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Kaj_Sotala comments on Scientific Self-Help: The State of Our Knowledge - Less Wrong

138 Post author: lukeprog 20 January 2011 08:44PM

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Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 22 January 2011 06:19:44PM *  46 points [-]

Happiness is surprisingly unmoved by external factors (Lykken & Tellegen 1996), because the genetics accounts for about 50% of the variance in happiness (Lyubomirsky et al. 2005; Stubbe et al. 2005).

Caution: heritability, as in the statistical concept, is defined in a way that has some rather counter-intuitive implications. One might think that if happiness is 50% heritable, then happiness must be 50% "hardwired". This is incorrect, and in fact the concept of heritability is theoretically incapable of making such a claim. (I'm not saying lukeprog made this mistake, but someone is likely to make it.)

The definition of heritability is straightforward enough: the amount of genetic variance in a trait, divided by the overall variance in the trait. Now, nearly all humans are born with two feet, so you might expect the trait of "having two feet" to have 100% heritability. In fact, it has close to 0% heritability! This is because the vast majority of people who have lost their feet have done so because of accidents or other environmental factors, not due to a gene for one-footedness. So nearly all of the variance in the amount of feet in humans is caused by environmental factors, making the heritability zero.

Another example is that if we have a trait that is strongly affected by the environment, but we manage to make the environment more uniform, then the heritability of the trait goes up. For instance, both childhood nutrition and genetics have a strong effect on a person's height. In today's society, we have relatively good social security nets helping give most kids at least a basic level of nutrition, a basic level which may not have been available for everyone in the past. So in the past there was more environmental variance involved in determining a person's height. Therefore the trait "height" may have been less hereditary in the past than now.

The heritability of some trait is always defined in relation to some specific population in some specific environment. There's no such thing as an "overall" heritability, valid in any environment. The heritability of a trait does not tell us whether that trait can be affected by outside interventions.

Comment author: wedrifid 22 January 2011 11:55:11PM *  5 points [-]

For instance, both childhood nutrition and genetics have a strong effect on a person's length.

Length? You mean height or, um, well, length? I suppose both. :)

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 23 January 2011 09:06:28AM 8 points [-]

Yeah, height. Fixed. Thanks - those are the same word in Finnish, and I hadn't consciously realized that they're different in English until now. (Well, technically there is a separate word for height in Finnish, but it isn't used in this context.)

Comment author: XFrequentist 23 January 2011 09:42:09PM *  23 points [-]

Just FYI, the joke in wedrif's comment is that "length" would probably be interpreted as "penis length" by most readers.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 23 January 2011 10:05:54PM 13 points [-]

That... never occurred to me.

Comment author: wedrifid 23 January 2011 09:52:24AM 19 points [-]

Well, technically you could use length in English too. People are just three dimensional objects after all. I mean, once you knock them off and are trying to fit the body in the trunk you definitely worry about the length!

Comment author: Will_Sawin 02 February 2011 06:58:27AM 1 point [-]

However, if we have an intervention whose effect we expect to be roughly proportional to environmental differences, heritability tells us roughly how strong that intervention is. Similarly if we expect that our interventions will reduce environmental variance but not genetic variance, we can place an upper limit on how much we can reduce inequality.

Comment author: [deleted] 25 January 2011 01:03:45AM 0 points [-]

You (Luke) give the cognitive-behavioral school of psychology too much credit. Yes, they're empirical, but empiricism is worth little unsupplemented by reason and imagination. What you get is the empirical study of platitudes and truisms.

That's not to say these works are of no benefit; only that the benefit doesn't lay in their tediously trivial experimentation. The idea advanced in the recommended book that procrastination is a species of impulsivity is valuable if you use it flexibly because it allows you to bring the whole literature on impulsivity to bear or procrastination. It appears that scientific offerings on procrastination are meager because less narrow-minded schools of psychology view procrastination as a facet of impulsity, which has been the subject of a great deal of research and analysis by more than a single school of thought.

Procrastination isn't one of my many problems, but merely writing the last sentence acknowledging impulsivity's relevance gave me the following idea about how to apply one line of impulsivity research. Here it is. Empirical research shows that will-power, while lacking the omnipotence often assumed, is something one can use up. In other words, if you exert your will it exertion becomes harder (in the short term.

To overcome a particular procrastination, indulge your appetites without restraint before trying to make yourself do the task, and you should subsequently you should find more will to exert. For example, if you have dietary impulse-control problems, pig out. (I guess getting drunk doesn't work because then you'll have to perform your task inebriated when you overcome procrastination with your will-power enhanced by preceding self-indulgence. Untested.

Comment author: ata 25 January 2011 01:17:33AM *  7 points [-]

Empirical research shows that will-power, while lacking the omnipotence often assumed, is something one can use up. In other words, if you exert your will it exertion becomes harder (in the short term.

That's disputed.

(PDF of the paper)

Comment author: [deleted] 25 January 2011 03:51:23AM 5 points [-]

Voted up. Interesting article, but I don't think I (we) mean the same by "self-control" as the authors. Their model for a failure of self control is a lapse of concentration. Their studies show that the power to concentrate doesn't diminish, an interesting finding in its own right. But it's not a problem with volition. Involuntary lapses of concentration are not the "akrasia" kind of problem mostly discussed here. Lapse of concentration is a different phenomenon than procrastination.

Comment author: Davidmanheim 25 January 2011 12:53:12PM 0 points [-]

There exists an even more important problem with using the results of this study to claim that self control is not a limited resource - that isn't a valid conclusion based on the evidence. There are an infinite number of other possible explanations, but the one claimed by the writer of the article doesn't explain the phenomena observed. The study shows a completely different effect than the one imputed. The study didn't even establish a fair correlation to strengthen the statements made - they ended up studying something different than what they intended.

By splitting the groups into one that believed in the limited nature of self control, and one that did not believe in it, they tested the utility of a belief, not its correctness. The limited nature of self control may be completely correct, and the study is simply showing that people told about this fact use it as an excuse to exercise their self control less often.

Comment author: [deleted] 25 January 2011 07:23:18PM 1 point [-]

No, the experimenters also found that those lacking the self-limiting theory didn't suffer any detriment in their performance. They performed like Energizer Rabbits.

The researchers also countered my point by showing real-world effects on akrasia-type behavior. So, it's possible that contrary to appearance and introspection, lapses in concentration do demonstrate the same phenomenon as procrastination.

Regardless the scope of the findings, whether will-power is a limited resource is one of the most important questions for rational self-regulation. It exemplifies ongoing research relevant to procrastination, which you're unlikely to see addressed in the self-help literature, because of its narrow cognitive-behavioral framework. Reorienting one's reading and reasoning to the broader topic of impulsivity, moreover, leads you to the work of two laboratories advancing opposed theories, a healthier epistemic environment than one dominated by cognitive behaviorism.

Comment author: Davidmanheim 26 January 2011 09:57:59PM 0 points [-]

I'm unclear on why you think that their findings in the particular cases shown demonstrate what they claim. (I could easily be missing something.) The lack of findings demonstrates that the cases considered are not examples of the effect that they looked for - that still fails to show that there is no such effect.

Again, what they did show was that the existence of the mental model was detrimental to performance.

Comment author: bigjeff5 08 November 2011 05:51:32PM 1 point [-]

I just want to point out that it is impossible to prove a thing doesn't exist.

However, when things exist we expect certain observations, and we don't find them that is, in fact, evidence that the thing we are looking for doesn't exist. It isn't particularly strong evidence (unless the "thing" absolutely must cause the effect we're looking for in the experiment). Not finding any effect in these studies really should shake your confidence in the theory quite a lot unless a.) there is already a large body of evidence contradicting these findings (doesn't sound like there is) or b.) there are some methodological flaws that invalidates the findings in the study (doesn't sound like there are, just disagreement with the conclusion). More studies would clarify both issues.

In other words, the lack of findings do, in fact, show that there is no such effect. It's just weak evidence, that's all. If various experiments are repeated over and over looking for the self-limiting control and never find them, well, we still haven't proven it doesn't exist. However, we can be pretty damn sure that it either doesn't exist or is so insignificant as to be meaningless.

I'm not saying this has happened at all, I haven't read any of the papers on the subject, I'm just saying your reasoning has a flaw. If you're really attached to the self-limiting theory for some reason, it could be a case of looking for evidence that allows you to believe in what you want to believe, rather than looking at whether or not the theory has a decent probability of being right and adjusting your views accordingly.

Comment author: [deleted] 26 January 2011 02:28:07PM 3 points [-]

I don't understand exactly how that experiment is supposed to work.

Right now, I'm trying to work on a programming exercise for class, but I'm also interested in playing Civ4. So are you suggesting that I, say, play Civ4 for an hour, then try the programming again?

If so, I have done that before (many times) and it doesn't work. I'll just end up spending all of my time today playing and when I try to get the exercise done in the evening or tomorrow, it will be equally hard. (Unless I indulge so much that I get sick of it and doing anything else becomes more desirable.)

Comment author: wedrifid 29 January 2011 03:27:37PM *  2 points [-]

Right now, I'm trying to work on a programming exercise for class, but I'm also interested in playing Civ4. So are you suggesting that I, say, play Civ4 for an hour, then try the programming again?

For one hour? You can do that? Don't you want just one more turn?

(Personally I never played Civ 4 per se. I played the Fall From Heaven mod. Evil game.)

Comment author: [deleted] 29 January 2011 05:27:10PM *  2 points [-]

Well, I have successfully played Civ while studying for an exam. Play a turn, do a problem (and let the AI do its turn), repeat. Works surprisingly well, especially with Civ5 and its sluggish AI. I'd recommend using two different locations and removing any chair or other comfortable arrangement at the Civ machine. A little workout every time limits the willingness to start world wars.

Comment author: wedrifid 30 January 2011 03:27:05AM 0 points [-]

Well, I have successfully played Civ while studying for an exam. Play a turn, do a problem (and let the AI do its turn), repeat. Works surprisingly well, especially with Civ5 and its sluggish AI. I'd recommend using two different locations and removing any chair or other comfortable arrangement at the Civ machine.

I've had some luck using Civ turns as a prompt to do mundane cleaning. Surprisingly effective! :)

A little workout every time limits the willingness to start world wars.

How does that work? Oh, you mean you make the civ playing time into a form of excercise so you become reluctant to make your turns last a long time, as is the case in world wars. I suppose this could be combined this with some core building or stretching exercises during the "Civ" phase for extra willpower managing convenience.

That's it. I have some cleaning up to do this afternoon. I'm going to find a copy of Civ, install it and report back with my success story. :P

Comment author: [deleted] 29 January 2011 02:18:06PM 0 points [-]

How many turns of Civ4 can you get through in an hour, anyway.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 25 January 2011 07:20:56AM 2 points [-]

I'm confused as to why this was a reply to my comment.

Comment author: [deleted] 25 January 2011 06:32:31PM 1 point [-]

My apologies. It was a careless error.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 25 January 2011 08:25:08PM 1 point [-]

That's what I suspected. That's fine. :)