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Kaj_Sotala comments on [link] Why Self-Control Seems (but may not be) Limited - Less Wrong

34 Post author: Kaj_Sotala 20 January 2014 04:55PM

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Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 21 January 2014 07:49:45AM 10 points [-]

It feels like this model would be worth combining with Kurzban et al's model, which posits that as we continue working on some task for an extended time, our brain's estimate of the marginal benefit of continuing to work on this task gradually declines, making it more likely that we will switch to doing something else.

If we furthermore combine things with this model, which posits that the amount of interest that one has for some domain is relative to one's sensitivity to feedback in that domain, then that might be a step towards figuring out why exactly some things are intrinsically motivating. People tend to have an intrinsic interest in the kinds of things where they initially felt like they could make quick progress in - possibly pushed by some kind of drive for compressing information - or where they made slow progress at first, but then learned to understand the domain better via (possibly externally enforced) determined practice. That would suggest that areas that are high on intrinsic motivation are ones where we are sensitive to the feedback and generally interested in the topic, whereas topics where we are low on intrinsic motivation (and have to rely on extrinsic motivation) are ones we are less sensitive to feedback (and which we frequently experience ourselves as being bad at). This is also compatible with Kurzban's model, in that if you get frequent feedback from doing something, then that suggests that your marginal benefit of continuing with that task is much higher than it'd be if you didn't get much feedback.

Now consider the act of reading those textbooks. It depends on how exactly you read, but reading is often a relatively low-feedback act: you just obtain new information and store it, and furthermore a dense technical text may require you to tightly focus your attention on just the text, which is exactly the kind of task with a high opportunity cost that Kurzban's model would predict to quickly "drain your reserves" (a resource metaphor seems convenient here even if it's not actually about resources). On the other hand, if you actively try to predict what's the next thing that's said in the text, draw analogies to other things that you know, etc., then that provides you with more feedback, but also requires more dedicated cognitive effort again.

Compare that with TylerJay's example of having the energy for six hours of programming after coming home from work - programming also requires a lot of attention, but it is also a very high-feedback task, where you can constantly make changes, test if the code still compiles, see if the change is working as intended, etc.

I'm not sure of where exactly something like watching TV fits in this three-way model of (interest in topic * intensity of feedback / exclusivity of cognitive effort). TV seems like the kind of task that you don't necessarily need strong cognitive focus on, but also not something that would offer much feedback, at least not if we define feedback as a two-way interaction... but that may not necessarily be the right definition to use, given that e.g. a book can plausibly give you feedback in the sense of it causing you to think about things that you otherwise wouldn't have, and giving you new ideas about related topics.

The notion of feedback also gets interesting when we consider reading fiction - I've noticed that I tend to read novels relatively quickly, but not visualizing the events very strongly, whereas a friend of mine reads much slower, I think in part because she's an eidetic visualizer who takes the time to really see the various events in her mind's eye. Our respective reading strategies might be a product of our respective sensitivities to feedback in the domain of visualizing... for me, strong and detailed visualizations take a lot of effort, so I go with the strategy that provides me with less feedback but also requires less focus, whereas for her the more rewarding strategy is to take her time, which may require more cognitive effort (though much less than it would for me) but also provides her with much richer feedback.

Comment author: [deleted] 24 February 2015 04:05:57PM *  1 point [-]

You might have just figured out an excellent tool to fight addictions and poor habits, at least until they become too strong. I am impressed. Quite literally this may save lives if systematized properly.

TylerJay's example is excellent, provided that it is REPL style dynamic exploratory programming, not entering 500 lines into C++ and then banging your head against a wall because why doesn't the damn thing compile. And it is no surprise that when I am bored at work that is what I do.

When I used to drive to work and back that was high feedback enough, driving is mostly fun in the short run, now commuting with the subway made my average alcohol intake worse, I down a beer or two even before starting out for home. Alcohol and drugs are addictive not simply because they make one feel good, but because they are also high feedback, every gulp, every hit has a predictable result. When I am at home, it is usual family stuff, and it is too predictable, we just talk about what happened today, play with our child etc. it is a bit boring, because there is nothing unexpected happening.

Unpredictability must be part of the equation. While dropping a nickel into a bubble gum vending machine and reliably getting a bubble gum is high feedback, it gets boring after 4. Too predictable.

Gambling research suggests that the most addictive are those processes that are less reliable - they provide a reward only in some of the time. Thus they cause excitement, that dopamine related "excited expectation and hope" thing that is so addictive.

Exploratory programming also sometimes doesn't work and that is what it makes it interesting. Without unexpected exceptions, bugs to fix it would be boring.

Basically it suggests one way to fight addictions would be to replace them with high feedback activities appropriate to the situation. Perhaps taking the subway home would be less bad if acquiring a phone of the kind games better than tetris can be played on (so some kind of a smartphone), or trying to discuss with the fam at home what happened today when nothing ever really happens, it was just a day at work / day at babycare should be replaced by taking turns in playing poker with each other and playing child games with the child when she becomes bigger and can.