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Superstimuli and the Collapse of Western Civilization

55 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 16 March 2007 06:10PM

At least three people have died playing online games for days without rest.  People have lost their spouses, jobs, and children to World of Warcraft.  If people have the right to play video games - and it's hard to imagine a more fundamental right - then the market is going to respond by supplying the most engaging video games that can be sold, to the point that exceptionally engaged consumers are removed from the gene pool.

How does a consumer product become so involving that, after 57 hours of using the product, the consumer would rather use the product for one more hour than eat or sleep?  (I suppose one could argue that the consumer makes a rational decision that they'd rather play Starcraft for the next hour than live out the rest of their lives, but let's just not go there.  Please.)

A candy bar is a superstimulus: it contains more concentrated sugar, salt, and fat than anything that exists in the ancestral environment.   A candy bar matches taste buds that evolved in a hunter-gatherer environment, but it matches those taste buds much more strongly than anything that actually existed in the hunter-gatherer environment.  The signal that once reliably correlated to healthy food has been hijacked, blotted out with a point in tastespace that wasn't in the training dataset - an impossibly distant outlier on the old ancestral graphs.  Tastiness, formerly representing the evolutionarily identified correlates of healthiness, has been reverse-engineered and perfectly matched with an artificial substance.  Unfortunately there's no equally powerful market incentive to make the resulting food item as healthy as it is tasty.  We can't taste healthfulness, after all.

The now-famous Dove Evolution video shows the painstaking construction of another superstimulus: an ordinary woman transformed by makeup, careful photography, and finally extensive Photoshopping, into a billboard model - a beauty impossible, unmatchable by human women in the unretouched real world.  Actual women are killing themselves (e.g. supermodels using cocaine to keep their weight down) to keep up with competitors that literally don't exist.

And likewise, a video game can be so much more engaging than mere reality, even through a simple computer monitor, that someone will play it without food or sleep until they literally die.  I don't know all the tricks used in video games, but I can guess some of them - challenges poised at the critical point between ease and impossibility, intermittent reinforcement, feedback showing an ever-increasing score, social involvement in massively multiplayer games.

Is there a limit to the market incentive to make video games more engaging?  You might hope there'd be no incentive past the point where the players lose their jobs; after all, they must be able to pay their subscription fee.  This would imply a "sweet spot" for the addictiveness of games, where the mode of the bell curve is having fun, and only a few unfortunate souls on the tail become addicted to the point of losing their jobs.  As of 2007, playing World of Warcraft for 58 hours straight until you literally die is still the exception rather than the rule.   But video game manufacturers compete against each other, and if you can make your game 5% more addictive, you may be able to steal 50% of your competitor's customers.  You can see how this problem could get a lot worse.

If people have the right to be tempted - and that's what free will is all about - the market is going to respond by supplying as much temptation as can be sold.  The incentive is to make your stimuli 5% more tempting than those of your current leading competitors.  This continues well beyond the point where the stimuli become ancestrally anomalous superstimuli.  Consider how our standards of product-selling feminine beauty have changed since the advertisements of the 1950s.  And as candy bars demonstrate, the market incentive also continues well beyond the point where the superstimulus begins wreaking collateral damage on the consumer.

So why don't we just say no?  A key assumption of free-market economics is that, in the absence of force and fraud, people can always refuse to engage in a harmful transaction.  (To the extent this is true, a free market would be, not merely the best policy on the whole, but a policy with few or no downsides.)

An organism that regularly passes up food will die, as some video game players found out the hard way.  But, on some occasions in the ancestral environment, a typically beneficial (and therefore tempting) act may in fact be harmful.  Humans, as organisms, have an unusually strong ability to perceive these special cases using abstract thought.  On the other hand we also tend to imagine lots of special-case consequences that don't exist, like ancestor spirits commanding us not to eat perfectly good rabbits.

Evolution seems to have struck a compromise, or perhaps just aggregated new systems on top of old.  Homo sapiens are still tempted by food, but our oversized prefrontal cortices give us a limited ability to resist temptation.  Not unlimited ability - our ancestors with too much willpower probably starved themselves to sacrifice to the gods, or failed to commit adultery one too many times.  The video game players who died must have exercised willpower (in some sense) to keep playing for so long without food or sleep; the evolutionary hazard of self-control.

Resisting any temptation takes conscious expenditure of an exhaustible supply of mental energy.  It is not in fact true that we can "just say no" - not just say no, without cost to ourselves. Even humans who won the birth lottery for willpower or foresightfulness still pay a price to resist temptation.  The price is just more easily paid.

Our limited willpower evolved to deal with ancestral temptations; it may not operate well against enticements beyond anything known to hunter-gatherers.  Even where we successfully resist a superstimulus, it seems plausible that the effort required would deplete willpower much faster than resisting ancestral temptations.

Is public display of superstimuli a negative externality, even to the people who say no?  Should we ban chocolate cookie ads, or storefronts that openly say "Ice Cream"?

Just because a problem exists doesn't show (without further justification and a substantial burden of proof) that the government can fix it.  The regulator's career incentive does not focus on products that combine low-grade consumer harm with addictive superstimuli; it focuses on products with failure modes spectacular enough to get into the newspaper.  Conversely, just because the government may not be able to fix something, doesn't mean it isn't going wrong.

I leave you with a final argument from fictional evidence:  Simon Funk's online novel After Life depicts (among other plot points) the planned extermination of biological Homo sapiens - not by marching robot armies, but by artificial children that are much cuter and sweeter and more fun to raise than real children. Perhaps the demographic collapse of advanced societies happens because the market supplies ever-more-tempting alternatives to having children, while the attractiveness of changing diapers remains constant over time.  Where are the advertising billboards that say "BREED"?  Who will pay professional image consultants to make arguing with sullen teenagers seem more alluring than a vacation in Tahiti?

"In the end," Simon Funk wrote, "the human species was simply marketed out of existence."

Comments (77)

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Comment author: HalFinney 16 March 2007 07:05:46PM 17 points [-]

An historical example of this phenomenon is drug use. We have drugs today that are much more powerful, stimulating and addictive than the relatively mild beers, wines, and herbs which people had access to historically. When distilled liquors have been introduced around the world it has been accompanied by several generations of serious abuse problems. Eventually people have become somewhat adapted to hard liquor but alcohol addiction is still a widespread problem.

The response has been to ban most of the more potent drugs (in an admittedly somewhat inconsistent way) in order to reduce the harm from these unnatural stimuli. I suspect that we will someday see similar restrictions on too-addictive video games. The record from drug prohibition suggests that we may not do a very good job on drawing the line between what is OK and what is not, unfortunately.

Comment author: WingedViper 04 July 2012 03:14:59AM 8 points [-]

Drug use is IMO not a good example because drug prohibition does our (modern, informed and scientifically advanced) society no favor. Quite the opposite, as more and more people seem to realise.

Banning superstimuli is not the best way to go (it might not even be a good way), early education is much more effective. Our information society opens up new possibilities to make well informed decisions and to come closer to the free market ideal.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 16 March 2007 07:10:36PM 16 points [-]

I also think it's a good bet that after (a) a sufficiently high-profile death (Congressperson's son) or (b) the problems scale up to where everyone knows someone who lost their job, we're going to see attempted regulation (that's a political prediction, not policy advice).

However, as we all know by now, electronic information is a lot harder to control than material objects, and material objects are hard enough to control already.

Comment author: army1987 12 April 2012 01:54:17PM 2 points [-]

Every couple years somebody does propose to regulate video games (though it's usually because they believe that playing violent games makes people more violent in real life).

Comment author: Rukifellth 02 July 2013 09:44:58PM 3 points [-]

I'd be more concerned about the non-violent video games. As a kid I actually preferred playing Megaman 64 to going outside because of the false social presence I got from the audio dialogue.

Comment author: eric2 16 March 2007 07:17:28PM 25 points [-]

Scott Adams (Dilbert creator) said that the Star Trek Holodeck will be the end of evolution for our species, because everyone will simply spend all their time there having sex with supermodels. I'm sympathetic. This implies that the only thing intelligent to evolve will be humorless dullards who would rather replicate in real life than enjoy the pleasures of endless frat parties with nubile, funny, and eager babes.

Perhaps this is why God has so little humor in the Bible, he's the ultimate replicator.

Comment author: Anders 16 March 2007 07:56:40PM 7 points [-]

Another approach might of course be to try to boost self-control. Self-control correlates with being able to delay gratification, long-term planning and career success. An enhancement of this would be socially and individually beneficial, probably far more than most other cognition enhancers.

There are experiments that demonstrate that glucose drinks can actually boost depleted self-control: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=17279852 and presumably there might be more deep methods of enhancing it. So one strategy of handling the rise in temptations is to make us better at handling them.

An interesting and rather worrying paper is this, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?itool=abstractplus&db=pubmed&cmd=Retrieve&dopt=abstractplus&list_uids=14756934 which argues that it is the flow experience of games that hooks us. Normally flow is hard to achieve through stimuli, which at most just generate happiness, but the more profound flow state seems triggerable by the right games. This goes beyond mere habit-formation to get a pleasurable stimuli since the highly motivated flow state involves using all mental resources to prolong and expand the state. So we might not just have to learn how to overcome simple pleasure temptations but also complex flow temptations.

Overall, enhancements of strategic individual thinking would be extremely useful. But there are no guarantees they will be developed at an equal pace as the games.

Comment author: Robin_Hanson2 16 March 2007 08:07:40PM 9 points [-]

When people know that candy bars can be too tempting, they can prefer to work in places without candy bar machines. Similarly, people who find ice cream or cookie stands too tempting can stay away from shopping malls that allow such stands. People who find the sight of naked people too tempting can choose to work and shop in places that do not allow people to walk around naked. Economists have worked out models of many of these situations, and the keep coming back to the conclusion that giving people mechanisms of self-control is good enough, unless people are biased to to underestimate their self-control problems. And so recommendations for more self-control regulation tend to be based on claims that we are biased to underestimate our problem.

Comment author: kendoka 22 April 2012 06:19:23PM 7 points [-]

that's why grocery stores design their floor layouts so that you can't help but notice the delicious rows of candy bars while you're trapped in the checkout line. no escape!

I could make similar comparisons to when my morally upright conservative parents were genuinely shocked and exasperated at their sex-starved son when he's constantly surrounded by flirtatious nubile catholic school girls in short skirts all day every day.

"Lord Grant me Temperance and Chastity... but not yet! " St. Augustine of Hippo

Comment author: Martin-2 04 March 2013 12:14:38AM 5 points [-]

that's why grocery stores design their floor layouts so that you can't help but notice the delicious rows of candy bars while you're trapped in the checkout line. no escape!

In theory your escape would be a competing supermarket that hides their candy bars to attract your business.

Comment author: TeMPOraL 20 April 2013 08:16:38PM *  4 points [-]

And so recommendations for more self-control regulation tend to be based on claims that we are biased to underestimate our problem.

There is something to those claims given that pretty much every addiction therapy (be it alcohol, food, porn or something else) starts from admitting to oneself that one has underestimated the problem.

Comment author: James_D._Miller 16 March 2007 08:11:44PM 11 points [-]

I find certain types of video games far more addictive than the average human does. This, however, reduces my demand for these video games. I have never bought or played World of Warcraft because I strongly suspect that I would become addicted to the game. If enough potential addicts are like me then games that become too addictive will suffer in the marketplace.

Comment author: Byrne 16 March 2007 08:15:22PM 4 points [-]

Games have trouble satisfying creative urges -- to the extent that they do, they're just a medium for classic creativity, rather than a time-wasting game. It's no accident that lots of programming talent is being expended on a more dynamic version of Second Life, and I can certainly see game-like (or at least hyper-competitive )features in Wikipedia -- which is a lot like a version of trivial pursuit that happens to output an encyclopedia). It's true that as games get more compelling, they'll turn into evolutionary dead ends -- but I strongly suspect that the most compelling games are the ones that take advantage of our evolutionary instincts by tricking us into doing what makes evolutionary sense.

Comment author: Richard_Pointer 16 March 2007 08:22:08PM 0 points [-]

I think the fictional evidence misses a key factor in raising kids. At least for some people the continuation of a line, that line either being blood or values. I think most soon to be parents don't look forward to the nasty sleepless evenings with newborns or such. But give the availability of abortion, we still do not see L'Dolce Vita culling all humans from the reproducing herds.

People do enjoy long term endeavors. I find the idea that my line will stretch far into the future to be a very good driver in my quest for higher education and wealth attainment. Delaying my own gratification is an integral part of that quest. I, in fact, hope to lay down a family "constitution" to instill my values on my children's children. If I am going to give them wealth they better damn build an empire with it.

Comment author: Paul_Gowder 17 March 2007 01:00:52AM 7 points [-]

Robin: would you say that the quantity of addictions -- and addictions that make people genuinely, deeply unhappy -- in the world is pretty good evidence that we in fact systematically tend to underestimate our self-control problems?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 17 March 2007 01:09:56AM 12 points [-]

Gowder: It's pretty good evidence of something, that's for sure. Clearly the economic models that indicate that nothing ought to be going wrong are not validating against experiment.

Comment author: Richard_Hollerith 17 March 2007 02:00:59AM 5 points [-]

Anders, glucose drinks are known to promote the release of neurotransmitters like serotonin one would expect to help self-control, but the problem is that the effect lasts less than an hour and is followed by a bigger effect in the opposite direction.

Comment author: Robin_Hanson2 17 March 2007 02:32:16AM 0 points [-]

Paul, see my post tomorrow morning.

Comment author: mtraven 17 March 2007 03:09:55AM 1 point [-]

Drugs may be the best model for this sort of addiction, but one big difference is that software can evolve much faster. New street drugs are invented every so often, but obviously at a rate much slower than new software can be introduced. Game software might evolve not just to be more addictive, but to be safer, since killing the customer is counterproductive. Fatally-addicting games could have safety features introduced, like forcing the user to take a break every so often. And presumably such features WOULD be introduced, since it's in the interest of all parties.

The upshot of such an evolutionary path would be games that are highly addicting but not fatally so. The social problems wouldn't be so much players dropping dead as having the game world suck in so much human attention that real-world productivity suffers.

Comment author: Riley_Gutzeit 17 March 2007 05:26:45AM 7 points [-]

"Game software might evolve not just to be more addictive, but to be safer, since killing the customer is counteproductive." -- mtraven

Argument from group selection. Killing the customer is bad for the industry, but not for the company. If everyone plays the most fun game on the market, and 10% of its players die annually from playing it, and you come up with a new, more entertaining game that will give you the entire market but with a 15% annual death rate, you don't get rich by trying to save lives.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 01 November 2010 12:01:13PM 5 points [-]

Also, an occasional "died playing" story might signal "really entrancing game" and work as advertising.

Comment author: Carinthium 13 November 2010 02:48:54AM 4 points [-]

On the other hand, at least some of the market are likely to be deterrred by such stories. (The risk of government intervention also increases, but that's bad for the industry not the company)

Comment author: [deleted] 20 February 2012 06:20:05PM 1 point [-]

If companies had legal liability for deaths stochastically caused by their games, there would be negative feedback pressure on the individual company.

Comment author: Doug_S.2 17 March 2007 06:03:45AM 2 points [-]

As a rabid game player, I find that the stimulation I get from playing some of my favorite video games is basically the same as the stimulation that I get from reading some of my favorite novels. There are some authors that I find to be more addictive than even some of the best games. (Terry Pratchett comes to mind.) Oddly enough, though, I find television oddly lacking when compared to print media and interactive media, as I keep wanting to DO something instead of watch passively. (Having another person watching along with me that I can talk with seems to satisfy that urge.)

Regarding the video game deaths, well, I've done marathon gaming sessions, and it helps to have food within easy reach. I've joked with my family about the "video game diet" - when you get hungry, ignore it and keep playing video games. ;) Once upon a time, I skipped a midterm exam in college to play Final Fantasy X - and I regret nothing! (I ended up passing the course anyway, thanks to some fast talking. The magic words are "psychiatrist" and "antidepressant.")

Comment author: michael_vassar 17 March 2007 07:48:57AM 10 points [-]

I suspect that many ancient forms of self-discipline and meditation are aimed at enhancing self-control, either by increasing the supply of the pool, or (especially in the case of Taoist techniques, though many others such as Feldenkrais discuss this) providing cognitive alternatives to using self control that do not deplete the pool. However, I am concerned that enhanced self-control may come with a social cost in terms of percieved degree of trustworthyness, desert of empathy etc. After all, drinking in high school correlates positively with later earnings. http://www.nber.org/papers/w12529

To me the most practically relevant question seems to be "what can we do to bias the production of addictive activities towards those which act as economic complements to productive or socially desirable activities, and as economic substitutes for destructive or socially undesirable activities". One possibility that I have been somewhat preoccupied with for some time is that of 'reputation markets'. It seems to me that these may tend to increase the degree to which life resembles a video game in so far as a person's reputation can ultimately constitute a set of dynamic visible scores that they can continually attempt to optimize under intermittant reinforcement.

On a related note, Wikinomics claims that in Star Wars Galaxies players build the 'medical' skill associated with their characters by providing diagnosis based on real medical data, thus developing real medical skills. I have long thought that games could teach foreign languages by making them practically necessary in the course of game play, but this might interfere with addictivity unless it was handled very skillfully.

Since this post seems to be a confessional, for me the only really addictive games are the Civilization series. My only 2 consecutive all-nighters ever were Alpha Centauri related, shortly after it's release.

Comment author: TimFreeman 20 April 2011 05:29:08PM 4 points [-]

I suspect that many ancient forms of self-discipline and meditation are aimed at enhancing self-control, either by increasing the supply of the pool, or (especially in the case of Taoist techniques, though many others such as Feldenkrais discuss this) providing cognitive alternatives to using self control that do not deplete the pool.

Can you provide a pointer to a Taoist method of self-control that does not deplete willpower?

Comment author: TimFreeman 25 April 2011 08:46:29PM 0 points [-]

Here's a candidate pointer. The author was humble enough to dress up his message in Internet-marketing-speak. I suppose that's consistent with his message.

http://www.howtodotaoism.com/taoism.htm

Comment author: TimFreeman 17 May 2011 04:34:57PM 1 point [-]

Can you provide a pointer to a Taoist method of self-control that does not deplete willpower?

Here's a candidate pointer: http://www.howtodotaoism.com/taoism.htm

I signed up and listened to some of his free audio, specifically including his lecture about Karma. Translating out of his jargon, he's saying that you can acquire the habit and skill of creating things ("positive karma"), the habit and skill of destroying things ("negative karma"), or the habit and skill of rearranging existing things so they interact on their own to achieve your purposes ("neutral karma"). You gain one or the other kind of karma depending on the actual consequences of your actions, not the intended consequences. If multiple people are involved, the person who makes the decision gets the karma, not the people who actually implemented it. He says these three alternatives are mutually exclusive, which makes sense if you think about cognitive dissonance and self-image.

That might be a useful distinction. I'll live with it for a while and report back if anything remarkable happens as a consequence.

I have no idea if this was the form of Taoist self-control Vassar was talking about in the GGP post. Since it's based on habit and skill, it does seem to fit the bill as a cognitive alternative to using self control, with the caveat that I don't know yet if it actually works.

Comment author: timtyler 27 April 2011 03:39:35PM 2 points [-]

The will is like a muscle - it gets stronger with use as well as weaker.

Comment author: Konkvistador 13 May 2011 02:22:37PM *  9 points [-]

My only 2 consecutive all-nighters ever were Alpha Centauri related, shortly after it's release.

This is somewhat unrelated but, thinking back at my very young self I can't help but wonder how loaded Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri is with memes that made me comfortable accepting LW thinking more than a decade later. Many of the same ideas and shibboleths are nearly omnipresent in science fiction but a certain attitude as well as a way of comparing and thinking about values and how one goes about "picking" them (prompted by the dystopian and utopian possibilities of nearly all the original faction's value system), where things I suspect I originally picked up there:

I plan to live forever, of course, but barring that I'd settle for a couple thousand years. Even five hundred would be pretty nice. -CEO Nwabudike Morgan, Morganlink 3D-Vision Interview

and

We hold life to be sacred, but we also know the foundation of life consists in a stream of codes not so different from the successive frames of a watchvid. Why then cannot we cut one code short here, and start another there? Is life so fragile that it can withstand no tampering? Does the sacred brook no improvement? -Chairman Sheng-ji Yang, "Looking God in the Eye"

or

Why do you insist that the human genetic code is "sacred" or "taboo"? It is a chemical process and nothing more. For that matter -we- are chemical processes and nothing more. If you deny yourself a useful tool simply because it reminds you uncomfortably of your mortality, you have uselessly and pointlessly crippled yourself. -Chairman Sheng-ji Yang, "Looking God in the Eye"

Comment author: Doug_S. 17 March 2007 06:28:17PM 2 points [-]
Comment author: TGGP3 17 March 2007 09:27:03PM 2 points [-]

My solution to the problem was to own a really slow computer. It took so long to load up the game I had been playing that it always seemed preferrable to log on to forums and complain about games not matching up to ye olden days than actually playing any. Eventually I found even that was taking up too much of my time and now games are just a thing of the past. The question of whether I put too much time into reading blogs is still open though.

Comment author: Anders 18 March 2007 04:19:44PM 1 point [-]

Richard Hollerith pointed out that the glucose drinks only last for about an hour, which is true. It is less certain that they are followed by a dip in self-control or that their effect is by affecting the neurotransmittors. Even if it is, it is a start for some serious neuropharmacological hacking. The serotonin system is already of interest in this respect: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?tmpl=NoSidebarfile&db=PubMed&cmd=Retrieve&list_uids=17360806&dopt=Abstract

A real willpower enhancement is likely something much more complex. Ideally we would like to strengthen our second order desires (at least some of them, some of the time). That might involve finding some pretty disperse neural nets, or more likely having a close symbiosis with software acting as an artificial superego. Design and implementation is left as an exercise :-)

It seems that one could trap this kind of desires too by games fulfilling them. If I have creative desires, spending a lot of time creating in Second Life would meet them. Maybe one could create "games" that help the third world in some way, trapping people with an altruist motivation (my favorite example is the spiders in the comic http://www.e-sheep.com/spiders/ ). The worrying thing is when the game shapes or constrains the activity into something less useful than it would otherwise have been. First order desire games trap us by providing simple stimulation, second order games by providing complex stimulation and meaning. But just as the stimulation in Tetris is fairly scripted the meaning and interaction in WoW is limited. Perhaps the healthiest aspect of the online games is how many players deliberately set out to expand their scope and circumvent their limitations. Maybe that is the solution of game addiction: try to ensure that the games are expandable and could in principle become arbitrarily complex. But that will still not help the people content with fulfilling first order desires.

Comment author: cerebus2 18 March 2007 05:23:08PM 1 point [-]

Riley, a 15% death rate pa with total market saturation isn't an evolutionarily stable strategy.

Comment author: Aaron_Davies 19 March 2007 02:20:24AM 1 point [-]

Re: michael's suggestion about using reputation markets to make real life resemble a video game, I am reminded of Cory Doctorow's Down and out in the Magic Kingdom, where the main currency is "whuffie", a reputation measure that others use to determine whether or not they should do you favors.

Comment author: Bryan 23 March 2007 01:21:03AM 0 points [-]

I like the description of a superstimulus. I detect a hint of behaviorism.

Comment author: Dan_Burfoot 03 December 2007 03:25:03PM 1 point [-]

Persons interested in the concept of super-stimuli should note the work of music scientist Phillip Dorrell, who argues that music is a super-stimulus for language:

http://whatismusic.info/

He also speculates that software developers will soon be able to construct algorithms to produce "strong" music, that is, music which is better than any thusfar created by humans. This will bring about obvious addiction problems similar to those mentioned above relating to video games.

Comment author: flipdog 23 December 2011 09:50:53PM 2 points [-]

well, it's four years later (I like talking to ghosts) and still the best music is organic and spontaneous...

Comment author: gwern 23 December 2011 10:11:19PM 3 points [-]

Yep. But on the bright side, Vocaloid music is bigger and better than ever before and gone international - so one can't say progress hasn't been made.

Comment author: Reuniting 09 December 2008 12:13:21AM 9 points [-]

Porn, too, is a superstimulant. A user can see more nubile young females (or whatever gets him going) in an afternoon than his hunter gatherer forbears would have seen in a lifetime. Porn makers "lace" their products with domination, violence, risky and forbidden acts precisely to enhance their addictiveness.

People often have no idea they're hooked until they try to stop using, and suffer intense withdrawal symptoms (shakes, anxiety, depression, insomnia, overwhelming horniness that is far greater than their pre-porn libido, etc.). See "Three Myths about Porn."

Comment author: cybrmarc 10 August 2009 11:23:13PM *  11 points [-]

I was driving today and realized something.

Driving. It's a superstimuli because the part of me that plans where I'm going to go next, thinks about what I'm going to do there, and negotiates anything that gets in my way is on go-go-go. Think of the times you or someone else has gone all over the place in a car (or plane or train or bike) and didn't really do much, didn't really enjoy the ride, but were go-focused.

I think it's just like superstimulating food or porn or whatever. Driving amps up our go-brain, but everything else is left in the dust. Compare a drive to the store to a short walk along your neighborhood. You have social interactions, you notice sensations of walking, wind, smell, sounds...In a car, or eating a candy bar, or watching porn it's the same. The hyper-amplified experience of transportation, sweet-fattiness, and physical-mental arousal is turned up so loud its near impossible to stay present in the moment.

Which makes sense. I find when I get stuck in a self-feeding loop of these activities it's because I'm starving for presence. Yet with so much inertia in the driving/candy-bar/porn presence-obliterating mode, it can take a lot of awareness and even willpower to stop and tap into the fulfilling (yet comparably dull and unfocused) reality of the moment.

**Note: driving, like porn or candy bars, doesn't necessarily have to be implemented in this way, it can be incorporated into the present. or dabbled in and balanced out by time exploring a park or taking a swim, ect.

Comment author: readr 27 July 2010 04:23:54PM 5 points [-]

You are correct. This is why any sport with accelerated motion is somewhat addictive, and quite fun. Any forward motion, which is faster than we could ever run. Downhill skiing, cycling, motorcycles, zip lines, skateboards, etc.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 27 July 2010 04:27:39PM 10 points [-]

So being stuck in traffic is a super-anti-stimulus? You feel as though you could go really fast, except that you can't.

Comment author: [deleted] 30 April 2010 12:31:56AM 6 points [-]

It's a relief to see this recognized as a problem by someone who isn't a cheerleader for a solution. I think the only solutions are going to have to be mental ones, related to the raising of children (or possibly something more biological/electronic); building better brains just might work, but protecting bad brains from temptation is like carrying water in a sieve.

Immigrant values are the best existing inoculation I've seen against superstimuli. I think I'm going to have to (re)create my own immigrant values to get work done -- shouldn't be hard, given the typical population of science departments. But there's no reason to think we can't improve on the past. There are techniques to improve delayed gratification skills. (See the marshmallow experiment.) Conceivably we could develop drugs or computer add-ons that make us better planners.

I think we need to be more alert to the vulnerability of what we think of as the "will." It can be hacked, by mental illness, by poverty (income and delayed gratification correlate very strongly from young ages), by bad habits of mind, by the internet, even by sugar.

It won't do to say, cheerfully, that "people are responsible for their actions " because circumstances can make them less responsible. On the other hand, it also won't do to be unconcerned with the real harm that comes from people lacking willpower. If it can be hacked in the opposite direction, we need to be working on that, NOW.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 30 April 2010 01:54:20AM 3 points [-]

This discussion of the psychological effects of too much porn suggests that what's needed is a fun ethic as well as a work ethic.

I think part of what's needed is not so much rules, as for people to have a better ability to tell when they're starting to go off balance, and then avoid what they're overreacting to.

Comment author: thomblake 30 April 2010 06:04:10PM 1 point [-]

as for people to have a better ability to tell when they're starting to go off balance, and then avoid what they're overreacting to

I tend to try to picture the little bars from The Sims.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 03 May 2011 01:33:08AM 3 points [-]

It won't do to say, cheerfully, that "people are responsible for their actions " because circumstances can make them less responsible.

On the other hand, if you don't think of yourself as responsible for your actions, you are going to have a much harder time resisting superstimuli.

Comment author: PeerInfinity 14 September 2010 09:53:17PM 1 point [-]

off-topic: Chapter 18 of After Life also happens to contain some surprisingly clear answers to some "wrong questions" about physical versus virtual reality, personal identity, and free will.

The important parts of this conversation are in the first half of chapter 18. The second half of the chapter probably won't make much sense unless you've already read the first 17 chapters.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 21 October 2010 08:50:36PM 10 points [-]

Eliezer -

I discovered the OB archives this morning and have been working my way through them all day rather than actually doing my job, which I guess just goes to show that there are all kinds of superstimuli in the world.

That said, engaging as you are, I suspect I will soon decide to suspend you in favor of eating dinner and making it to rehearsal, which is reassuring. ("See? I can quit any time I want. I just don't want to, is all.")

I'm sort of hoping that by the time I reach the more current articles I will actually have something useful, or at least entertaining, to contribute to the conversation.

As a stand-in for that kind of usefulness, though, I will point out that the link to http://very.net/~nikolai/nasty/games.html is broken. (I don't know if you care, but I figure you can't make that decision until you know.)

Comment author: TomM 16 December 2010 06:00:18AM 3 points [-]

I agree with TheOtherDave - lesswrong and OB definitely qualify as superstimulation.

So much practical, actual STUFF to do, and so much here to read instead...

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 01 November 2010 12:10:45PM 3 points [-]

Is money a super-stimulus?

Comment author: David_Gerard 01 November 2010 04:10:08PM *  14 points [-]

I'd suggest it can be for some people. I really don't understand why people work sixteen hour days on Wall Street making more money than they could ever need for anything otherwise. (That's a statement about my map being deficient.) Perhaps as a token for status.

Western culture is, I posit, pretty much entirely composed of the most viral and addictive materials anyone can come up with. The civilisation has pretty much solved the food and shelter problems for its residents - imagine, in Britain it's regarded as a serious social problem that the poor people are too fat! As problems go, this is a vast improvement over the ones we had 60 years ago, when food was rationed - so exchanging memetic toxic waste as tokens of social intercourse appears to be what we do with the rest of our time. Frequently for the purpose of selling toothpaste or car insurance.

Western civilisation is not visibly collapsing, so I suggest that potentially fatal susceptibility to meme addiction is not sufficiently widespread to take us out. That said, even a lesser susceptibility can be a problem if you want to get stuff done. I should be fixing a build right now ...

Comment author: fr00t 20 November 2010 01:42:38AM 1 point [-]

I posit that these sequences and indeed any deliberation of abstract nature is super-stimulus. It was probably fairly stimulating for some ancestral man to connect the pain of having a rock fall on him to throwing a rock at a gazelle. But reading through hundreds of pages of information describing "the way" seem unlikely to improve my genetic fitness.

Comment author: ata 20 November 2010 02:06:32AM 1 point [-]

But reading through hundreds of pages of information describing "the way" seem unlikely to improve my genetic fitness.

Who said they were supposed to?

Comment author: katenochaser 20 November 2010 05:27:30PM 4 points [-]

For a brilliant literary treatment of addiction, Western civilization, marketing, and technology (and the relationships among them), read David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. The book's action hinges upon a superstimulus to end all superstimuli--an obscure film (called Infinite Jest) so addictive that anyone who watches it inevitably becomes addicted and dies, passing up food, sleep, and sex in order to watch the film over and over again. Who knows--maybe the film's addictiveness was just an order of magnitude or two greater than that of WoW.

It's one of those books that is frequently mentioned in conversation but few read. But it's one of a small number of life-altering books that I think about every single day, without fail.

Comment author: gwern 20 November 2010 05:55:24PM 3 points [-]

What was life-altering about it? I read it and came away fairly disappointed. It seemed to have only shallow ideas and observations about addiction (worse than a mediocre LW post on akrasia), and its 'cleverness' demanded a great deal and gave little back. The best I can say about it is that it taught a little about tennis and professional sports, but Wallace treated that topic better in his nonfiction.

Comment author: Ezra 14 January 2011 12:38:44PM 13 points [-]

"Perhaps the demographic collapse of advanced societies happens because the market supplies ever-more-tempting alternatives to having children, while the attractiveness of changing diapers remains constant over time."

The attractiveness of changing diapers does not remain constant over time. Modern diapers have little sticky tape on, and can be thrown out after a single use. Much better than washing cloth diapers and pricking yourself (or the baby!) attaching them.

For now, diapers remain a stinky mess. But we may yet invent a baby-washing, diaper-changing machine, without a sense of smell.

Comment author: Swimmer963 03 April 2011 02:20:07AM 2 points [-]

I have a vague memory of reading somewhere that willpower is only an exhaustible resource if you think of it that way. That being said, in my own life I've found my willpower very exhaustible...and this is annoying, since a lot of things that other people seem to do for pleasure or relaxation, I find very exhausting. If I go to a party on the weekend, the effort of socializing uses up my willpower to study or exercise.

Comment author: gwern 03 April 2011 02:36:38AM 3 points [-]
Comment author: Dreaded_Anomaly 03 April 2011 03:19:10AM 3 points [-]

a lot of things that other people seem to do for pleasure or relaxation, I find very exhausting. If I go to a party on the weekend, the effort of socializing uses up my willpower to study or exercise.

That sounds like a problem of introversion vs. extraversion to me, rather than one of willpower. An introvert "mentally recharges" by spending time alone, whereas an extrovert "mentally recharges" by spending time around other people. (The Wikipedia article on the subject addresses various hypotheses and evidence for the difference in mental function.)

Comment author: Swimmer963 03 April 2011 01:22:48PM 0 points [-]

This is a very good description. The problem comes in because more of my friends are extroverts than introverts. This may be because I can play extroverted for short periods of time, and that's what most people see of me. Being my friends, they want to do things with me that they enjoy and that they assume I'll enjoy too. It's not that I don't like parties, but I like them in the same way I like, say, hiking a difficult mountain trail. They can be fun and even exhilarating, but not relaxing. (In fact, probably less relaxing in a psychological sense than climbing a mountain trail, which implies solitude and time to think.)

Comment author: timtyler 12 May 2011 07:41:04PM 2 points [-]

Simon Funk's online novel After Life depicts (among other plot points) the planned extermination of biological Homo sapiens - not by marching robot armies, but by artificial children that are much cuter and sweeter and more fun to raise than real children.

That is certainly one vision - though it seems likely that artificial sex, love, companionship and orgasms - rather than just artificial maternity - may also have a pretty major impact.

Comment author: Friendly-HI 01 July 2011 10:50:11AM *  4 points [-]

Global societal collapse by superstimuli. Now that's an existential risk that would have put even the ancient Romans in their place. This is indeed a development that is quite worrisome to me as well, and I think it truly deserves to be perceived as a risk. I'm not sure if it's an existential risk in the truest sense of the word, but our hedonism may become really nasty and have far-reaching consequences that could interfere with addressing actual existential risks. Fully immersive glasses for virtual realities are just around the corner and they are just the beginning...

Comment author: Marcy_Azraelle 08 June 2012 07:48:06AM 2 points [-]

I found World of Warcraft's addictiveness pretty overrated myself. The quests are repetitive, the dialogue is narmy, the community in general seemed mostly unpleasant (I didn't really communicate much with anyone I didn't know from somewhere else but a few minutes in a city reveal this...)

The only real fun I had with it was playing with some people I knew. Still, a lot of games (especially western games) these days seem more interested in getting money through addiction tricks (online RPGs) and pandering to the masses (Call of Duty?) than by being really fun and interesting...and it seems to work too.

What really causes me to lose sleep is reading, writing RPG-like statistics just for fun and listening to music. I have spent hours in the early morning going from listening to a song to wanting to listen to another to wanting to listen to either of them again or a different one...I truly end up mentally begging myself for "one more song".

It is 1:46 AM right now too...and I am caught in it again...though at least it doesn't hurt me as much as it normally would since I do get all my sleep through getting up later.

Comment author: MarkusRamikin 08 June 2012 12:01:49PM 2 points [-]

pandering to the masses

What do you mean by that and how is it different from making a game "fun and interesting"?

Comment author: paper-machine 08 June 2012 12:07:16PM *  3 points [-]

"Fun and interesting" is actually a very complicated collection of attributes.

For example, some games are designed to appeal to so-called "casual" gamers (e.g., low barrier to entry, gradual accumulation of gameplay features, shallow depth of gameplay), and some games are designed to appeal to so-called "hardcore" gamers (e.g., complex gameplay, unforgiving level design, reliance on hand-eye coordination and twitch reflexes, complicated mythology and plot).

Pandering to the masses often means the former at the (perceived) expense of the latter.

Comment author: Marcy_Azraelle 08 June 2012 06:18:16PM *  1 point [-]

Paper-machine's answer is right on target. The first example of a casual game built on psychological addiction tricks to entrap the masses that comes to mind would be Farmville.

The tricks are simple enough. The crops you grow can wither and die if you don't return to them on time, for example, there are a few articles going into more detail about how this uses people's emotional fear of loss to help ensure that they are back by the set time to save their crops.

Over time, people also get so invested in the farm, both in measures of time and real money spent on virtual items that they can't quit easily, especially with all their friends sending them gifts or messages related to the game and encouraging you to send something back.

People also start competing with each other, fueling the urges to stay there and try to have a nicer farm than those around you.

However, even with all these tricks the game itself feels more like a chore than like a game and is not really very interesting.

This is not to say that simple games that really have effort put into them can't be fun or have hidden beauties (Touhou is simple enough to get into) or that all complicated games or games heavy on math are good (FATAL was complex...or so it seemed looking at the manual)...

Quick Edit: I wouldn't call more complex games "hardcore", a game can have deep mechanics to some extent while also making them very intuitive. I don't really feel it would be adequate to call -any- game "hardcore" myself, I feel some better word might be more appropiate depending on what kind of game it is.

A game with simple gameplay can still have a detailed lore and world (World of Warcraft?) and a dificult game can have a simple gameplay and story too (Classic Megaman?). I don't think it would be good to use the same label for all of them.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 06 December 2012 01:31:39PM 1 point [-]

The culture could be taken down by superstimuli, but I think the process will be slow enough for memetic resistance to evolve.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 14 February 2013 04:20:03AM *  1 point [-]

And likewise, a video game can be so much more engaging than mere reality,

If we can make a game that way, shouldn't we be able to add bells and whistles to reality to make it more engaging? Maybe we should be making our lives into video games.