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An opportunity cost model of subjective effort and task performance (h/t lukeprog) is a very interesting paper on why we accumulate mental fatigue: Kurzban et al. suggest an opportunity cost model, where intense focus on a single task means that we become less capable of using our mental resources for anything else, and accumulating mental fatigue is part of a cost-benefit calculation that encourages us to shift our attention instead of monomaniacally concentrating on just one task which may not be the most rewarding possible. Correspondingly, the amount of boredom or mental fatigue we experience with a task should correspond with the perceived rewards from other tasks available at the moment. A task will feel more boring/effortful if there's something more rewarding that you could be doing instead (i.e. if the opportunity costs for pursuing your current task are higher), and if it requires exclusive use of cognitive resources that could also be used for something else.
This seems to make an amount of intuitive/introspective sense - I had a much easier time doing stuff without getting bored as a kid, when there simply wasn't much else that I could be doing instead. And it does roughly feel like I would get more quickly bored with things in situations where more engaging pursuits were available. I'm also reminded of the thing I noticed as a kid where, if I borrowed a single book from the library, I would likely get quickly engrossed in it, whereas if I had several alternatives it would be more likely that I'd end up looking at each for a bit but never really get around reading any of them.
An opportunity cost model also makes more sense than resource models of willpower which, as Kurzban quite persuasively argued in his earlier book, don't really fit together with the fact that the brain is an information-processing system. My computer doesn't need to use any more electricity in situations where it "decides" to do something as opposed to not doing something, but resource models of willpower have tried to postulate that we would need more of e.g. glucose in order to maintain willpower. (Rather, it makes more sense to presume that a low level of blood sugar would shift the cost-benefit calculations in a way that led to e.g. conservation of resources.)
This isn't just Kurzban et al's opinion - the paper was published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, which invites diverse comments to all the papers that they publish. In this particular case, it was surprising how muted the defenses of the resource model were. As Kurzban et al point out in their response to responses:
As context for our expectations, consider the impact of one of the central ideas with which we were taking issue, the claim that “willpower” is a resource that is consumed when self-control is exerted. To give a sense of the reach of this idea, in the same month that our target article was accepted for publication Michael Lewis reported in Vanity Fair that no less a figure than President Barack Obama was aware of, endorsed, and based his decision- making process on the general idea that “the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions,” with Obama explaining: “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make ” (Lewis 2012 ).
Add to this the fact that a book based on this idea became a New York Times bestseller (Baumeister & Tierney 2011 ), the fact that a central paper articulating the idea (Baumeister et al. 1998 ) has been cited more than 1,400 times, and, more broadly, the vast number of research programs using this idea as a foundation, and we can be forgiven for thinking that we would have kicked up something of a hornet’s nest in suggesting that the willpower-as-resource model was wrong. So we anticipated no small amount of stings from the large number of scholars involved in this research enterprise. These were our expectations before receiving the commentaries.
Our expectations were not met. Take, for example, the reaction to our claim that the glucose version of the resource argument is false (Kurzban 2010a ). Inzlicht & Schmeichel, scholars who have published widely in the willpower-as-resource literature, more or less casually bury the model with the remark in their commentary that the “mounting evidence points to the conclusion that blood glucose is not the proximate mechanism of depletion.” ( Malecek & Poldrack express a similar view.) Not a single voice has been raised to defend the glucose model, and, given the evidence that we advanced to support our view that this model is unlikely to be correct, we hope that researchers will take the fact that none of the impressive array of scholars submitting comments defended the view to be a good indication that perhaps the model is, in fact, indefensible. Even if the opportunity cost account of effort turns out not to be correct, we are pleased that the evidence from the commentaries – or the absence of evidence – will stand as an indication to audiences that it might be time to move to more profitable explanations of subjective effort.
While the silence on the glucose model is perhaps most obvious, we are similarly surprised by the remarkably light defense of the resource view more generally. As Kool & Botvinick put it, quite correctly in our perception: “Research on the dynamics of cognitive effort have been dominated, over recent decades, by accounts centering on the notion of a limited and depletable ‘resource’” (italics ours). It would seem to be quite surprising, then, that in the context of our critique of the dominant view, arguably the strongest pertinent remarks come from Carter & McCullough, who imply that the strength of the key phenomenon that underlies the resource model – two-task “ego-depletion” studies – might be considerably less than previously thought or perhaps even nonexistent. Despite the confidence voiced by Inzlicht & Schmeichel about the two-task findings, the strongest voices surrounding the model, then, are raised against it, rather than for it. (See also Monterosso & Luo , who are similarly skeptical of the resource account.)
Indeed, what defenses there are of the resource account are not nearly as adamant as we had expected. Hagger wonders if there is “still room for a ‘resource’ account,” given the evidence that cuts against it, conceding that “[t]he ego-depletion literature is problematic.” Further, he relies largely on the argument that the opportunity cost model we offer might be incomplete, thus “leaving room” for other ideas.
(I'm leaving out discussion of some commentaries which do attempt to defend resource models.)
Though the model still seems to be missing pieces - as one of the commentaries points out, it doesn't really address the fact that some tasks are more inherently boring than others. Some of it might be explained by the argument given in Shouts, Whispers, and the Myth of Willpower: A Recursive Guide to Efficacy (I quote the most relevant bit here), where the author suggests that "self-discipline" in some domain is really about sensitivity for feedback in that domain: a novice in some task doesn't really manage to notice the small nuances that have become so significant for an expert, so they receive little feedback for their actions and it ends up being a boring vigilance task. Whereas an expert will instantly notice the effects that their actions have on the system and get feedback of their progress, which in the opportunity cost model could be interpreted as raising the worthwhileness of the task they're working on. If we go with Kurzban et al.'s notion of us acquiring further information about the expected utility of the task we're working on as we continue working on it, then getting feedback from the task could possibly be read as a sign of the task being one in which we can expect to succeed in.
Another missing piece with the model is that it doesn't really seem to explain the way that one can come home after a long day at work and then feel too exhausted to do anything at all - it can't really be about opportunity costs if you end up so tired that you can't come up with ~any activity that you'd want to do.
As in Joshua Blaine's original description (below), but may be used to brag about things you've accomplished either this month (December) or the previous one (November), assuming that you haven't brought it up in any earlier Monthly Bragging Thread.
In an attempt to encourage more people to actually do awesome things (a la instrumental rationality), I am proposing a new monthly thread (can be changed to bi-weekly, should that be demanded). Your job, should you choose to accept it, is to comment on this thread explaining the most awesome thing you've done this month. You may be as blatantly proud of you self as you feel. You may unabashedly consider yourself the coolest freaking person ever because of that awesome thing you're dying to tell everyone about. This is the place to do just that.
Remember, however, that this isn't any kind of progress thread. Nor is it any kind of proposal thread.This thread is solely for people to talk about the awesomest thing they've done all month. not will do. not are working on.have already done. This is to cultivate an environment of object level productivity rather than meta-productivity methods.
So, what's the coolest thing you've done this month?
Some highlights from The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life And Business by Charles Duhigg, a book which seems like an invaluable resource for pretty much everyone who wants to improve their lives. The below summarizes the first three chapters of the book, as well as the appendix, for I found those to be the most valuable and generally applicable parts. These chapters discuss individual habits, while the rest of the book discusses the habits of companies and individuals. The later chapters also contain plenty of interesting content (some excerpts: [1 2 3]), and help explain the nature of e.g. some institutional failures.
Chapter One: The Habit Loop - How Habits Work
When a rat first navigates a foreign environment, such as a maze, its brain is full of activity as it works to process the new environment and to learn all the environmental cues. As the environment becomes more familiar, the rat's brain becomes less and less active, until even brain structures related to memory quiet down a week later. Navigating the maze no longer requires higher processing: it has become an automatic habit.
The process of converting a complicated sequence of actions into an automatic routine is known as "chunking", and human brains carry out a similar process. They vary in complexity, from putting toothpaste on your toothbrush before putting it in your mouth, to getting dressed or preparing breakfast, to very complicated processes such as backing one's car out of the driveway. All of these actions initially required considerable effort to learn, but eventually they became so automatic as to be carried out without conscious attention. As soon as we identify the right cue, such as pulling out the car keys, our brain activates the stored habit and lets our conscious minds focus on something else. In order to conserve effort, the brain will attempt to turn almost any routine into a habit.
However, it can be dangerous to deactivate our brains at the wrong time, for there may be something unanticipated in the environment that will turn a previously-safe routine into something life-threatening. To help avoid such situations, our brains evaluate prospective habits using a three-stage habit loop:
Every now and then, I write an LW comment on some topic and feel that the contents of my comment pretty much settles the issue decisively. Instead, the comment seems to get ignored entirely - it either gets very few votes or none, nobody responds to it, and the discussion generally continues as if it had never been posted.
Similarly, every now and then I see somebody else make a post or comment that they clearly feel is decisive, but which doesn't seem very interesting to me. Either it seems to be saying something obvious, or I don't get its connection to the topic at hand in the first place.
This seems like it would be about inferential distance: either the writer doesn't know the things that make the reader experience the comment as uninteresting, or the reader doesn't know the things that make the writer experience the comment as interesting. So there's inferential silence - a sufficiently long inferential distance that a claim doesn't provoke even objections, just uncomprehending or indifferent silence.
But "explain your reasoning in more detail" doesn't seem like it would help with the issue. For one, we often don't know beforehand when people don't share our assumptions. Also, some of the comments or posts that seem to encounter this kind of a fate are already relatively long. For example, Wei Dai wondered why MIRI-affiliated people don't often respond to his posts that raise criticisms, and I essentially replied that I found the content of his post relatively obvious so didn't have much to say.
Perhaps people could more often explicitly comment if they notice that something that a poster seems to consider a big thing doesn't seem very interesting or meaningful to them, and briefly explain why? Even a sentence or two might be helpful for the original poster.
I notice that if you want to persuade me away from a position, it sometimes works to have me talk with two kinds of people: 1) people who have good reasons for disagreeing with my position, and 2) people who agree with my position for similar reasons and hold it even more strongly than I do.
In both cases, the difference in opinion forces me to re-examine my reasons for believing in something, but the direction of the examination is different. Case 1 makes me think "are these criticisms valid, or do I (should I) support this position because of some reason that the criticisms do not take into account?". Case 2 makes me think "this person believes in this thing for basically the same reasons that I do, so why haven't those reasons pushed me to a similar extreme? Do I actually have unacknowledged reasons for doubting the validity of those reasons, which would deserve further consideration?"
In case 1, I am being presented with criticisms that came from outside my own thought process. In case 2, I am searching my own thought process for criticisms that have been generated within it. So the source of the criticism is either external or internal, respectively. A combination of both may prove decisive in situations where just one isn't enough.
Now the question is, are there reliable ways for inducing one of the cases in situations where only the other is present, and I have reason to suspect that I'm being overconfident about something?
I review William Hirstein's book Mindmelding: Consciousness, Neuroscience, and the Mind’s Privacy, which he proposes a way of connecting the brains of two different people together so that when person A has a conscious experience, person B may also have the same experience. In particular, I compare it to my and Harri Valpola's earlier paper Coalescing Minds, in which we argued that it would be possible to join the brains of two people together in such a way that they'd become a single mind.
Fortunately, it turns out that the book and the paper are actually rather nicely complementary. To briefly summarize the main differences, we intentionally skimmed over many neuroscientific details in order to establish mindmelding as a possible future trend, while Hirstein extensively covers the neuroscience but is mostly interested in mindmelding as a thought experiment. We seek to predict a possible future trend, while Hirstein seeks to argue a philosophical position: Hirstein focuses on philosophical implications while we focus on societal implications. Hirstein talks extensively about the possibility of one person perceiving another’s mental states while both remaining distinct individuals, while we mainly discuss the possibility of two distinct individuals coalescing together into one.
I expect that LW readers might be particularly interested in some of the possible implications of Hirstein's argument, which he himself didn't discuss in the book, but which I speculated on in the review:
Most obviously, if another person’s conscious states could be recorded and replayed, it would open the doors for using this as entertainment. Were it the case that you couldn’t just record and replay anyone’s conscious experience, but learning to correctly interpret the data from another brain would require time and practice, then individual method actors capable of immersing themselves in a wide variety of emotional states might become the new movie stars. Once your brain learned to interpret their conscious states, you could follow them in a wide variety of movie-equivalents, with new actors being hampered by the fact that learning to interpret the conscious states of someone who had only appeared in one or two productions wouldn’t be worth the effort. If mind uploading was available, this might give considerable power to a copy clan consisting of copies of the same actor, each participating in different productions but each having a similar enough brain that learning to interpret one’s conscious states would be enough to give access to the conscious states of all the others.
The ability to perceive various drug- or meditation-induced states of altered consciousness while still having one’s executive processes unhindered and functional would probably be fascinating for consciousness researchers and the general public alike. At the same time, the ability for anyone to experience happiness or pleasure by just replaying another person’s experience of it might finally bring wireheading within easy reach, with all the dangers associated with that.
A Hirstein-style mind meld might possibly also be used as an uploading technique. Some upload proposals suggest compiling a rich database of information about a specific person, and then later using that information to construct a virtual mind whose behavior would be consistent with the information about that person. While creating such a mind based on just behavioral data makes questionable the extent to which the new person would really be a copy of the original, the skeptical argument loses some of its force if we can also include in the data a recording of all the original’s conscious states during various points in their life. If we are able to use the data to construct a mind that would react to the same sensory inputs with the same conscious states as the original did, whose executive processes would manipulate those states in the same ways as the original, and who would take the same actions as the original did, would that mind then not essentially be the same mind as the original mind?
Hirstein’s argumentation is also relevant for our speculations concerning the evolution of mind coalescences. We spoke abstractly about the ”preferences” of a mind, suggesting that it might be possible for one mind to extract the knowledge from another mind without inherting its preferences, and noting that conflicting preferences would be one reason for two minds to avoid coalescing together. However, we did not say much about where in the brain preferences are produced, and what would be actually required for e.g. one mind to extract another’s knowledge without also acquiring its preferences. As the above discussion hopefully shows, some of our preferences are implicit in our automatic habits (the things that we show we value with our daily routines), some in the preprocessing of sensory data that our brains carry out (the things and ideas that are ”painted with” positive associations or feelings), and some in the configuration of our executive processes (the actions we actually end up doing in response to novel or conflicting situations). (See also.) This kind of a breakdown seems like very promising material for some neuroscience-aware philosopher to tackle in an attempt to figure out just what exactly preferences are; maybe someone has already done so.
Discusses a number of aspects of social status, including the "social status as currency" concept that Morendil and I previously wrote about.
Now we get to the really interesting stuff: the economic properties of social status.
Let’s start with transactions, since they form the basis of an economy. Status is part of our system for competing over scarce resources, so it should be no surprise that it participates in so many of our daily transactions. Some examples:
- We trade status for favors (and vice versa). This is so common you might not even realize it, but even the simple act of saying “please” and “thank you” accords a nominal amount of status to the person doing the favor. The fact that status is at stake in these transactions becomes clear when the pleasantries are withheld, which we often interpret as an insult (i.e., a threat to our status).
- An apology is a ritual lowering of one’s status to compensate for a (real or perceived) affront. As with gratitude, withholding an apology is perceived as an insult.
- We trade status for information (and vice versa). This is one component of “powertalk,” as illustrated in the Gervais Principle series.
- We trade status for sex (and vice versa), which often goes by the name “seduction.” Sometimes even the institution of marriage functions as a sex-for-status transaction. Dowries illustrate this principle by working against it — they reinforce class/caste systems by making it harder for high-status men to marry low-status women.
- We reward employees in the form of institutionalized status (titles, promotions, parking spots), which trade off against salary as a form of compensation.
- We can turn money into status by means of conspicuous consumption, or status into money by means of endorsement (i.e., being paid to lend status to an endeavor).
But the part that I found the most interesting was the idea of defining communities via their status standards:
Previously we defined status with respect to a community, but we could also flip it around:
A community is a group of people who agree on how to measure status among their members.
In other words, it’s a group of people who share a common status currency. Silicon Valley, for example, is a community oriented around a particular way of measuring status — the ability to influence the growth of engineering companies. But Silicon-Valley status won’t buy you anything in Hollywood — unless you convert it to something that makes sense in the Hollywood economy. (Financial wealth usually does the trick).
This definition allows us not only to draw boundaries between communities (porous and fuzzy though they may be), but also allows us to discuss the strength of a community, i.e., the level of agreement about how to measure status. Google, for example, is a fairly strong community insofar as Googlers agree on how to measure status among themselves, but Google engineering might be an even stronger community.
Treating communities as “status-currency blocs” helps explain how there’s relatively free trade (at low transaction costs) within the community — and also how trade is distorted across community boundaries. The fluctuating ‘exchange rates’ and asymmetric information make cross-community interaction more difficult. When a Google VP walks into a meeting with some employees from Facebook, say, everyone will be unsure about their relative statuses, and the group will have to spend time and effort (and a lot of posturing) in order to figure it out.
The “currency bloc” metaphor also helps explain both the benefits and the costs of institutional re-orgs. Merging two organizations, for example, can increase economic efficiency (by standardizing on a single status currency and thereby facilitating more interaction/trade), but the integration will also require some ‘repricing’ — with resistance from everyone who loses out.
The article has a lot more.
Discussion article for the meetup : Helsinki meetup with CatM (CFAR instructor) as special guest star
Cat, who has volunteered extensively at CFAR (and taught at CFAR), will be visiting many cities in Europe. She will now also be visiting Helsinki, and has said that she would happily teach a CFAR class or lead a discussion on some rationality material.
Apologies for the short notice.
Discussion article for the meetup : Helsinki meetup with CatM (CFAR instructor) as special guest star
You walk into a laboratory, and you read a set of instructions that tell you that your task is to decide how much of a $10 pie you want to give to an anonymous other person who signed up for the experimental session.
This describes, more or less, the Dictator Game, a staple of behavioral economics with a history dating back more than a quarter of a century. The Dictator Game (DG) might not be the drosophila melanogaster of behavioral economics – the Prisoner’s Dilemma can lay plausible claim to that prized analogy – but it could reasonably aspire to an only slightly more modest title, perhaps the e. coli of the discipline. Since the original work, more than 20,000 observations in the DG have been reported.
How much would participants in a Dictator Game give to the other person if they did not know they were in a Dictator Game study? Simply following me around during the day and recording how much cash I dispense won’t answer this question because in the DG, the money is provided by the experimenter. So, to build a parallel design, the method used must move money to subjects as a windfall so that we can observe how much of this “house money” they choose to give away.
And that is what Winking and Mizer did in a paper now in press and available online (paywall) in Evolution and Human Behavior, using participants, fittingly enough, in Las Vegas. Here’s what they did. Two confederates were needed. The first, destined to become the “recipient,” was occupied on a phone call near a bus stop in Vegas. The second confederate approached lone individuals at the bus stop, indicated that they were late for a ride to the airport, and asked the subject if they wanted the $20 in casino chips still in the confederate’s possession, scamming people into, rather than out of money, in sharp contradiction of the deep traditions of Las Vegas. The question was how many chips the fortunate subject transferred to the nearby confederate.
In a second condition, the confederate with the chips added a comment to the effect that the subject could “split it with that guy however you want,” indicating the first confederate. This condition brings the study a bit closer, but not much closer, to lab conditions, In a third condition, subjects were asked if they wanted to participate in a study, and then did so along the lines of the usual DG, making the treatment considerably closer to traditional lab-based conditions.
The difference between the first two treatments and the third treatments is interesting, but, as I said at the beginning, the DG should be thought of as a measuring tool. Figure 1 shows how many chips people give away in the DG in the three treatments. In conditions 1 and 2, the number of people (out of 60) who gave at least one chip to the second confederate was… zero. To the extent you think that this method answers the question, how much Dictator Game giving is due to people knowing they’re in an experiment, the answer is, “all of it.”
Link to paper (paywalled).
I attempt to figure out a way to dissolve the concepts of 'personal identity' and 'subjective expectation' down to the level of cognitive algorithms, in a way that would let one bite the bullets of the anthropic trilemma. I proceed by considering four clues which seem important: 1) the evolutionary function of personal identity, 2) a sense of personal identity being really sticky, 3) an undefined personal identity causing undefined behavior in our decision-making machinery, and 4) our decision-making machinery being more strongly grounded in our subjective expectation than in abstract models. Taken together, these seem to suggest a solution.
I ended up re-reading some of the debates about the anthropic trilemma, and it struck me odd that, aside for a few references to personal identity being an evolutionary adaptation, there seemed to be no attempt to reduce the concept to the level of cognitive algorithms. Several commenters thought that there wasn't really any problem, and Eliezer asked them to explain why the claim of there not being any problem regardless violated the intuitive rules of subjective expectation. That seemed like a very strong indication that the question needs to be dissolved, but almost none of the attempted answers seemed to do that, instead trying to solve the question via decision theory without ever addressing the core issue of subjective expectation. rwallace's I-less Eye argued - I believe correctly - that subjective anticipation isn't ontologically fundamental, but still didn't address the question of why it feels like it is.
Here's a sketch of a dissolvement. It seems relatively convincing to me, but I'm not sure how others will take it, so let's give it a shot. Even if others find it incomplete, it should at least help provide clues that point towards a better dissolvement.
Clue 1: The evolutionary function of personal identity.
Let's first consider the evolutionary function. Why have we evolved a sense of personal identity?
The first answer that always comes to everyone's mind is that our brains have evolved for the task of spreading our genes, which involves surviving at least for as long as it takes to reproduce. Simpler neural functions, like maintaining a pulse and having reflexes, obviously do fine without a concept of personal identity. But if we wish to use abstract, explicit reasoning to advance our own interests, we need some definition for exactly whose interests it is that our reasoning process is supposed to be optimizing. So evolution comes up with a fuzzy sense of personal identity, so that optimizing the interests of this identity also happens to optimize the interests of the organism in question.
That's simple enough, and this point was already made in the discussions so far. But that doesn't feel like it would resolve our confusion yet, so we need to look at the way that personal identity is actually implemented in our brains. What is the cognitive function of personal identity?
Clue 2: A sense of personal identity is really sticky.
Even people who disbelieve in personal identity don't really seem to disalieve it: for the most part, they're just as likely to be nervous about their future as anyone else. Even advanced meditators who go out trying to dissolve their personal identity seem to still retain some form of it. PyryP claims that at one point, he reached a stage in meditation where the experience of “somebody who experiences things” shattered and he could turn it entirely off, or attach it to something entirely different, such as a nearby flower vase. But then the experience of having a self began to come back: it was as if the brain was hardwired to maintain one, and to reconstruct it whenever it was broken. I asked him to comment on that for this post, and he provided the following:
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