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Pain and gain motivation

45 Post author: Kaj_Sotala 07 April 2010 06:48PM

Note: this post is basically just summarizing some of PJ Eby's freely available writings on the topic of pain/gain motivation and presenting them in a form that's easier for the LW crowd to digest. I claim no credit for the ideas presented here, other than the credit for summarizing them.

EDIT: Note also Eby's comments and corrections to my summary at this comment.

Eby proposes that we have two different forms of motivation: positive ("gain") motivation, which drives us to do things, and negative ("pain") motivation, which drives us to avoid things. Negative motivation is a major source of akrasia and is mostly harmful for getting anything done. However, sufficiently large amounts of negative motivation can momentarily push us to do things, which frequently causes people to confuse the two.

To understand the function of negative motivation, first consider the example of having climbed to a tree to avoid a predator. There's not much you can do other than wait and hope the predator goes away, and if you move around, you risk falling out of the tree. So your brain gets flooded with signals that suppress activity and tell it to keep your body still. It is only if the predator ends up climbing up the tree that the danger becomes so acute that you're instead pushed to flee.

What does this have to do with modern-day akrasia? Back in the tribal environment, elicting the disfavor of the tribe could be a death sentence. Be cast out by the tribe, and you likely wouldn't live for long. One way to elict disfavor is to be unmasked as incompetent in some important matter, and a way to avoid such an unmasking is to simply avoid doing anything where to consequences of failure would be severe.

You might see why this would cause problems. Sometimes, when the pain level of not having done a task grows too high - like just before a deadline - it'll push you to do it. But this fools people into thinking that negative consequences alone will be a motivator, so they try to psyche themselves up by thinking about how bad it would be to fail. In truth, this is only making things worse, as an increased chance of failure will increase the negative motivation that's going on.

Negative motivation is also a reason why we might discover a productivity or self-help technique, find it useful, and then after a few successful tries stop using it - seemingly for no reason. Eby uses the terms "naturally motivated person" and "naturally struggling person" to refer to people that are more driven by positive motivation and more driven by negative motivation, respectively. For naturally struggling people, the main motivation for behavior is the need to get away from bad things. If you give them a productivity or self-help technique, they might apply it to get rid of their largest problems... and then, when the biggest source of pain is gone, they momentarily don't have anything major to flee from, so they lose their motivation to apply the technique. To keep using the technique, they'd need to have positive motivation that'd make them want to do things instead of just not wanting to do things.

In contrast to negative motivation, positive motivation is basically just doing things because you find them fun. Watching movies, playing video games, whatever. When you're in a state of positive motivation, you're trying to gain things, obtain new resources or experiences. You're entirely focused on the gain, instead of the pain. If you're playing a video game, you know that no matter how badly you lose in the game, the negative consequences are all contained in the game and don't reach to the real world. That helps your brain stay in gain mode. But if a survival override kicks in, the negative motivation will overwhelm the positive and take away much of the pleasure involved. This is a likely reason for why a hobby can stop being fun once you're doing it for a living - it stops being a simple "gain" activity with no negative consequences even if you fail, and instead becomes mixed with "pain" signals.

And now, if you’re up the tree and the tiger is down there waiting for you, does it make sense for you to start looking for a better spot to sit in… Where you’ll get better sunshine or shade or where there’s, oh, there’s some fruit over there? Should you be seeking to gain in that particular moment?

Hell no! Right? Because you don’t want to take a risk of falling or getting into a spot where the tiger can jump up and get you or anything like that. Your brain wants you to sit tight, stay put, shut up, don’t rock the boat… until the crisis is over. It wants you to sit tight. That’s the “pain brain”.

In the “pain brain” mode… this, by the way, is the main reason why people procrastinate, this is the fundamental reason why people put off doing things… because once your brain has one of these crisis overrides it will go, “Okay conserve energy: don’t do anything.”

-- PJ Eby, "Why Can't I Change?"

So how come some important situations don't push us into a state of negative motivation, even though failure might have disastrous consequences? "Naturally motivated" people rarely stop to think about the bad consequences of whatever they're doing, being too focused on what they have to gain. If they meet setbacks, they'll bounce back much faster than "naturally struggling" people. What causes the difference?

Part of the difference is probably inborn brain chemistry. Another major part, though, is your previous experiences. The emotional systems driving our behavior don't ultimately do very complex reasoning. Much of what they do is simply cache lookups. Does this experience resemble one that led to negative consequences in the past? Activate survival overrides! Since negative motivation will suppress positive motivation, it can be easier to end up in a negative state than a positive one. Furthermore, the experiences we have also shape our thought processes in general. If, early on in your life, you do things in "gain" mode that end up having traumatic consequences, you learn to avoid the "gain" mode in general. You become a "naturally struggling" person, one who will view everything through a pessimistic lens, and expect failure in every turn. You literally only perceive the bad sides in everything. A "naturally motivated" person, on the other hand, will primarily only perceive the good sides. (Needless to say, these are the endpoints in a spectrum, so it's not like you're either 100% struggling or 100% successful.)

Another of Eby's theses is that negative motivation is, for the most part, impossible to overcome via willpower. Consider the function of negative motivation as a global signal that prevents us from doing things that seem too dangerous. If we could just use willpower to override the signal at any time, that would result in a lot of people being eaten by predators and being cast out of the tribe. In order to work, a drive that blocks behavior needs to actually consistently block behavior. Therefore attempts to overcome procrastination or akrasia via willpower expenditure are fundamentally misguided. We should instead be trying to remove whatever negative motivation it is that holds us back, for otherwise we are not addressing the real root of the problem. On the other hand, if we succeed in removing the negative motivation and replacing it with positive motivation, we can make any experience as fun and enjoyable as playing a video game. (If you haven't already, do check out Eby's Instant Irresistible Motivation video for learning how to create positive motivation.)

Comments (131)

Comment author: pjeby 07 April 2010 10:33:15PM *  25 points [-]

For naturally struggling people, the main motivation for behavior is the need to get away from bad things. If you give them a productivity or self-help technique, they might apply it to get rid of their largest problems... and then, when the biggest source of pain is gone, they momentarily don't have anything major to flee from, so they lose their motivation to apply the technique. To keep using the technique, they'd need to have positive motivation that'd make them want to do things instead of just not wanting to do things.

This is actually only one of three things that stop naturally struggling people from successfully applying self-help techniques on an ongoing basis.

The first of the other two is simply that, if you're trying to use a self-help technique in order to get away from something, then you are simply perpetuating the negative motivation, so you're still in an essentially struggling state. (I was stuck like that for years.)

Explaining the second requires an explanation about the "mental muscles" concept, but to save time I'll just give a cross-reference and an example. A mental muscle is essentially my term for Marvin Minsky's concept of a brain "resource" (described in his book, "The Emotion Machine"). Examples of mental muscles might be, "explaining how things work" or "figuring out the right answer". In other words, a mental muscle is the brain circuitry that implements a kind of thinking strategy.

Anyway, naturally struggling people tend to favor certain of these patterns at the expense of others, or use them in counterproductive ways. For example, people who spent most of their lives being rewarded for figuring out right answers, and punished for doing things they "don't know how to do yet", will have difficulty applying self-help techniques because they will not want to proceed until they know enough.

However, a fundamental requirement of both positively-motivating techniques and techniques for fixing negative motivations, is that they require you to be curious, and ask yourself questions to which you do not currently know the answer (at least consciously). This can be supremely unsettling to a person who's terrified of not-knowing.

In the “pain brain” mode… this, by the way, is the main reason why people procrastinate, this is the fundamental reason why people put off doing things… because once your brain has one of these crisis overrides it will go, “Okay conserve energy: don’t do anything.”

This was my thinking circa 2008 or so; I have a more refined model of akrasia in general now.

So I would qualify the above quote now by saying that chronic procrastination is almost always the result of a perceived SASS threat (another concept I didn't have yet in '08) associated with the procrastinated task or its outcome. That is, in rough order of frequency:

  • A threat associated with failure to complete the task in some way
  • A threat associated with successful completion of the task
  • A threat associated with the task itself

This may be influenced by selection bias, since people tend to self-select out of the third category before they can become my clients. Either you figure it out pretty easily, or you just avoid getting into situations where you'll have that kind of task. (For example, if you're terrified of initiating conversation with strangers, you probably won't look for a job in door-to-door sales.)

By "SASS threat", btw, I mean specifically that your brain is predicting a situation that it expects to cause a reduction in Status, Affiliation, Safety, or Stimulation below your learned-safe reference levels.

Most of these threat predictions are completely bogus in the modern world, and in any case tend to be based on generalizations from childhood that might be bogus even in the ancestral environment. (The brain prefers to err on the side of safety, though.) They can be cleared up by relatively simple self-reflective techniques to get the emotional brain to notice that they're bogus. (Our brains don't have automatic garbage collection, so they don't re-verify beliefs onece learned, unless it happens situationally. Through reflection, you can easily cause yourself to update, though.)

Another of Eby's theses is that negative motivation is, for the most part, impossible to overcome via willpower.... Therefore attempts to overcome procrastination or akrasia via willpower expenditure are fundamentally misguided.

It would probably be more accurate to say that willpower is negative motivation, or at any rate, a correlate of it. If you are using (what most people call) willpower on an ongoing basis, this is prima facie evidence that you are already being negatively motivated in that moment.

Positive motivation isn't willpower - you just do something you want. And if you didn't have any motivation, you wouldn't be motivated to use willpower, either! Ergo, if you're using willpower, you're responding to a perceived threat, even if you consciously dress it in more socially-acceptable terminology.

For example, instead of "I'm afraid my parents will yell at me or throw me out", our social "far" brain will say, "I want to be a better student and get good grades". And instead of, "I'm afraid people won't like me because I'm an ugly fat loser", it says, "I want to get fit."

This means it's critical to separate these self-deceiving positive spins from your actual threat-based motivation, in order to actually switch off the negative motivation.

In contrast to negative motivation, positive motivation is basically just doing things because you find them fun. Watching movies, playing video games, whatever.

Um, no. Fun is fun. Motivation is the desire to have something good. If I'm hungry, anticipating cooking a nice meal, thinking, "oooh.... I can almost taste it now...", THAT's positive motivation. I may or may not have "fun" making the meal, but I will be positively motivated throughout.

That's an important distinction -- you can easily be positively motivated in the absence of any fun whatsoever.

(Needless to say, these are the endpoints in a spectrum, so it's not like you're either 100% struggling or 100% successful.)

One other refinement I've made since 2008 is that the concept of mental muscles makes it easier to see that being struggling or motivated is a function of which thought processes you're using at a given point in time. At one point, I was under the mistaken belief that there was some sort of switch that got flipped to move you from one to the other, or something to turn on or off semi-permanently.

Now, though, I realize that some of the thinking processes involved in "struggling" are useful in some contexts and not in others. It's a matter of learning which mental muscles are situationally appropriate, and using the ones that help, while relaxing the ones that don't. For example, "finding flaws in advance" is a useful strategy if you have to pass a test or build a bridge -- it's not so useful if your goal is to, say, learn to play a musical instrument, where your flaws can't be known until after you begin making attempts.

So, I now consider "naturally struggling" to simply mean "habitually using the wrong mental muscles for the job at hand, creating self-defeating results".

Comment author: Jonathan_Graehl 08 April 2010 12:21:00AM 10 points [-]

I love that you point out that we drastically overestimate threats to our safety (and probably status/affiliation). I've often had to call myself, and friends, on exactly that.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 07 April 2010 11:02:39PM 2 points [-]

Thanks - I edited the OP with a link to this list of corrections.

Comment author: pjeby 07 April 2010 11:30:22PM *  2 points [-]

Thanks! It might also be nice if your article called itself a summary of some of my freely available writings on the topic of pain/gain motivation.

I wouldn't want to hurt my Status by appearing to only have this tiny handful of things to say. ;-)

Comment author: Cyan 07 April 2010 11:47:32PM 7 points [-]

I can't conceive that anyone familiar with your contributions on this site would think that you only have a tiny handful of things to say. ;-)

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 07 April 2010 11:42:15PM 2 points [-]

:D Fair enough, edited.

So did you think it was a good summary otherwise?

Comment author: pjeby 08 April 2010 01:16:07AM 3 points [-]

Within that scope, yes. If I had any other issues with it, I wouldn't have been too shy to say so. ;-)

Comment author: [deleted] 30 June 2015 02:02:50PM 0 points [-]

Hi Eby,

I think with this refinement process you went from something clear, simple and easy to understand to something difficult and technical.

Nevertheless I think your 2008 theory is correct and probably you did not make it worse, it is just harder to understand now.

I should also like to add this: http://lesswrong.com/lw/21r/pain_and_gain_motivation/cipw

Comment author: pjeby 01 July 2015 04:22:52PM 1 point [-]

Unfortunately, "true" and "easy to understand" are not synonyms. ;-)

Comment author: [deleted] 02 July 2015 07:51:11AM *  0 points [-]

Yes :) But you wrote this comment and chapters 6-7 5 years ago, are there any new developments since then?

I tried them and would like to have the following comments:

  • instant motivation does not seem to work for me for the goals where you really, truly, are running away from something bad and there is no positive goal to pursue. Example: stopping smoking: the best possible outcome of not smoking is staying as healthy as today, the worst outcome of smoking is early painful death. Example: the kind of jobs one does only to pay bills. In both cases there are no possible positive outcomes to imagine: the best case outcome is things staying as they are now.

  • I tried chapter 7 on tomatoes, as I hated them since childhood. When I go back to 3 or 4 years old I simply don't remember how I felt hence I have no feeling to overwrite the current body feeling (gag reflex, sour face).

Comment author: pjeby 02 July 2015 10:31:49PM 2 points [-]

you wrote this comment and chapters 6-7 5 years ago, are there any new developments since then?

Quite a lot of them. Sadly, none of them make the overall picture any easier to understand. There seem to be an almost infinite number of "things that work" for some set of problems, but almost nothing that works for all the problems, for all of the people, all of the time. The basic idea of negative motivation is still valid, though, as is the idea that the primary negative motivations that are problematic derive from identity issues or pseudo-moral "shoulds".

instant motivation does not seem to work for me for the goals where you really, truly, are running away from something bad and there is no positive goal to pursue

Yes, that was explicitly stated as a qualifier on the technique: if you can't pass the "mmm" test, it's not going to work.

Example: stopping smoking: the best possible outcome of not smoking is staying as healthy as today, the worst outcome of smoking is early painful death

For such outcomes, I suggest the methods used by Allen Carr: essentially they work by systematically eliminating all the perceived benefits of the activity you wish to cease. His books are basically step-by-step persuasion walking you through the reasoning to achieve a realization that the thing you think you're getting is in fact of no value to you. (This is quite different from negative motion or deciding the act isn't "worth" it: rather, it is the systematic demolishing of any positive motivation towards the act, through deliberately induced disillusionment.)

Example: the kind of jobs one does only to pay bills. In both cases there are no possible positive outcomes to imagine: the best case outcome is things staying as they are now.

The trick to this kind of issue is realizing that your brain is using the wrong baseline for measurement of gain/loss. The correct baseline to use in such a scenario is not how things are now, but how they would be if you didn't have the job. Not having the job is the default case, since if you do nothing, that is the result you will get. ;-)

(I am, of course, omitting any details of how to do this change-of-baseline in this comment, due to the difficulty of describing it briefly, in this medium, in a way that would actually be implementable by anyone without the prerequisite skills of introspection and mind-changing.)

I have no feeling to overwrite the current body feeling (gag reflex, sour face).

You're probably overthinking the technique, which doesn't involve higher cognition at all. Certainly, there is nothing in it about "overwriting" anything. The method is simply intensifying a response long enough to trigger a refractory period, during which the response can't be re-triggered at the same intensity as before, leading to having a new experience or reaction in the context of the original triggering thought or external stimulus. (Not entirely unlike "flooding" as a desensitization technique, though I have no idea whether the mechanism is really the same.)

By the time I wrote about that technique, though, I had already mostly stopped using it, because I'd exhausted all the low-hanging fruit in my personal experience. Some people also get much more value out of it than others; I've had a few people who used it extensively and came back gushing to me about completely transforming their lives... while others are like "meh".

The optimum use seems to be for situations that trigger an immediate and visceral conditioned response that interferes with your ability to think clearly. It can be used to eliminate beliefs when the belief was formed later and as a result of the conditioned feeling, but does not work when it's the other way around.

(That is, if the feeling and belief arose at the same time, from the same event, or if the feeling is the result of a belief, then the feeling elimination technique will probably be of little value. Of course, your conscious estimation of which situation applies is unreliable, which means that until you've exhausted your own low-hanging fruit, it's better to just go ahead and try it, rather than guessing.)

In contrast to the feeling elimination technique, most everything I teach these days can be considered -- in one way or another -- a Ritual For Changing One's Mind. Or, more precisely, I recommend rituals developed by other people, and my work focuses more on identifying what it is in your mind that needs changing, and how to know what to change it to.

And unfortunately, the methods of Changing One's Mind are the relatively easy part of that. Sort of like knowing how to use an IDE (programmer's development tool) doesn't tell you what code to write or how to know where a bug is in your code.

Comment author: [deleted] 03 July 2015 07:47:41AM *  0 points [-]

For such outcomes, I suggest the methods used by Allen Carr: essentially they work by systematically eliminating all the perceived benefits of the activity you wish to cease.

I have read Allen Carr's Easy Way To Stop Drinking Alcohol. I got the impression he is playing on the reader's pride basically. He did not deny alcohol numbs in the brain whatever bothers you, he said the price is that it numbs everything else to. So basically he was playing a "you don't value the everything else in you?" game and maybe it is just a quirk of mine, I don't know, but whenever people try to play my pride I charge head-in, such as "Yes, I am absolutely worthless.Now what? Your move." I don't really know why I do this. Partially sometimes really feeling like this but partially really not liking the pride play as a method... I just think building anything on people's self-worth is really fragile, right?

The trick to this kind of issue is realizing that your brain is using the wrong baseline for measurement of gain/loss. The correct baseline to use in such a scenario is not how things are now, but how they would be if you didn't have the job.

Is this related to the old saying "learn to desire what you have" or "count your blessings" or the Stoic technique of negative visualization i.e. how much it would suck to lose what you have? Visualize not having it, then having it, pass a mmm-test, that sort of thing?

The optimum use seems to be for situations that trigger an immediate and visceral conditioned response that interferes with your ability to think clearly.

I see - this is why the examples are like foods one dislikes or social anxiety for speaking or I assume approach anxiety at dating etc. I will try it with physical challenges, I remember feeling inferior when I was a child when I was clumsy at things like climbing up ropes and it is possible it is keeping me away from trying such sports.

In contrast to the feeling elimination technique, most everything I teach these days can be considered -- in one way or another -- a Ritual For Changing One's Mind.

Do you write about this i.e. new websites as TTD or DS are not maintained much lately?

Comment author: pjeby 03 July 2015 05:54:11PM 4 points [-]

I don't really know why I do this.

Any self-help technique can be trivially defeated by arguing with it. And anything can be argued with, because the whole point (evolutionarily speaking) of our critical faculties is to find things we can attack in that which we have defined as our enemy. The truth, relevance, or usefulness of the argument is beside the point.

When I read that book I didn't even notice anything about pride or self-worth, honestly. I wasn't reading it because I drink (I don't), but as research into his approach. I found it fascinating because the various arguments I noticed seemed pretty universal to almost anything one might want to quit.

Anyway, I wasn't looking for things to argue with, so I didn't find any. In general, it's not useful to read a self-help book looking for things to argue with: skim over those, and look for things you agree with, or at least things you can consider with an open mind. Carr's books explicitly point out the need for this consideration at the beginning, and you will get more value out of them if you heed that advice.

Do you write about this i.e. new websites as TTD or DS are not maintained much lately?

Mostly I do online workshops with my paying subscribers, and the occasional tweet about things I'm noticing or realizing as they come up.

Comment author: michaelsullivan 12 April 2010 05:29:59PM 0 points [-]

[SASS threats] Most of these threat predictions are completely bogus in the modern world.

This rings true in general, and yet I can see at least one or two negative hangups in my own life and the life of friends and family where there is a significant non-bogus threat associated with failure (or success) of a particular task.

Do you have techniques which address such situations? It would seem getting rid of the negative motivator completely could be impossible in such situations, short of delusion or intentional forgetfulness/detachment.

Comment author: pjeby 12 April 2010 06:23:48PM 5 points [-]

It would seem getting rid of the negative motivator completely could be impossible in such situations, short of delusion or intentional forgetfulness/detachment.

You need to remember that positive and negative motivation are managed by distinct brain subsystems. You can have a positive preference for something, without also having a negative preference for the lack of it.

For example, I can have a strong preference for health, without being in constant fear of getting sick.

It's also true, for instance, that failure to look both ways when you cross the street carries a "significant non-bogus threat", but for a normal person, this doesn't induce any negative motivation.

In short, removing the negative motivation is not the same as eliminating your preference -- the two motivational systems have a fairly high degree of redundancy.

Comment author: CronoDAS 08 April 2010 01:25:45AM 4 points [-]

I don't seem to have positive motivations, or at least very few. I play video games to stave off feelings of boredom and loneliness as much as because I enjoy playing them. That, and it gives me a fake feeling of achievement in lieu of achievements that actually affect social status.

Comment author: KatjaGrace 11 April 2010 02:07:39AM 3 points [-]

"Should you be seeking to gain in that particular moment?...Hell no! Right? Because you don’t want to take a risk of falling or getting into a spot where the tiger can jump up and get you or anything like that. Your brain wants you to sit tight, stay put, shut up, don’t rock the boat… until the crisis is over. It wants you to sit tight. That’s the “pain brain”."

Yet procrastination mostly consists of finding more fun things to do.

Comment author: pjeby 11 April 2010 02:14:20AM 14 points [-]

Yet procrastination mostly consists of finding more fun things to do.

Chronic procrastinators don't usually have fun procrastinating. They do something safe, familiar, and unambitious -- to pass the time while they're waiting for the tiger to go away, and to take their mind off the fear.

Comment author: RobinZ 11 April 2010 03:08:58AM 6 points [-]

A number of them find browsing LessWrong safe, familiar, and unambitious, it seems.

Wait, did I say "them"? I meant "us".

Comment author: CronoDAS 12 April 2010 06:00:19PM 3 points [-]

Oddly, I found video games to become vastly more appealing when I had work to avoid. Having something to do, and not doing it, felt exciting.

Comment author: [deleted] 07 April 2010 10:09:43PM 3 points [-]

Okay, the two "examples" of akrasia that come to mind most easily are procrastination and addiction. If you're procrastinating, then you're failing to do something, and so you need some positive, "gain brain" motivation. If you're addicted, then you're failing to not do something; does this mean that you need some negative, "pain brain" motivation? If I'm addicted to heroin, should I try to visualize all the horrible things that will happen to me if I don't overcome my addiction?

Comment author: pjeby 07 April 2010 11:16:12PM 3 points [-]

If I'm addicted to heroin, should I try to visualize all the horrible things that will happen to me if I don't overcome my addiction?

That would be a negative motivation.

Now, I'm going to speculate a little, so I want to clearly mark the following as speculation:

I have had one person who told me they had significantly cut back their dose of a painkiller they were addicted to, by removing the negative feelings that prompted their use of it. This is just one example, though, and there are way too many confounding factors. (Inlcuding the part where they had only reported cutting down, not quitting entirely yet.)

All that being said, I would guess that the distinction between being addicted to something and simply enjoying it a lot, is the same as the distinction between negative and positive motivation. People might start smoking, drinking, or drugging for the purpose of receiving pleasure, but once they're an addict, the overwhelming motivation is to avoid withdrawal and/or the lousy life they might otherwise have to face.

I expect this is equally true for addictions like excessive internet usage, for example.

Anyway, I'm just putting the "speculation" disclaimer here because I don't treat people for drug, sex, alcohol, or gambling addictions. I've helped people quit smoking, sure, and I've cured my previously compulsive addiction to lesswrong, but that's about it. ;-)

Comment author: wedrifid 07 April 2010 11:02:09PM 0 points [-]

I wouldn't recommend pain to people who have learned to self-medicate with addictive behaviors. I would recommend enough 'gain brain' motivation to encourage whatever positive action is required to combat the addiction. (eg. Finding someone to tie you down and inject you with suitable chemicals till the worst of the chemical addiction is gone.)

Comment author: PlaidX 07 April 2010 10:37:03PM 0 points [-]

I don't think addiction IS a form of akrasia.

Comment author: [deleted] 07 April 2010 10:45:53PM 1 point [-]

Why, pray tell, not? Surely heroin addicts would rather not be heroin addicts, and yet they are.

Comment author: Nanani 09 April 2010 12:44:43AM 2 points [-]

Are you sure about that? Beware generalizing from a sample of one.

Heroin addiction is in most cases carefully cultivated by the addict, for a variety of reasons, and stopping is not really difficult.

I recommend Theodore Dalrymple's insightful book Romancing Opiates: Pharmacological Lies and the Addiction Bureaucracy for clarification as to why akrasia and heroin addiction are not related.

Comment author: [deleted] 09 April 2010 03:44:23AM 8 points [-]

I'm generalizing from a sample of zero, in fact.

Comment author: RobinZ 09 April 2010 04:23:31AM 6 points [-]

That's the wittiest expression for "I'm reporting my prior" that I've seen in the last five minutes! :D

Comment deleted 08 April 2010 03:37:46PM [-]
Comment author: pjeby 08 April 2010 04:45:15PM 2 points [-]

The Instant Irresistible Motivation video seems to ring true with me, I am currently in a very motivationally difficult sitation, so we'll see if it works out.

For the reasons Kaj and I posted, it won't be of help to you in the long run, unless you first ditch the negative motivation that makes you feel you need it in the first place.

Is there anything I can read now about that?

The internet is full of such things, and most can be made to work, including the various works of Byron Katie, Morty Lefkoe, Henderson-Doyle, EFT, Sedona, and many, many others.

The catch is, you need to be able to do RMI, and to observe the process of your thoughts, not just the content, and avoid believing in any interrupting thoughts. If you can do this, you can use almost any technique.

Recently, I heard from a guy who was trying to use EFT to fix a confidence problem, and he tried it the same way over and over, thinking the whole time that it wasn't going to work. I asked him if he tried using EFT on that thought... and it hadn't occurred to him.

I use this as an illustration of the bigger problem: when you're not paying attention to the process of your thoughts, you completely miss the point of what you're trying to do, and then end up thinking the technique doesn't work.

Unfortunately, this is only one example of the sorts of paradoxes one can get into, trying to use these techniques without some sort of outside assistance to help you see what sort of thinking box you're actually in.

(Btw, I don't actually recommend people bother learning EFT - it's about the most ridiculously complicated way of doing what it does that there is. An NLP researcher actually demonstrated that you could use a keychain "Simon" game to produce similar results, without needing to learn an elaborate tapping sequence -- suggesting that the beneficial function of EFT comes from overflowing your sensory/motor buffers with a complex sequence, not that it's the particular complex sequence that makes a difference.)

Comment author: [deleted] 09 April 2010 06:17:38AM 10 points [-]

From experience, I find that the acronym uniqueness threshold is about four: if an acronym is at least four letters long, it will be easy to search Wikipedia or Google for its expansion, but if it's only three letters long, it may be impossible.

Anyway, I'm guessing that EFT is the Emotional Freedom Technique, RMI is Relaxed Mental Inquiry, and NLP is Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

Comment deleted 08 April 2010 05:16:39PM [-]
Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 09 April 2010 05:44:58PM 2 points [-]

Relaxed Mental Inquiry. There's a more detailed description of it at one of the book chapters.

Comment deleted 08 April 2010 05:19:40PM [-]
Comment author: pjeby 08 April 2010 05:44:41PM 2 points [-]

So your recommendation is that I see a therapist re: negatives, blocks, etc?

Not really; the degree of "clue" to be had by therapists ranges from good to abysmal.
If you do see one, look for a solutions-focused/"brief" therapist, not a "talk about your life history" one.

You'll get almost as much benefit from talking to a friend, or journalling; the real benefit is in seeing your thoughts from the outside. You can do this mentally, too, it's just not as easy, because you have to learn to split yourself in two - alternating between having thoughts, and observing them critically, without crossing the beams, so to speak.

Anyway, what I recommend is that you pick a technique -- any technique -- and practice its application in a scientific way. By which I mean, carefully observe/record what you do and what happens, without getting involved. If something doesn't work, you observe that "I did X, Y happened -- now I will try Z" -- not, "this sucks, it doesn't work, and I hate myself". ;-)

Combine this with journalling or friend-conversation to identify what things you should be applying the technique to, because your first guesses as to what to use it on will be "inside the box" -- i.e., things that won't actually change your basic assumptions. The outside view provided by journalling (or better yet, another human being) will help you to see what those more-basic assumptions are, so you can apply the techniques to them instead.

(Applying the techniques to things that are "inside the box" is another common reason people get frustrated with self-help techniques... the technique may or may not work, but in that situation it doesn't really help, since it's not being applied to the assumptions or thinking processes that are creating the real problem.)

Or that I try to get this Chapter 7 that you and Kaj are talking about?

It does contain the easiest de-negativization technique to learn that I know of in the entire self-help universe, and the one that I always teach people first.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 08 April 2010 04:32:13PM 0 points [-]

There's one technique for it in Eby's free book chapters (chapter 7 specifically); he doesn't want a direct link to them being passed around and I'm not sure on how much I'm allowed to quote, but sign up to his mailing list and you should get a link eventually. (I'm not sure if you get a link to all the chapters on sign-up, or if you need to wait for the next mailing.)

I haven't really gotten it to work myself yet, though, and I haven't figured out what it is that I'm doing wrong.

Comment author: pjeby 08 April 2010 04:50:33PM 1 point [-]

You might not be doing anything wrong, but the way to know for sure is to try it on a food dislike first. That's a good test of your technique, because if you can't get rid of a food dislike with it, it is indeed your technique that's wrong.

If you've succeeded with a food dislike, but are having trouble with something else, it's much less likely your technique, and more likely that you have something the method doesn't work on. (Or that you haven't fully surfaced the emotional threat, i.e., haven't asked "what's bad about that?" enough to get to a strong feeling.)

Comment deleted 08 April 2010 05:22:50PM *  [-]
Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 09 April 2010 05:46:24PM 0 points [-]

Eby randomly posts updates on the list, and each update recently has contained links to all the chapters. (Yes, I know that this is a rather inconvenient and clumsy system to get new people to sign up...)

Comment author: RobertWiblin 10 April 2010 12:46:40PM 3 points [-]

I am skeptical of the evolutionary explanation he poses for inactivity.

I don't believe large numbers of people were typically thrown out of hunter gatherer bands for incompetence, surely not more than inactive people (http://books.google.com.au/books?sitesec=reviews&id=ljxS8gUlgqgC). And in how many crisis situations is doing nothing really the best option? Hiding from a predator would surely be one of only a few.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 10 April 2010 03:16:45PM 3 points [-]

In any case, I'm not convinced we just have paleolithic brains.

The fact that we've got a lot more paleolithic ancestors doesn't mean there hasn't been selection and change since then. And we don't know that much about how they lived.

I believe we have paleolithic adaptations (smallish group living, need for small grained variation (going barefoot on rough ground), need for movement (not exercise!), lowish carb eating, possibly a need to eat insects which is sadly neglected in the modern world), primitive farming adaptations (comfort in hierarchies, tolerance of drudgery, willingness to forgo gratification, tolerance of grains and perhaps a need for them,), and urban adaptations (comfort with strangers, strong immune systems, tolerance of noise and crowding, enjoyment of novelty, ability to handle strong drink). None of these lists are expected to be complete or entirely accurate, but it's worth noting that to some extent, they're pulling in different directions.

Is people being unwilling to move away from smoke best explained in terms of paleolithic motivations, or as a result of civilized, and perhaps cultural, overlays?

Comment author: rhollerith_dot_com 10 April 2010 07:40:48PM *  1 point [-]

Good points. I freely admit that my comment which is the sibling of your comment contains many more inferential steps and many more places where you just have to trust my judgement than the most successful conversations on Less Wrong contain. I think that if enough people persist in explaining material that is many inferential steps away from what the majority here believe and accept or if participants just accept such material uncritically because the consequences of the material being valid is so tantalizing, then Less Wrong will become less useful as a place to teach and to learn the kinds of (nifty) things that have been sucessfully taught and learned on Less Wrong.

In other words, I suggest that participants (and voters) embrace the view that it is at the least bad manners and at most toxic to the community for a participant to persist in many long comments over many months which tend to take place too many inferential steps away from what most of us comprehend, believe and accept even if that participant is a successful wielder of the material. (ADDED: and for that reason, I will stop using certain supports from evolutionary psychology even though I have long believed and accepted them).

ADDED. when Eliezer wanted to bring readers many inferential steps, he was careful to take us one step at a time and, after each step, to observe how many comprehended (accepted) it. I humbly suggest that if your name is not "Eliezer", then if an attempt to take us one step in some direction is not met with widespread acceptance, then you refrain from using Less Wrong to try to take us a second step in that direction.

Comment author: rastilin 17 April 2011 03:32:34AM 1 point [-]

Well said. This thread is very useful and I think I've already learnt a great deal that will help me be more productive. That being said; your right about people's tendencies to make completely off the wall statements about the underpinnings of human behavior.

I submit that there are people who make it their business to understand other people so that they can manipulate them. These people are sometimes very successful, which indicates that they might know something; if you're not riding an equally high wave of popularity and love; perhaps you are not qualified to make these assertions regarding humanity's secret thoughts.

Comment author: TimFreeman 17 April 2011 06:04:38PM 0 points [-]

...if you're not riding an equally high wave of popularity and love; perhaps you are not qualified to make these assertions regarding humanity's secret thoughts.

No, the estimated quality of the conclusion should be a function of the quality of the argument and the supporting evidence, not the identity of the arguer. To do otherwise is to commit the classic argument-by-authority or ad-hominem fallacies.

And from the grandparent of this post::

In other words, I suggest that participants (and voters) embrace the view that it is at the least bad manners and at most toxic to the community for a participant to persist in many long comments over many months which tend to take place too many inferential steps away from what most of us comprehend, believe and accept even if that participant is a successful wielder of the material. (ADDED: and for that reason, I will stop using certain supports from evolutionary psychology even though I have long believed and accepted them).

That's rationalizing groupthink. IMO you should speak the truth as best you can, and change your estimated truth based on the arguments you read and the evidence presented, not on guesses about what your audience is willing to listen to.

I hope you were being sarcastic.

Comment author: rastilin 18 April 2011 04:02:30AM 0 points [-]

How do we know how good the supporting evidence is if we have no way to assay it for ourselves? At that point, aren't we just forced to take poster's word for it? That's not even as good as evaluating their performance because it's completely results independent. A lot of the time, logical fallacies just come up as an excuse for the poster to say whatever they want without having to back it up.

Assuming that we could see how people implement their own theories, we would have a feedback loop; however, many theories inside less wrong operate inside a vacum. We used to depend on logic to evaluate theories, then we stopped and moved into the scientific method, because pure logic doesn't work outside of a closed environment. It only works when you have a solid grasp of the intial variables.

That's rationalizing groupthink. IMO you should speak the truth as best you can, and change your estimated truth based on the arguments you read and the evidence presented, not on guesses about what your audience is willing to listen to.

From your complaint it sounds like they're forcing you to march in lockstep with everyone while chanting slogans; compared to being asked to back up your assertions.

Comment author: shokwave 17 April 2011 06:10:10PM 0 points [-]

Call it what you will, they believe it has a positive correlation with group success, so I approve of them pursuing such a course of action.

Comment author: TimFreeman 18 April 2011 02:54:32AM 0 points [-]

How do we define group success?

I thought it was being rational and participating in a process that converges on the truth, and that looks like exactly what they're proposing to give up. Perhaps you have a different definition?

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 10 April 2010 03:29:27PM 0 points [-]

I don't think the paleolithic hypothesis is a total waste-- it seems to have paid off on going barefoot-- but I think it should be used as a source of testable hypothesis, not as a premise for making up explanations of anomalous behavior.

I used to be able to edit my LW comments. Has something changed on the site, or is there a time limit or something?

Comment author: tut 10 April 2010 03:56:55PM 1 point [-]

If it is the same problem that I had then you will be able to edit it after you click the permalink.

Comment author: rhollerith_dot_com 10 April 2010 02:38:41PM *  4 points [-]

Uh, whenever getting food is expected to yield less of some necessary nutrient than is consumed by getting the food is a time when doing very little is the best option -- at least if the nutrient situation will probably get better in a few months. Also, if you are male, whenever you are seen as effective sexual competition by a male or coalition of males who are in a position to kill you or permanently damage you with little risk of bodily or reputational harm to themselves is a time when doing nothing impressive is the best option -- and in the EEA simply doing well at hunting, farming or making tools was probably seen as impressive by the women. Heck, I've gotten significant signs of interest from women just for sitting in a cafe in San Francisco and looking like I was productively engaged in writing things down on pieces of paper when the woman had no way to know what I am writing. Many writers say that industriousness is attractive to women. And, heck, in junior high school, I remember being attacked and my study supplies kicked around on the street by another male for appearing industrious.

In summary, it seems to me that one of the most profound differences between the EEA and modern life (at least modern life in the relatively well-run jurisdictions) is that in modern life, there is no reason not to spend a significant part of every day in effortful activity either physical or mental -- and note that effortful mental activity consumes many times more calories than "subsistence" mental activity does (I think: I should actually research that; personal experience is my main reason for believing it) and that mental activity accounts for 25% of the calories consumed by a human being (and I'm fairly certain of that last point)

And if getting thrown out of the band were not a large source of loss of reproductive fitness in the EEA, then please explain the natural human fascination with the theme as evidenced by the mass appeal of shows like Survivor (plot: every week, contestants vote to see which contestant gets thrown off the island) or Big Brother (plot virtually identical). Emotional reactions and tastes as strong and salient as that which are widespread in the human population should be assumed to be the result of selection pressures unless and until there is a good reason to believe otherwise IMHO. Well, I think I need to say a little bit more on this point. Yes, I am aware that many people, and a large fraction of the more thoughtful people, have an aversion to shows like Survivor and Big Brother. At least in the case of Big Brother I think much of the aversion comes from the natural human tendency to hold privacy violations (even when the violated have voluntarily ceded their privacy) as moral transgressions. And I think some of it comes from the fact that thoughtful people have noticed that this fascination with who is in and who is out and who is in danger of getting thrown off the island tends to have negative effects in modern environments such as your typical white-collar workplace. But mostly I think I have over the years gotten pretty good at telling which reactions are learned and which are innate, and the revulsion of many people toward shows like Survivor strikes me as a learned antibody to an innate interest in the theme.

Comment author: RobertWiblin 11 April 2010 04:25:52PM 3 points [-]

Possibly doing nothing is a good idea for hunter gatherers in case of starvation, but that seems worth checking in the anthropology research. If starvation were a frequent risk, lethargy would surely been prompted by insufficient food intake, which is rare for humans today. We wouldn't just be lazy for that reason all the time; during times of abundance you ought to gather and store as much food as possible.

Apparently hunter gatherer bands were egalitarian, so it's unlikely people would have been beaten up by (non-existent) leaders just for hunting and gathering well, especially given food was shared. Again the conditions under which people would be picked on in bands are something we can find out by looking at existing anthropology research. Nonetheless it's hard to imagine that hunter gatherer bands which would push out members merely for contributing to the food intake of the group would be the most successful. We don't favour do-nothings over well-meaning incompetents today as far as I can tell.

Comment author: pjeby 10 April 2010 03:36:13PM 2 points [-]

I don't believe large numbers of people were typically thrown out of hunter gatherer bands for incompetence,

The number of people who have fears of being discovered as incompetent (e.g. "impostor syndrome") strongly suggests a biological explanation.

In any case, my model is slightly broader than Kaj's summary implies -- this sort of fear-of-discovery applies to any acts or personal qualities that, if known, would lead to lower tribal status. You don't have to be actually thrown out of your tribe in order for discovery of a negative quality to alter your reproductive opportunities (or your probability of surviving long enough to have some).

Comment author: rastilin 17 April 2011 03:33:24AM 0 points [-]

How is impostor syndrome different from having low self esteem?

Comment author: pjeby 17 April 2011 05:40:17PM 2 points [-]

How is impostor syndrome different from having low self esteem?

Er, one is a fear of being discovered as incompetent, and the other is low self-esteem? ;-)

Obviously, having a low opinion of your abilities would be a prerequisite for fearing that others will come to share that opinion. So, I'm not sure I understand your question.

"Low self-esteem" is usually interpreted to mean, "having a lower opinion of self than is merited" -- so if you fear discovery of your incompetence, the incompetence itself could be either actual or imagined, and only in the imaginary case would the "low self-esteem" label also apply. ;-)

Comment author: Gavin 09 April 2010 03:38:32AM 1 point [-]

Well, I may have wasted 10 minutes on that video . . . but at least I have a clean desk.

Comment author: [deleted] 15 March 2016 09:51:09AM 1 point [-]

"You just have to imagine that every bruise is a hickey from the universe," Finn says, "and everyone wants to get with the universe.".

  • Adventure Time
Comment author: gregconen 07 April 2010 09:08:50PM 1 point [-]

If you haven't already, do check out Eby's Instant Irresistible Motivation video for learning how to create positive motivation.

Interesting. In fact, it seems to mesh with the process I've successfully used to do things like cleaning my desk.

Unfortunately, many of the tasks I have to do don't lend themselves to the visualization in step 1. How does one visualize having studied for an exam, or completed an exercise routine?

Comment author: [deleted] 07 April 2010 09:59:58PM 4 points [-]

In the middle of writing this comment, I realized that I have no experience with IIM, so I'm not qualified to speak from experience. Therefore, please believe what I'm saying only because logic requires that it be true.

For the exam, visualize yourself knowing the material, or getting a good grade, or finishing school, or getting a good job. The technique requires you to feel the desire to achieve in your body, so keep moving forward until you hit something that gives a physical reaction. Boom, you've completed the first two steps, so now you can do the third step: compare your current situation to that, while still feeling good about "that". According to what Eby says, your brain should then start planning how to achieve "that", working down from whatever goal you discovered until it hits what you need to do next--which may or may not be actually studying for the exam.

For the exercise routine, same thing. Visualize yourself at the gym, or exercising, or having finished your routine, or being in good (or better) shape, or looking attractive, or living longer.

Comment author: pjeby 07 April 2010 10:54:15PM 2 points [-]

In the middle of writing this comment, I realized that I have no experience with IIM, so I'm not qualified to speak from experience. Therefore, please believe what I'm saying only because logic requires that it be true.

I thank you for placing this qualification on your statement. As it happens, you are entirely correct, but that's very often not the case when you try to apply far-brain logic to near-brain emotions. I have to teach people to distrust logical answers, because emotional logic isn't based on understanding things. Your emotional brain is more of an outside-view frequentist than an inside-view Bayesian, you might say. ;-)

At any rate, it's subject to a different set of biases than the "far" brain, so far-brain reasoning tends to use a very wrong "theory of mind" when guessing at one's own emotional motivations.

Comment author: [deleted] 07 April 2010 11:25:26PM 2 points [-]

I have to teach people to distrust logical answers, because emotional logic isn't based on understanding things.

You can trust logic; you can't trust that your brain is logical. I did the former.

Comment author: pjeby 07 April 2010 11:37:13PM 1 point [-]

You can trust logic;

Not from flawed premises, you can't. And most of the premises people typically assume about their own motivations are seriously flawed. Thus, people can use perfectly valid logic to construct reasonable, elegant theories about their behavior that are nonetheless 100% irrelevant to how they're actually generating those behaviors.

you can't trust that your brain is logical.

Actually, your brain is logical, in the sense that a computer is - it does what it's programmed to do, even if what it's programmed to do is stupid. ;-)

I did the former.

I should probably clarify what I mean by "distrust logical answers". I should've said, "distrust logical answers to emotional or experiential questions", or "distrust 'far' answers to 'near' questions". The question of one's motivation for doing a thing is "near", so generating an answer from the "far" side of the brain is pure confabulation. Thus, a logical, abstract, sophisticated answer to that question is not actually an answer to that question.

Comment author: pjeby 07 April 2010 09:48:15PM 3 points [-]

How does one visualize having studied for an exam, or completed an exercise routine?

You don't; you visualize whatever it is you're going to get by having done those things.

As you'll notice in the video, one of the major functions of the visualization is to engage the feeling of desire - that's why the questions are "what's good about that? what do you like about it?"

Since you probably don't actually desire (in the emotional, feeling sense) having studied for an exam or completing an exercise routine, it wouldn't work for that even if you could visualize those things.

So, visualize something you DO desire about those things. (Yes, his is still tricky, precisely because you're probably trying to set up these actions in order to avoid bad consequences like failing the exam. As long as this is the outer frame in which your thinking is taking place, the technique won't work very well -- the pain brain usually wins over the gain brain.

The way that I fix this with clients is to teach them to identify the specific emotional SASS threat (i.e. Status, Affiliation, Safety, or Stimulation), and disconnect it. Once the threat is gone, positive motivation operates naturally.

Comment author: CronoDAS 08 April 2010 01:28:29AM 5 points [-]

The way that I fix this with clients is to teach them to identify the specific emotional SASS threat (i.e. Status, Affiliation, Safety, or Stimulation), and disconnect it. Once the threat is gone, positive motivation operates naturally.

I am confused as to how this is possible, and how the second follows from the first. If I only work to put food on the table, and I stop worrying about putting food on the table, how does that help me to get my work done, instead of spending all day playing World of Warcraft until I starve to death?

Comment author: pjeby 08 April 2010 01:40:14AM 5 points [-]

I am confused as to how this is possible, and how the second follows from the first. If I only work to put food on the table,

Stop right there -- the first error is in the word "only".

If you are operating under negative motivation, it tends to appear as though that negative motivation is the only thing keeping you going, because negative motivation suppresses awareness of positive motivation. There are actually dozens of possible positive motivations you could have for working.

Which brings me to the second error -- that the motivation is really to "put food on the table", vs. say, "not starve". Note, however, that you could also be putting food on the table because you like eating better than not-eating. ;-)

IOW, for every possible negative motivation there is generally a plethora of alternative positive motivations available, all of which will bring anticipated pleasure, in place of the anticipated absence of pain that's all a negative motivation can provide you with.

And last, but not least, this also means that you are probably not working only to "put food on the table". Unless you have personal experience of starvation being linked to not working, you're unlikely to have a Safety link to working (other than one instilled by your parents scaring you as a kid). Most people's choice to work is actually Status or Affiliation driven, whether or not they're aware of it.

[Important note: I am not saying people work because they get status or affiliation from it -- though that's possible -- but rather, that most people have been taught that a person who doesn't work is low-class (Status) or unworthy/inadequate (Affiliation).]

Comment author: CronoDAS 08 April 2010 03:09:58AM 1 point [-]

Stop right there -- the first error is in the word "only".

Yeah... I think I get it, at least somewhat. But what if you think that you have stronger positive motivations to do something else, say, World of Warcraft?

Which brings me to the second error -- that the motivation is really to "put food on the table", vs. say, "not starve". Note, however, that you could also be putting food on the table because you like eating better than not-eating. ;-)

Well, I was using "put food on the table" in the usual metaphorical sense. (And if I could deal with the whole "not being hungry" thing without actually eating, I would; I don't get all that much pleasure from food.)

In terms of my own situation, though, I'm not working...

You say you have clients. How do I sign up?

Comment author: pjeby 08 April 2010 03:36:30AM 2 points [-]

But what if you think that you have stronger positive motivations

Motivation is measured in feeling, not thinking. Thinking about what feelings you might or might not have is like dancing about architecture -- it might be entertaining, but it's not very informative. ;-)

to do something else, say, World of Warcraft?

You're only assuming that it's a positive motivation, and in your shoes (if I understand your situation correctly) it's not a great assumption, even if the vast majority of Warcraft players are primarily positively-motivated.

Comment author: CronoDAS 08 April 2010 03:49:28AM *  2 points [-]

Myself, I got bored with WoW after a couple of months, so I can't speak for the WoW players out there.

(More relevant comments will come later, after I think of some.)

I wasn't talking about myself in particular there. I was trying to be more abstract.

Okay, here's something.

When I was in college, I often had something that I wanted to be doing, but I had all that damn homework to do. When I sat down to do my homework, all I could think about was how awful it was and how much I'd rather be doing something else. But if I went and did something else, I had to deal with having a lot of homework to do and not doing it. I eventually found what turned out to be a satisfactory way to resolve the dilemma.

I dropped the course, and felt very relieved afterward.

As I've mentioned before, I can honestly say that I only graduated because of my parents' pressure. If I dropped out of college after my second or third year, I think I could have avoided a lot of unnecessary suffering; so far, the only real benefit I've gotten from my college degree has been that my parents are satisfied with the amount of education I have.

Comment author: pjeby 08 April 2010 04:22:25PM 4 points [-]

So, I'm not entirely clear, but I get the impression you're presenting this as an example of something that you wouldn't do if you dropped the negative motivation for it.... and implying that this is somehow bad.

If so, then I'd point out that if indeed the only positive result you got from your degree is your relief with your parents' satisfaction, then you could've gotten that result a lot easier and quicker by deleting your brain's evaluation of their dissatisfaction as a SASS threat.

FWIW, both I and my clients have passed through periods that I've tongue-in-cheekly called, "the dark night of the soul" -- a period where you've removed one or more major negative motivations, and then realize you have no idea WTF you're doing with your life or want to do with it in the future.

However, a period like this is not the result of having no negative motivation - it's the result of having removed only one level of negative motivation, without reaching your fundamental values or criteria yet. (That is, you no longer have negative motivation, but you're still judging your life by negative criteria.)

Once you get the criteria as well as the motivation, things start to turn around, and you begin (re)discovering all the things you actually like about life and the world. One of the key issues for me was realizing that I cannot "figure out" or "solve" what I want. (As I said, thinking about feelings is like dancing about architecture.)

What I've realized is that I have to actually ask myself what I already want, and that when I ask that question, there are answers, so long as I do NOT engage in trying to figure out what I should want, or what would "make me happy", or any other sort of goal-oriented process.

Fundamentally, positive motivation is not something that you use in order to get something else. As long as you treat it as a tool to get yourself to do something, you're still stuck in the same box -- your real motivation at that point is whatever problem you're trying to solve by adding positive motivation.

Comment author: CronoDAS 08 April 2010 09:59:42PM *  4 points [-]

If so, then I'd point out that if indeed the only positive result you got from your degree is your relief with your parents' satisfaction, then you could've gotten that result a lot easier and quicker by deleting your brain's evaluation of their dissatisfaction as a SASS threat.

Having your parents tell you "If we are sufficiently dissatisfied, you'll be homeless" is kind of scary. :(

Getting a college degree is supposed to be of great benefit - and if I had gone on to have a career as an engineer or programmer or something, it would have been. And at least I have the social status associated with "college graduate" instead of "college dropout".

FWIW, both I and my clients have passed through periods that I've tongue-in-cheekly called, "the dark night of the soul" -- a period where you've removed one or more major negative motivations, and then realize you have no idea WTF you're doing with your life or want to do with it in the future.

That sounds like me right now.

I feel like I ought to do something impressive with my life. Many of the other students in my high school thought I was some kind of super-genius who was going to end up as the next Bill Gates or something, and I feel that, by not living up to my potential, as it were, it would be like I'm letting them down. I have a fantasy that I go to sleep one day, spend the next ten to fifteen years as a philosophical zombie, and become consciousness after having done something impressive enough that I can retire and not worry about having to do anything else. (Like in those mediocre movies "13 Going on 30" and "Click".) I'm embarrassed whenever someone asks me what I do for a living, and ashamed that I'm . I want to be respected, but I'm not willing to do what it takes to earn that respect in either the most common manner (become an employee) or the next most common manner (become an entrepreneur). And I'm worried about what will happen when my parents get too old to support me. (I'm 27, and they're both 61.) I've tried my best to deal with this by simply not caring about what happens to me in the future, but that's hard, and eventually the future happens anyway.

I think there should have been a paragraph break in there somewhere. :(

Comment author: pjeby 09 April 2010 12:50:59AM 4 points [-]

I feel like I ought to do something impressive with my life.

What pushes you forward, holds you back. That is, it is precisely this feeling of "ought" that is the problem.

When you have an ought or a should, it is generally shorthand for "something bad will happen if I don't". The something bad is not expressed, because then whenever you comply with your "should" you appear more "moral" to your compatriots, than if you are "merely" complying out of duress.

It's essential to identify the precise nature of the unconsciously-represented threat (which is where SASS comes in), and to flip it around to the positive form of that need.

Many of the other students in my high school thought I was some kind of super-genius who was going to end up as the next Bill Gates or something, and I feel that, by not living up to my potential, as it were, it would be like I'm letting them down.

And are you afraid they won't like you, or won't respect you?

Don't analyze - just feel what it's like to let them down... is it more like being lonely and rejected, or ashamed and humiliated? Are you a less-good person for doing this, a less-important person, or something else?

Comment author: [deleted] 07 April 2010 10:05:18PM 2 points [-]

Okay, a Status threat is a threat to your status, a Safety threat is a threat to your safety. I can sort of guess what an Affiliation threat is--something like "people like me don't do this, so I had better not". A Stimulation threat, I have no plausible guess for. "If I don't do this, I'm going to be bored"?

Comment author: pjeby 07 April 2010 10:47:30PM *  6 points [-]

Okay, a Status threat is a threat to your status, a Safety threat is a threat to your safety. I can sort of guess what an Affiliation threat is--something like "people like me don't do this, so I had better not".

Not that sophisticated, actually. Affiliation is a catch-all for being loved, liked, accepted, supported, understood, empathized with, etc. Bonding.

A Stimulation threat, I have no plausible guess for. "If I don't do this, I'm going to be bored"?

Yep. Stimulation isn't usually all that important, most of the time. I see Status and Affiliation threats involved in maybe 60-80% of cases, while Stimulation is more like 2 or 3%. But it does show up from time to time, and it makes for a nice acronym. ;-)

A rough chart of the (negative) emotions involved:

Status - anger, humiliation, hurt pride, indignation, embarassment

Affiliation - loneliness, rejection, unworthiness, inadequacy

Safety - fear, anxiety, uncertainty, stress

Stimulation - boredom, apathy, hopelessness

There are, of course, corresponding positive emotions for when you get each of the four values. (Like excitement and fun and joy, in the case of Stimulation.)

Anyway, whether positive or negative, these four kinds of things seem to essentially be the brain's terminal values - if you control a person's self-perceived levels of these things, you can pretty much imprint them however you like.

We spend our childhoods doing just that, actually -- learning associations between our built-in triggers, and either our environment, our actions, or other social constructs.

So for example, I learned over a good chunk of my childhood not to do almost anything exciting because my mother yelled at me until I matched her fear for my Safety, until I indeed loathed any sort of surprise or unexpectedness / unpredictability. I used to hate being around crowds and strangers because who knew what they might say or do?

(I only recently became aware of this link and removed it.... damn I've been missing out!)

Comment author: Amanojack 08 April 2010 01:00:31AM 2 points [-]

Safety - ... uncertainty ...

I think I've discovered the source of my Internet addiction. I hate the feeling of not knowing! Oddly, I used to pride myself on my ignorance of current events. It's just that the more I learn the more it feels like I need to know. Classic addiction pattern.

Comment author: pjeby 08 April 2010 01:14:32AM 3 points [-]

I think I've discovered the source of my Internet addiction.

Probably not. First off, that's entirely too logical. ;-) Second, the aspect of behavior you describe is more parsimoniously explained by simple dopamine-driven behavior modification.

The reason you're surfing the internet instead of some more interesting source of dopamine, however, might well be something to do with a SASS threat, but you won't know what, specifically, unless you investigate.

Information that comes from outside you and sounds logical is generally the least likely source of good information about why you're doing what you're doing.

Comment author: Amanojack 08 April 2010 01:32:33AM 1 point [-]

investigate

You mean RMI?

Comment author: pjeby 08 April 2010 01:45:11AM 2 points [-]

Yes.

Comment author: Amanojack 08 April 2010 12:10:20PM 0 points [-]

All right, I asked myself what it would be like if I hardly ever used the Internet. I got a feeling of "missing out." Perhaps that points to loneliness, which is ironic because my net use hampers my offline social life, but it could be case nonetheless.

Comment author: pjeby 08 April 2010 03:59:57PM 3 points [-]

Emotional-brain answers don't "point to" things. They just are what they are. Ask what, specifically, you're "missing out" on, as the "pointing to" bit is just a logical-brain speculation.

At the moment, the evidence still supports a most-parsimonious hypothesis of dopamine addiction as an avoidance strategy for getting away from something else... that you haven't actually asked yourself about. What is it that you want (or think you want) to be doing instead of being internet addicted? That's the thing you should be asking questions about.

90% of the time, our initial ideas about what problem we need to solve are overly-narrow, because the unconscious mind almost always hands the conscious mind a problem specification that doesn't involve questioning any of your basic assumptions. ;-)

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 08 April 2010 03:03:16AM 0 points [-]

I'm not sure where intermittent reinforcement fits with your theories, but I think part of the hook of surfing the internet is that you never know when you'll run into something really cool. The fact that you don't even know what sort of really cool you might find adds to the hook.

Comment author: pjeby 08 April 2010 03:20:29AM 2 points [-]

I'm not sure where intermittent reinforcement fits with your theories,

Also known as "dopamine-driven behavior modification", as I said above.

That being said, novelty addiction seems (at least in my experience) to be something that's only really satisfying/compelling when you don't have anything better to do, or you're trying to avoid something else. When I'm being positively motivated, I'll sometimes go for days without reading my usual blogs, webcomics, etc. and be surprised when I have a lot to catch up on.

That's why I'd always check for a negative motivation explanation long before I'd consider the novelty-seeking to be particularly important in and of itself.

Comment author: [deleted] 07 April 2010 11:44:02PM 2 points [-]

Hmm, I said I had no plausible guess, and then my guess turned out to be correct. I should have expressed myself in a manner that doesn't require bending the laws of reality to my will.

Affiliation is a catch-all for being loved, liked, accepted, supported, understood, empathized with, etc. Bonding.

I think I would have gotten the idea immediately if you had said "Friendship", "Companionship", or something similar. Likewise, Stimulation could be called "Excitement". Does "Status, Excitement, Companionship, Safety" make a good acronym? :)

Comment author: pjeby 08 April 2010 01:22:52AM 4 points [-]

I think I would have gotten the idea immediately if you had said "Friendship", "Companionship", or something similar.

Do bear in mind that my goal in communication is not always for people to get things immediately, if, in the process, it causes them to also bring along a ton of baggage, poor analogies, misconceptions, etc. In this case, one function of using very technical terms for the acronym is to encourage you to create a new bucket in your head for sorting these, rather than using existing (but incorrect) buckets.

Not all stimulation is excitement, and not all affiliation is companionship. One kind of affiliation is the sense of belonging or being a part of something, for example.

(It would actually be nice to have a similarly precise-yet-vague way of saying "Safety", since it's really more like "maintaining control and/or predictability of the circumstances surrounding my health and physical safety".)

Comment author: wedrifid 08 April 2010 01:34:08AM *  0 points [-]

(It would actually be nice to have a similarly precise-yet-vague way of saying "Safety", since it's really more like "maintaining control and/or predictability of the circumstances surrounding my health and physical safety".)

Definitely, the 'safety' part was the one that didn't quite seem to fit. It also seems to be much more about the 'maintaining control and/or predictability of the circumstances' part than it is about limiting to 'surrounding my health and physical safety'.

Sure, it may not make the categories quite so neat to acknowledge it but the 'safety' feelings apply to more than the physical. We get those feelings in response to 'status' threats too. At least, I do and I do not believe I am unique. Fortunately your list was described as 'rough' so it seems about right.

Comment author: pjeby 08 April 2010 01:56:03AM 2 points [-]

Fortunately your list was described as 'rough' so it seems about right.

One reason for that is that, for the uses I have for that list, it doesn't require you to be able to objectively categorize your response or concern. It's more like how we teach people the basic color names, and then people can argue about whether a particular color is teal or aqua. ;-)

All the list does is provide a convenient, memorable framework for thinking and talking about the terminal values human brains use to organize learning and behavior... and a way of pointing people to the aspects of their own experience that will show them how they're programmed and what they need to do to reprogram themselves.

So, I guess what I'm saying is, if somebody wants to add "magenta" or "puce" to the list of colors, it doesn't harm the idea of a spectrum, just as different musical scales can cover the same range of frequencies. The advantage of SASS as a particular "scale" or "color scheme" is that it's simple and memorable: it's easier to answer "which of these four things do I feel I'm missing/needing in this situation" than "why am I doing this?"

(In particular, the second question calls for a far-brain answer, and a big part of the social far brain's function is to obfuscate your SASS-seeking motives from other people, by making up socially-acceptable reasons why you do things.)

Comment author: CronoDAS 08 April 2010 03:39:30PM 1 point [-]

"Security"?

Comment author: pjeby 08 April 2010 04:27:51PM 1 point [-]

"Security"?

Nice. Keeps the acronym, and matches the scope a bit better. I wonder if people will interpret that as meaning their "insecurity" is related, though. (Insecurities are generally affiliation or status-related.) On the other hand, people can have misconceptions about all of them, so that's not necessarily a problem.

Another possible "S" candidate would be Stability.

Comment author: wedrifid 08 April 2010 01:47:56AM 1 point [-]

I think I would have gotten the idea immediately if you had said "Friendship", "Companionship", or something similar.

That would be misleading. For the purposes of this kind of investigation it seems more useful to carve reality at 'affiliation'. The associted negative emotions just seem to be more directly associated with maintaining affiliation than companionship. This is one of those things where we may say that we want companionship but act like we want affiliation.

Comment author: CronoDAS 08 April 2010 12:52:12AM 0 points [-]

I think it's a bit distracting.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 07 April 2010 09:24:27PM *  1 point [-]

That is indeed challenging; I've had difficulty with it myself. You could try to visualize getting your results and seeing that you've gotten a good grade, or imagine the feeling after a exhausting exercise routine.

Comment author: Sideways 07 April 2010 09:46:37PM *  0 points [-]

If you've exercised before, you can probably remember the feeling in your body when you're finished--the 'afterglow' of muscle fatigue, endorphins, and heightened metabolism--and you can visualize that. If you haven't, or can't remember, you can imagine feelings in your mind like confidence and self-satisfaction that you'll have at the end of the exercise.

As for studying, the goal isn't to study, per se; it's to do well on the test. Visualizing the emotional rewards of success on the test itself can motivate you to study, as well as get enough sleep the night before, eat appropriately the day of, take performance enhancing drugs, etc.

Imagination is a funny thing. You can imagine things that could physically never happen--but if you try to imagine something that's emotionally implausible to you, you'll likely fail. Just now I imagined moving objects with my mind, with no trouble at all; then I tried to imagine smacking my mother in the face and failed utterly. If you actually try to imagine having something--not just think about trying--and fail, it's probably because deep down you don't believe you could ever have it.

Comment author: [deleted] 07 April 2010 10:07:25PM 5 points [-]

As for studying, the goal isn't to study, per se; it's to do well on the test.

I couldn't help but laugh at this.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 07 April 2010 10:08:31PM 0 points [-]

Ouch.

Comment author: Morendil 08 April 2010 04:17:21PM 1 point [-]

if you try to imagine something that's emotionally implausible to you, you'll likely fail

How do you mean that? I often find myself imagining things that are totally implausible emotionally, but quite possible physically, for instance, once in a while I imagine throwing myself off a bridge that I'm crossing, and I can feel my guts churning. (When I say "imagine" here, I mean I actually visualize myself falling, it's a stronger thing to me than idly considering the notion of falling.)

Comment author: pjeby 08 April 2010 05:53:59PM 1 point [-]

Emotionally implausible isn't really the right phrase here - see this other comment for why.

Comment author: Sideways 08 April 2010 05:17:58PM -1 points [-]

As a tentative rephrasing, something that's "emotionally implausible" is something that "I would never do" or that "could never happen to me." Like you, I can visualize myself falling with a high degree of accuracy; but I can't imagine throwing myself off the bridge in the first place. Suicide? I would never do that.

It occurs to me that "can't imagine" implies a binary division when ability to imagine is more of a continuum: the quality of imagination drops steadily between trying to imagine brushing my teeth (everyday), calling 911 (very rare, but I've done it before), punching through a wall (never done it, but maybe if I was mad enough), and jumping off a bridge (I would never do that).

For all four, I can imagine the physical events as bare facts; but for the first two I can easily place myself in the simulation, complete with cognitive and emotional states. That's much harder in the third case; in the fourth, I'm about as confident in my imagination as I am in trying to imagine a world where 1+1=3.

Comment author: pjeby 08 April 2010 05:51:32PM *  2 points [-]

As a tentative rephrasing, something that's "emotionally implausible" is something that "I would never do" or that "could never happen to me."

Allow me to rephrase more precisely for you. It's not plausibility that's at issue, it's whether you have a thought that causes you to stop visualizing.

If, as you mentioned in your previous comment, you imagine slapping your mother and "fail utterly", it's not because you can't imagine it, it's because your (early) evaluation of what you imagine causes you to stop before you can really put yourself in the situation.

Knowing that, you can ignore the reaction that tells you it's bad, and proceed. IOW, it's not that you can't imagine slapping your mother, it's that you prefer to stop before you actually experience what it would be like. In other words, it's not "can't", it's won't.

Comment author: Morendil 08 April 2010 05:32:57PM 2 points [-]

Like you, I can visualize myself falling with a high degree of accuracy; but I can't imagine throwing myself off the bridge in the first place.

I really do mean I imagine committing suicide. It really does feel to me as if it's not outlandish that I might just, as it were, blow a fuse and jump off the bridge on an impulse. I can project how I'd feel the instant after the "decision" - scared out of my mind, gut-wrenchingly regretful, but also inappropriately exhilarated.

Conversely, I'm not sure I can imagine brushing my teeth in great detail - it's too boring. But I do occasionally imagine things that I would describe as emotionally implausible with some degree of precision.

It's possible that I'm just weird, but anyway I mean my observations as cautions against generalizing from a sample of one.

Comment author: thomblake 08 April 2010 05:44:58PM *  1 point [-]

It's possible that I'm just weird, but anyway I mean my observations as cautions against generalizing from a sample of one.

Come on Morendil, you're supposed to link to these things.

ETA: OMG, that post got Yvain over a thousand karma.

Comment author: [deleted] 09 April 2010 06:30:32AM *  2 points [-]

This makes me kind of wish we had WikiStyleLinks, where if you simply put a phrase in CamelCase, it automatically generates a link to the page whose name is that phrase. You could simply speak of GeneralizingFromOneExample, and boom, a link to Yvain's post.

The thing is, though, reading text with WikiStyleLinks can get PrettyAnnoying after a while.

Comment author: kpreid 09 April 2010 01:28:50PM 2 points [-]

TV Tropes has an interesting variation of this: it supports WikiStyleLinks as well as MediaWiki-style bracketed links, but the Wiki Style Links automatically get spaces inserted (like that) in the name as displayed, so the appearance is merely capitals.

Comment author: thomblake 09 April 2010 12:56:56PM 0 points [-]

Yes, that's largely the reason I avoid CamelCase in source code.

Comment author: pjeby 07 April 2010 10:56:50PM 1 point [-]

As for studying, the goal isn't to study, per se; it's to do well on the test.

Beyond that, it's the improvements or fixes to Status, Affiliation, Safety, or Stimulation that you expect to get as a result of whatever outcome you expect doing well on the test to produce. So, the "mmm" test is a way of verifying that you actually engaged the anticipation of one of those things.

Comment author: [deleted] 30 June 2015 01:56:37PM 0 points [-]

Hi Kaj, Eby,

For naturally struggling people one useful thing can be to find ways how to doing nothing can be useful and healthy. I have very good experiences with intermittent fasting - for an NSP "just suffer and deal with it" i.e. fasting is FAR easier than "cook something weird, unusual and healthy". But an unexpected advantage I found was what through IF positive motivation and energy kicks in, through the good old hunger pathway. Apparently the old adage "stay hungry" is true in a non-symbolic way as well: a bit of fasting puts the body in a generally motivated, pushed, "let's go hunting" mode.

Comment author: oge 11 December 2014 05:14:37AM 0 points [-]

The "Instant Irresistible Motivation video" link is broken. Was this what you were referring to?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PppCBDHeytg

Comment author: zero_call 10 April 2010 12:58:51AM 0 points [-]

Another of Eby's theses is that negative motivation is, for the most part, impossible to overcome via willpower.

Doesn't that constitute an immediate refutation of the "instant irresistible motivation" strategy? In other words, it takes willpower to remove the negative motivation, or to employ the desktop strategy, for example...

Comment author: pjeby 10 April 2010 02:17:03AM 1 point [-]

Doesn't that constitute an immediate refutation of the "instant irresistible motivation" strategy? In other words, it takes willpower to remove the negative motivation, or to employ the desktop strategy, for example...

As I've pointed out many times, I chose desk cleaning as an example because (among other reasons) it's something that most people don't have a negative motivation in effect for. That is, their main objective in doing the process in the video is not to fix the terrible emergency of an unclean desk. Thus, it works nicely.

Another thing that happens, is that sometimes people do it while not expecting it to work... which pretty clearly indicates that their motive for trying it was not to solve whatever problem they were (ostensibly) trying to solve by using it.

In any case, the technique does use willpower... sort of.

At the end of it, you are instructed to use willpower to try NOT to do what you're motivating yourself to do, and to hold off as long as you can, before your willpower fails and you actually do the task. ;-)

So, IIM is actually premised on the assumption that your willpower will fail... and the marketing strategy behind it is premised on the assumption that if you have a bunch of negative motivations that are motivating you to use it in the first place, you'll still need help removing them.

Comment author: BenAlbahari 08 April 2010 12:17:11AM *  0 points [-]

Construal Level Theory (the one used to explain near-far mode) can also be used to explain self-control. One of the creators of the theory explains in a paper here and another paper is here.

The authors propose that self-control involves making decisions and behaving in a manner consistent with high-level versus low-level construals of a situation. Activation of high-level construals (which capture global, superordinate, primary features of an event) should lead to greater self-control than activation of low-level construals (which capture local, subordinate, secondary features). In 6 experiments using 3 different techniques, the authors manipulated construal levels and assessed their effects on self-control and underlying psychological processes. High-level construals led to decreased preferences for immediate over delayed outcomes, greater physical endurance, stronger intentions to exert selfcontrol, and less positive evaluations of temptations that undermine self-control. These results support a construal-level analysis of self-control.