Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.
In which I attempt to apply findings from behavioral psychology to my own life.
Behavioral Psychology Finding #1: Habituation
The psychological process of "extinction" or "habituation" occurs when a stimulus is administered repeatedly to an animal, causing the animal's response to gradually diminish. You can imagine that if you were to eat your favorite food for breakfast every morning, it wouldn't be your favorite food after a while. Habituation tends to happen the fastest when the following three conditions are met:
- The stimulus is delivered frequently
- The stimulus is delivered in small doses
- The stimulus is delivered at regular intervals
Source is here.
I had a project I was working on that was really important to me, but whenever I started working on it I would get demoralized. So I habituated myself to the project: I alternated 2 minutes of work with 2 minutes of sitting in the yard for about 20 minutes. This worked.
Interestingly enough, about halfway through this exercise I realized that what was really making it difficult for me to work on my project was the fact that it involved so many choices. So as my 20 minutes progressed, I started spending my 2 minutes trying to make as difficult decisions as possible. This habituation to decision demoralization seems to have had an immediate, fairly lasting impact on a wide variety of activities.
I'm really looking forward to hearing from someone who attempts to apply habituation to an ugh field.
Applied Habituation in Reverse
If you want to enjoy your favorite song until the day you die, dance to it infrequently at irregular intervals while it plays full blast. (Reversed conditions for habituation.)
Behavioral Psychology Finding #2: Intermittent Reinforcement
The reason why slot machines are so engaging is because they deliver rewards at random. If slot machines payed small rewards out on every round, playing them would be like work.
Applied Intermittent Reinforcement
For a while, there was a time-consuming chore that I was required to do every evening. I would often put it off until 2-3 AM and work while sleepy as a result.
To solve this problem, I started eating a gummy worm with 50% probability each time I did the chore at a pre-determined time early in the evening. (I gave myself the first two gummy worms with 100% probability to start things off.) My success rate with this method was very high.
Another self-help technique I've had tremendous success with is using Linux's cron utility to cause Firefox tabs to open periodically and tell me to switch activities if I'm wasting time. However, I've found that forcing myself to switch activities is highly stressful.
Perhaps it's possible to habituate the negative response to activity switching by having practice sessions where you periodically switch between distraction and work? Or maybe you could use intermittent reinforcement and randomly decide to give yourself something nice if you're successful in an upgrade to a higher-quality activity.
(I'm not experimenting with these at the moment because I'm currently fairly happy with my work/relaxation balance.)
Thanks to Psychohistorian for reminding me I wanted to write about this. I'm hoping he won't get mad at me for writing on the same topic he did so soon after his post.