more random and less insightful part. Conversations in our head and things we imagine and fantasise about doing make up a huge share of our internal world and memories, and say a great deal about us because they are entirely our own invention. Their absence from movies and television is unfortunate.
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 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 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 bite.
Appreciation and satisfaction is the ideal because you win out whether you continue the habit or not.
Addiction on top of strong 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.
|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.
If there’s one thing an economist loves to spot, it is a trade-off. A trade-off puts us on familiar terrain and let’s us feel (not for the first time) that undergraduate microeconomics can make order out of every problem. Tom Sowell captured this attitude when he famously declared, “there are no solutions, only trade-offs.” 
But of course not everything we do in life is traded off against something else. Many things we do are completely complementary with one another. For example, spending some time eating doesn’t conflict with my desire to get my work done. If I didn’t eat or drink at all I would pretty quickly find I wasn’t getting any work done at all! On the other hand long boozy lunches with friends every day could well conflict with my productivity. Between these two extremes there is some amount of effort dedicated to eating that doesn’t come at the expense of any other goal I have. This idea is represented in the figure below where the black line indicates the maximum amount of ‘other activities’ I get can get done for any amount of time spent meeting my body’s need for sustenance. We can label the amount of time on eating that come at no cost to other activities as point A.
We can do the same with a range of other activities that we might neglect for fear that we ‘don’t have time.’
Not doing any exercise is bad for life expectancy, general health and energy levels. Moderate exercise a few times a week is likely to ‘pay for itself’ by making your mind and body work more effectively and longer throughout the rest of your life, almost irrespective of what else you are doing. On the other hand lengthy marathon training wouldn’t improve your productivity in the rest of life sufficiently to come for free: you would have to give something else up, whether it’s other recreation, time with family and friends, or work accomplishments. But failing to do any exercise because you ‘don’t have time’ doesn’t make any sense. Initially exercise would give you more time than it used up!
Friends of mine who spend a few hours meditating a week say that it improves their focus enough through the rest of life and replaces sleep such that overall it is a free activity.
A notable candidate is investment in strong relationships with friends and family. For most people these relationships are necessary to feel satisfied and motivated in life and buffer us against difficulties we face.
Neglecting our physical, mental and social health may help us get more other things done temporarily, but is a lousy strategy in the long run.
Some actual figures for how much of these different activities do actually come at no cost would be very useful research in my opinion, though I expect they will vary quite a bit between people.
Psychology experiments give us a good reason to think that there are multiple streams of thought going on in our minds. For example the classic experiment where the brain stem is cut, separating the right and left hemisphere, demonstrates that the two sides of the brain can continue to function and perform plenty of tasks without contact between the two. The left side of the brain is clearly conscious in these cases and can carry out a conversation on its own. The right hemisphere is a less familiar beast as it lacks the ability to speak but it can process images and do spatial tasks similar to before. If you are willing to admit those who can’t speak as conscious, then you could reasonably say that each hemisphere was a largely separate consciousness after such a cut. Of course, in normal brains, these two streams are intimately linked, sharing lots of information about language and images back and forth, making any boundary invisible.
This lovely video demonstrates the above: