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Approving reinforces low-effort behaviors

91 Post author: Yvain 17 July 2011 08:43PM

In addition to "liking" to describe pleasure and "wanting" to describe motivation, we add "approving" to describe thoughts that are ego syntonic.

A heroin addict likes heroin. He certainly wants more heroin. But he may not approve of taking heroin. In fact, there are enough different cases to fill in all eight boxes of the implied 2x2x2 grid (your mileage may vary):

+wanting/+liking/+approving: Romantic love. If you're doing it right, you enjoy being with your partner, you're motivated to spend time with your partner, and you think love is a wonderful (maybe even many-splendored) thing.

+wanting/+liking/-approving: The aforementioned heroin addict feels good when taking heroin, is motivated to get more, but wishes he wasn't addicted.

+wanting/-liking/+approving: I have taken up disc golf. I play it every day, and when events conspire to prevent me from playing it, I seethe. I approve of this pastime: I need to take up more sports, and it helps me spend time with my family. But when I am playing, all I feel is stressed and angry that I was literally *that* close how could I miss that shot aaaaarggghh.

+wanting/-liking/-approving: The jaded addict. I have a friend who says she no longer even enjoys coffee or gets any boost from it, she just feels like she has to have it when she gets up.

-wanting/+liking/+approving: Reading non-fiction. I enjoy it when I'm doing it, I think it's great because it makes me more educated, but I can rarely bring myself to do it.

-wanting/-liking/+approving:
Working in a soup kitchen. Unless you're the type for whom helping others is literally its own reward it's not the most fun thing in the world, nor is it the most attractive, but it makes you a Good Person and so you should do it.

-wanting/+liking/-approving:
The non-addict. I don't want heroin right now. I think heroin use is repugnant. But if I took some, I sure bet I'd like it.

-wanting/-liking/-approving:
Torture. I don't want to be tortured, I wouldn't like it if I were, and I will go on record declaring myself to be against it.


Discussion of goals is mostly about approving; a goal is an ego-syntonic thought. When we speak of goals that are hard to achieve, we're usually talking about +approving/-wanting. The previous discussion of learning Swahili is one example; more noble causes like Working To Help The Less Fortunate can be others.

Ego syntonicity itself is mildly reinforcing by promoting positive self-image. Most people interested in philosophy have at least once sat down and moved their arm from side to side, just to note that their mind really does control their body; the mental processes that produced curiosity about philosophy were sufficiently powerful to produce that behavior as well. Some processes, like moving one's arm, or speaking aloud, or engaging in verbal thought, are so effortless, and so empty of other reinforcement either way, that we usually expect them to be completely under the control of the mild reinforcement provided by approving of those behaviors.

Other behaviors take more effort, and are subject not only to discounting but to many other forms of reinforcement. Unlike the first class of behaviors, we expect to experience akrasia when dealing with this latter sort. This offers another approach to willpower: taking low-effort approving-influenced actions that affect the harder road ahead.

Consider the action of making a goal. I go to all my friends and say "Today I shall begin learning Swahili." This is easy to do. There is no chance of me intending to do so and failing; my speech is output by the same processes as my intentions, so I can "trust" it. But this is not just an output of my mental processes, but an input. One of the processes potentially reinforcing my behavior of learning Swahili is "If I don't do this, I'll look stupid in front of my friends."

Will it be enough? Maybe not. But this is still an impressive process: my mind has deliberately tweaked its own inputs to change the output of its own algorithm. It's not even pretending to be working off of fixed preferences anymore, it's assuming that one sort of action (speaking) will work differently from another action (studying), because the first can be executed solely through the power of ego syntonicity, and the second may require stronger forms of reinforcement. It gets even weirder when goals are entirely mental: held under threat not of social disapproval, but of feeling bad because you're not as effective as you thought. The mind is using mind's opinion of the mind to blackmail the mind.

But we do this sort of thing all the time. The dieter who successfully avoids buying sweets when he's at the store because he knows he would eat them at home is changing his decisions by forcing effort discounting of any future sweet-related reward (because he'd have to go back to the store). The binge shopper who freezes her credit cards in a block of ice is using time discounting in the same way. The rationalist who sends money to stickk is imposing a punishment with a few immediate and effortless mouse clicks. Even the poor unhappy person who tries to conquer through willpower alone is trying to set up the goal as a Big Deal so she will feel extra bad if she fails. All are using their near-complete control of effortless immediate actions to make up for their incomplete control of high-effort long-term actions.

This process is especially important to transhumanists. In the future, we may have the ability to self-modify in complicated ways that have not built up strong patterns of reinforcement around them. For example, we may be able to program ourselves at the push of a button. Such programming would be so effortless and empty of past reinforcement that behavior involving it would be reinforced entirely by our ego-syntonic thoughts. It would supersede our current psychodynamics, in which our thoughts are only tenuously linked to our important actions and major life decisions. A Singularity in which behaviors were executed by effectively omnipotent machines that acted on our preferences - preferences which we would presumably communicate through low-effort channels like typed commands - would be an ultimate triumph for the ego-syntonic faction of the brain.

Comments (23)

Comment author: JenniferRM 14 July 2011 11:33:11PM *  9 points [-]

Alicorn's Highlights and Shadows post from her Luminosity sequence is probably a useful and related link because it suggests strategies for managing what is "approved" in the sense of this post. (She talks about thoughts and dispositions being "endorsed" instead of "approved", but it appears to me that it's roughly the same thing approached from a difference direction.)

Comment author: erratio 15 July 2011 01:32:12AM 5 points [-]

I was about to say much the same thing, that in CBT/therapy in general approval is usually referred to as 'endorsement'.

Slightly-related anecdote: my therapist extended the endorsement terminology all the way out to her personal preferences: when discussing what books we read, I asked her if she'd read Twilight and her response was "yes, but I don't endorse [that I read it]" with a trace of embarrassment.

Comment author: JenniferRM 15 July 2011 05:00:46AM *  5 points [-]

Cute story :-)

Also, with a set up like that it seems necessary to add a link to Alicorn's Twilight fanfic, Luminosity, that changes Bella to be radically better at the skills described in the luminosity sequence than she is in canon, with more self-awareness and capacity for self-management (radically changing her social capacities and therefore her romantic trajectory -- its squarely in the scifi/fantasy genre and not at all a romance novel).

Comment author: Dorikka 18 July 2011 03:48:20AM 8 points [-]

After reading the post (and scanning it again, to decrease P(I missed something very obvious)), I can't see where you drew the conclusion in the title from.

Comment author: MixedNuts 18 July 2011 07:44:36AM 9 points [-]

Approving (conscious endorsment) of a behavior reinforces it. However, it's pretty mild reinforcement.

High-effort behaviors get punished for being effortful. Strong motivators can reward them more than they're punished, so they end up reinforced overall. But approving alone can't do this, because it's too weak. So if you try to learn Swahili (high-effort) in the naive way, you won't, because the negative reinforcement from studying will overwhelm the positive reinforcement from approving of it.

There is no such punishment for low-effort behaviors, so approving can dominate here.

This suggests clever routes to approved high-effort behaviors: do something low-effort (like telling your friends), so mostly controlled by approval, that leads to strong reinforcement for the high-effort behavior (like getting made fun of for not learning Swahili).

Comment author: Dorikka 18 July 2011 03:47:20PM 2 points [-]

Okay, thanks!

Comment author: Armok_GoB 14 July 2011 09:48:43PM 7 points [-]

When reading the first part of the last paragraph my brain auto-completed with "... so we must make sure that self modifications are always quick and easy, rather than requiring things like programming or careful deliberation on consequences, so that we ego-syntonic things writing this will Win over those darn Others that now control most of behaviour!"

Comment author: endoself 15 July 2011 03:53:55AM *  1 point [-]

Me too. Unless my wanting and liking systems learn how to influence the programming of an AGI I will not be regarding them as moral agents. Caveats: a) My approving system approves of liking systems feeling happy. b) This comment probably does not mean from a neurological standpoint what my approving system intends for it to mean.

Comment author: Dr_Manhattan 15 July 2011 02:39:08PM 5 points [-]

All are using their near-complete control of effortless immediate actions to make up for their incomplete control of high-effort long-term actions.

I am interested in examples any non-trivial optimizations that have been achieved by stitching together "effortless immediate actions", any mental equivalents of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One_red_paperclip

Comment author: beriukay 19 July 2011 05:34:15AM 4 points [-]

Well, my recent experience with learning how to program was largely stitched-together immediate actions. Download Python one day. A week later, when clearing out my downloads folder, install it. Then open the tutorial guide but not read it. Then realize I've had the guide open for a few days, so start reading it. Get annoyed at not understanding stuff, so Google for more guides, and find Learn Python The Hard Way. Open the .pdf, start reading it. Get gedit and start following the examples. Whenever it gets hard, stop, but leave gedit and the command prompt open in the background reminding me it is all there. Make sure there are quick links to everything so if they aren't already open, they are one double-click away. <Insert some non-effortless non-immediate actions>. Step 3, post stuff on github and like it enough to keep wanting to learn more.

I may not have accomplished much with it, but it is hardly trivial, and since I first learned about Python in 2007 and have only started working on it this past year, I can rather confidently say that it wouldn't have happened any time soon otherwise.

Comment author: Duk3 26 July 2011 04:07:20AM 5 points [-]

You could consider the creation of the modern economy as a series of effortless immediate actions, an implementation of the greedy algorithm which is codified after the fact into law.

Comment author: Raemon 17 July 2011 10:37:36PM 4 points [-]

I've actually heard (but not experienced) that working in soup kitchens and similar things actually does make you feel good in a way that isn't obvious until you've tried it. (That's where the whole "warm-fuzzy" charity thing comes from.) So its more of a (- want, + like, + approve) thing.

(It might not work as well for people on lesswrong who've been conditioned to think of it as wasted time that could have been spent raising money for micronutrients to send to third-world countries)

Still, I get the idea.

Comment author: beriukay 19 July 2011 05:14:52AM 1 point [-]

Trying to think of an appropriate substitute, I think listening to/watching/reading horrible-but-popular things would do it for me. I didn't want to or enjoy watching What The Bleep Do We Know or Expelled, but I approve of doing it to at least know what they were on about. There are many books that fall under this category that I still need to read even though I really don't want to.

Comment author: Yvain 18 July 2011 11:49:35PM 1 point [-]

I know it works for some people; unfortunately it doesn't work for me. Though maybe I've just been trying the wrong charitable activities.

Comment author: Raemon 18 July 2011 11:58:57PM 0 points [-]

I've been meaning to try it out, since the potential +happiness and +goodness seemed like an obvious win, but I keep putting it off. My excuse this week is I have the flu.

Comment author: Caravelle 24 July 2011 08:27:22PM 1 point [-]

I've never worked in a soup kitchen (although I should, because I think I might enjoy it) but I've found that often when I voluntarily engage in a social and purely beneficial activity I enjoy myself enormously. There's a kind of comraderie going on, it's like the pleasure of social interaction is combining with the pleasure of Helping in just the right ways.

I don't expect it would work all the time, or for everyone. And I usually feel differently when I'm forced to do something instead of volunteering. Still, it could be a factor in why some people enjoy that sort of thing.

Comment author: Bongo 16 July 2011 01:33:57AM *  7 points [-]

Consider the action of making a goal. I go to all my friends and say "Today I shall begin learning Swahili." This is easy to do. There is no chance of me intending to do so and failing; my speech is output by the same processes as my intentions, so I can "trust" it. But this is not just an output of my mental processes, but an input. One of the processes potentially reinforcing my behavior of learning Swahili is "If I don't do this, I'll look stupid in front of my friends."

I know it's only an example but it needs to be pointed out that maybe saying to all your friends that you're going to do it actually makes you less likely to do it.

Comment author: Yvain 18 July 2011 11:50:55PM 7 points [-]

I bet it depends on the condition. I'd anticipate that something very vague like "I will become a writer" would do worse when told to your friends; something very specific like "I'm going to be writing this evening" would do better, especially if the alternative is going out for drinks this evening with your friends and having them ask "Why aren't you writing?"

Comment author: BrianG 18 July 2011 03:20:10PM 2 points [-]

I was thinking about this myself, and was going to bring it up. I stopped telling people I was going to become a writer for that reason. But I think there's a difference between telling people you are going to do a thing at a vaguely determined time in the future, and telling someone you are going to commit to a task that same day.

Comment author: [deleted] 14 October 2011 03:48:32AM 3 points [-]

Was this inspired by the model of emotion presented in The Cognitive Structure of Emotions by Ortony et al.? They similarly present judgments as having three evaluative components: "liking", "desiring", and "approving".

Comment author: [deleted] 24 November 2011 10:07:27PM 1 point [-]

This is an excellent piece, I regret putting off reading it until now (I have a long reading list).

Comment author: Regex 27 December 2015 11:43:39PM 0 points [-]

Any shorter four years later? Asking for a friend.

Comment author: [deleted] 02 January 2016 10:41:56AM 2 points [-]

A little.