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The purpose of this essay is to propose an enriched framework of thinking to help optimize the pursuit of agency, the quality of living intentionally. I posit that pursuing and gaining agency involves 3 components:
1. Evaluating reality clearly, to
2. Make effective decisions, that
3. Achieve our short and long-term goals.
In other words, agency refers to the combination of assessing reality accurately and achieving goals effectively, epistemic and instrumental rationality. The essay will first explore the concept of agency more thoroughly, and will then consider the application of this concept in different life domains, by which I mean different life areas such as work, romance, friendships, fitness, leisure, and other domains.
The concepts laid out here sprang from a collaboration between myself and Don Sutterfield, and also discussions with Max Harms, Rita Messer, Carlos Cabrera, Michael Riggs, Ben Thomas, Elissa Fleming, Agnes Vishnevkin, Jeff Dubin, and other members of the Columbus, OH, Rationality Meetup, as well as former members of this Meetup such as Jesse Galef and Erica Edelman. Members of this meetup are also collaborating to organize Intentional Insights, a new nonprofit dedicated to raising the sanity waterline through popularizing Rationality concepts in ways that create cognitive ease for a broad public audience (for more on Intentional Insights, see a fuller description here).
This section describes a framework of thinking that helps assess reality accurately and achieve goals effectively, in other words gain agency. After all, insofar as human thinking suffers from many biases, working to achieve greater agenty-ness would help us lead better lives. First, I will consider agency in relation to epistemic rationality, and then instrumental rationality: while acknowledging fully that these overlap in some ways, I believe it is helpful to handle them in distinct sections.
This essay proposes that gaining agency from the epistemic perspective involves individuals making an intentional evaluation of their environment and situation, in the moment and more broadly in life, sufficient to understand the full extent of one’s options within it and how these options relate to one’s personal short-term and long-term goals. People often make their decisions, both in the moment and major life decisions, based on socially-prescribed life paths and roles, whether due to the social expectations imposed by others or internalized preconceptions, often a combination of both. Such socially-prescribed life roles limit one’s options and thus the capacity to optimize one’s utility in reaching personal goals and preferences. Instead of going on autopilot in making decisions about one’s options, agency involves intentionally evaluating the full extent of one’s options to pursue the ones most conducive to one’s actual personal goals. To be clear, this may often mean choosing options that are socially prescribed, if they also happen to fit within one’s goal set. This intentional evaluation also means updating one’s beliefs based on evidence and facing the truth of reality even when it may seem ugly.
By gaining agency from the instrumental perspective, this essay refers to the ability to achieve one’s short-term and long-term goals. Doing so requires that one first gain a thorough understanding of one’s short-term and long-term goals, through an intentional process of self-evaluation of one’s values, preferences, and intended life course. Next, it involves learning effective strategies to make and carry out decisions conducive to achieving one’s personal goals and thus win at life. In the moment, that involves having an intentional response to situations, as opposed to relying on autopilot reflexes. This statement certainly does not mean going by System 2 at all times, as doing so would lead to rapid ego depletion, whether through actual willpower drain or through other related mechanisms. Agency involves using System 2 to evaluate System 1 and decide when one’s System 1 may be trusted to make good enough decisions and take appropriate actions with minimal oversight, in other words when System 1 has functional cached thinking, feeling, and behavior patterns. In cases where System 1 habits are problematic, agency involves using System 2 to change System 1 habits into more functional ones conducive to one’s goal set, not only behaviors but also changing one's emotions and thoughts. For the long term, agency involves intentionally making plans about one’s time and activities so that one can accomplish one’s goals. This involves learning about and adopting intentional strategies for discovering, setting, and achieving your goals, and implementing these strategies effectively in your life on a daily level.
Much of the discourse on agency in Rationality circles focuses on this notion as a broad category, and the level of agenty-ness for any individual is treated as a single point on a broad continuum of agency (she’s highly agenty, 8/10; he’s not very agenty, 3/10). After all, if someone has a thorough understanding of the concept of agency as demonstrated by the way they talk about agency and goal achievement, combined with their actual abilities to solve problems and achieve their goals in life domains such as their career or romantic relationships, then that qualifies that individual as a pretty high-level agent, right? Indeed, this is what I and others in the Columbus Rationality Meetup believed in the past about agency.
However, in an insight that now seems obvious to us (hello, hindsight bias) and may seem obvious to you after reading this post, we have come to understand that this is far from the case: in other words, just because someone has a high level of agency and success in one life domain does not mean that they have agency in other domains. Our previous belief that those who understand the concept of agency well and seem highly agenty in one life domain created a dangerous halo effect in evaluating individuals. This halo effect led to highly problematic predictions and normative expectations about the capacities of others, which undermined social relationships through creating misunderstandings, conflicts, and general interpersonal stress. This halo effect also led to highly problematic predictions and normative expectations about ourselves when highly inflated conceptions of our personal capacities in each given life domain contrasted with consequent mistakes in efforts at optimization that resulted in losses of time, energy, motivation, and personal stress.
Since that realization, we have come across studies on the difference between rationality and intelligence, as well as on broader re-evaluations of dual process theory, and also on the difference between task-oriented thinking and socio-relationship thinking, indicating the usefulness of parsing out the heuristic of “smart” and “rational,” and examining the various skills and abilities covered by that term. However, such research has not yet explored how significant skill in rational thinking and agency in one life domain may (or may not) transfer to those same skills and abilities in other areas of life. In other words, individuals may not be intentional and agenty about their application of rational thinking across various life domains, something that might be conveyed through the term “intentionality quotient.” So let me tell you a bit about ourselves as case studies in how the concept of domains of agency has proved to be useful in thinking rationally about our lives and gaining agency more quickly and effectively in varied domains.
For example, I have a high level of agency in my career area and in time management and organization, both knowing quite a lot about these areas and achieving my goals within them pretty well. Moreover, I am thoroughly familiar with the concept of agency, both from the Rationality perspective and from my own academic research. From that, I and others who know me expect me to express high levels of agency across all of my life domains.
However, I have many challenges in being rational about maximizing my utility gains in relationships with others. Only relatively recently, within the last couple of years or so, have I began to consider and pursue intentional efforts to reflect on the value that relationships with others has for my life. These intentional efforts resulted from conversations with members of the Columbus Rationality Meetup about their own approaches to relationships, and reading Less Wrong posts on the topic of relationships. As a result of these efforts, I have begun to deliberately invest resources into cultivating some relationships while withdrawing from others. My System 1 self still has a pretty strong ugh field about doing the latter, and my System 2 has to have a very serious talk with my System 1 every time I make a move to distance myself from extant relationships that no longer serve me well.
This personal example illustrates one major reason why people who have a high level of agency in one life domain may not have it in another life domain. Namely, “ugh” fields and cached thinking patterns prevent many who are quite rational and utility-optimizing in certain domains from applying the same level of intentional analysis to another life domain. For myself, as an introverted bookish child, I had few friends. This was further exacerbated by my family’s immigration to the United States from the former Soviet Union when I was 10, with the consequent deep disruption of interpersonal social development. Thus, my cached beliefs about relationships and my role in them served me poorly in optimizing relationship utility, and only with significant struggle can I apply rational analysis and intentional decision-making to my relationship circles. Still, since starting to apply rationality to my relationships here, I have substantially leveled up my abilities in that domain.
Another major reason why people who have a high level of agency in one life domain may not have it in another life domain results from the fact that people have domain-specific vulnerabilities to specific kinds of biases and cognitive distortions. For example, despite knowing quite a bit about self-control and willpower management, I suffer from challenges managing impulse control over food. I have worked to apply both rational analysis and proven habit management and change strategies to modify my vulnerability to the Kryptonite of food and especially sweets. I know well what I should be doing to exhibit greater agency in that field and have made very slow progress, but the challenges in that domain continually surprise me.
My assessment of my level of agency, which sprang from the areas where I had high agency, caused me to greatly overestimate my ability to optimize in areas where I had low levels of agency, e.g., in relationships and impulse control. As a result, I applied incorrect strategies to level up in those domains, and caused myself a great deal of unnecessary stress, and much loss of time, energy, and motivation.
My realization of the differentiated agency I had across different domains resulted in much more accurate evaluations and optimization strategies. For some domains, such as relationships, the problem resulted primarily from a lack of rational self-reflection. This suggests one major fix to differentiated levels of agency across different life domains – namely, a project that involves rationally evaluating one’s utility optimization in each life area. For some domains, the problem stems from domain-specific vulnerability to certain biases, and that requires applying self-awareness, data gathering, and tolerance toward one’s personally slow optimization in these areas.
My evaluation of the levels of agency of others underwent a similar transformation after the realization that they had different levels of agency in different life domains. Previously, mistaken assessments resulting from the halo effect about agency undermined my social relationships through misunderstandings, conflicts, and general interpersonal stress. For instance, before this realization I found it difficult to understand how one member of the Columbus Rationality Meetup excelled in some life areas, such as managing relationships and social interactions, but suffered from deep challenges in time management and organization. Caring about this individual deeply as a close friend and collaborator, I invested much time and energy resources to help improve this life domain. The painfully slow improvement and many setbacks experienced by this individual caused me to experience much frustration and stress, and resulted in conflicts and tensions between us. However, after making the discovery of differentiated agency across domains, I realized that not only was such frustration misplaced, but that the strategies I was suggesting were targeted too high for this individual, in this domain. A much more accurate assessment of his current capacities and the actual efforts required to level up resulted in much less interpersonal stress and much more effective strategies that helped this individual. Besides myself, other Columbus Rationality Meetup members have experienced similar benefits in applying this paradigm to themselves and to others.
To sum up, this essay provided an overview and some strategies for achieving greater agency - a highly instrumental framework of thinking that helps empower individuals to optimize their ability to assess reality accurately and achieve goals effectively. The essay in particular aims to enrich current discourse on agency by highlighting how individuals have different levels of agency across various life domains, and underscoring the epistemic and instrumental implications of this perspective on agency. While the strategies listed above help achieve specific skills and abilities required to gain greater agency, I would suggest that one can benefit greatly from tying positive emotions to the framework of thinking about agency described above. For instance, one might think to one’s self, “It is awesome to take an appropriately fine grained perspective on how agency works, and I’m awesome for dedicating cycles to that project.” Doing so motivates one’s System 1 to pursue increasing levels of agency: it’s the emotionally rational step to assess reality accurately, achieve goals effectively, and thus gain greater agency in all life domains.
You are not a Bayesian homunculus whose reasoning is 'corrupted' by cognitive biases.
You just are cognitive biases.
You just are attribution substitution heuristics, evolved intuitions, and unconscious learning. These make up the 'elephant' of your mind, and atop them rides a tiny 'deliberative thinking' module that only rarely exerts itself, and almost never according to normatively correct reasoning.
You do not have much cognitive access to your motivations. You are not Aristotle's 'rational animal.' You are Gazzaniga's rationalizing animal. Most of the time, your unconscious makes a decision, and then you become consciously aware of an intention to act, and then your brain invents a rationalization for the motivations behind your actions.
If an 'agent' is something that makes choices so as to maximize the fulfillment of explicit desires, given explicit beliefs, then few humans are very 'agenty' at all. You may be agenty when you guide a piece of chocolate into your mouth, but you are not very agenty when you navigate the world on a broader scale. On the scale of days or weeks, your actions result from a kludge of evolved mechanisms that are often function-specific and maladapted to your current environment. You are an adaptation-executor, not a fitness-maximizer.
Agency is rare but powerful. Homo economicus is a myth, but imagine what one of them could do if such a thing existed: a real agent with the power to reliably do things it believed would fulfill its desires. It could change its diet, work out each morning, and maximize its health and physical attractiveness. It could learn and practice body language, fashion, salesmanship, seduction, the laws of money, and domain-specific skills and win in every sphere of life without constant defeat by human hangups. It could learn networking and influence and persuasion and have large-scale effects on societies, cultures, and nations.
Even a little bit of agenty-ness will have some lasting historical impact. Think of Benjamin Franklin, Teddy Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, or Tim Ferris. Imagine what you could do if you were just a bit more agenty. That's what training in instrumental rationality is all about: transcending your kludginess to attain a bit more agenty-ness.
And, imagine what an agent could do without the limits of human hardware or software. Now that would really be something.
(This post was inspired by some conversations with Michael Vassar.)