Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

Brief update on the consequences of my "Two arguments for not thinking about ethics" (2014) article

14 Kaj_Sotala 05 April 2017 11:25AM

In March 2014, I posted on LessWrong an article called "Two arguments for not thinking about ethics (too much)", which started out with:

I used to spend a lot of time thinking about formal ethics, trying to figure out whether I was leaning more towards positive or negative utilitarianism, about the best courses of action in light of the ethical theories that I currently considered the most correct, and so on. From the discussions that I've seen on this site, I expect that a lot of others have been doing the same, or at least something similar.

I now think that doing this has been more harmful than it has been useful, for two reasons: there's no strong evidence to assume that this will give us very good insight to our preferred ethical theories, and more importantly, because thinking in those terms will easily lead to akrasia.

I ended the article with the following paragraph:

My personal experience of late has also been that thinking in terms of "what does utilitarianism dictate I should do" produces recommendations that feel like external obligations, "shoulds" that are unlikely to get done; whereas thinking about e.g. the feelings of empathy that motivated me to become utilitarian in the first place produce motivations that feel like internal "wants". I was very close to (yet another) burnout and serious depression some weeks back: a large part of what allowed me to avoid it was that I stopped entirely asking the question of what I should do, and began to focus entirely on what I want to do, including the question of which of my currently existing wants are ones that I'd wish to cultivate further. (Of course there are some things like doing my tax returns that I do have to do despite not wanting to, but that's a question of necessity, not ethics.) It's way too short of a time to say whether this actually leads to increased productivity in the long term, but at least it feels great for my mental health, at least for the time being.

The long-term update (three years after first posting the article) is that starting to shift my thought patterns in this way was totally the right thing to do, and necessary for starting a long and slow recovery from depression. It's hard to say entirely for sure how big of a role this has played, since the patterns of should-thought were very deeply ingrained and have been slow to get rid of; I still occasionally find myself engaging in them. And there have been many other factors also affecting my recovery during this period, so only a part of the recovery can be attributed to the "utilitarianism-excising" with any certainty. Yet, whenever I've found myself engaging in such patterns of thought and managed to eliminate them, I have felt much better as a result. I do still remember a time when a large part of my waking-time was driven by utilitarian thinking, and it's impossible for me to properly describe how relieved I now feel for the fact that my mind feels much more peaceful now.

The other obvious question besides "do I feel better now" is "do I actually get more good things done now"; and I think that the answer is yes there as well. So I don't just feel generally better, I think my actions and motivations are actually more aligned with doing good than they were when I was trying to more explicitly optimize for following utilitarianism and doing good in that way. I still don't feel like I actually get a lot of good done, but I attribute much of this to still not having entirely recovered; I also still don't get a lot done that pertains to my own personal well-being. (I just spent several months basically doing nothing, because this was pretty much the first time when I had the opportunity, finance-wise, to actually take a long stressfree break from everything. It's been amazing, but even after such an extended break, the burnout symptoms still pop up if I'm not careful.)

[Link] Moral Philosophers as Ethical Engineers: Limits of Moral Philosophy and a Pragmatist Alternative

2 Kaj_Sotala 23 February 2017 01:02PM

[Link] Against willpower as a scientific or otherwise useful concept (Nautilus Magazine)

0 Kaj_Sotala 04 February 2017 10:11PM

[Link] Choosing prediction over explanation in psychology: Lessons from machine learning

1 Kaj_Sotala 17 January 2017 09:23PM

[Link] Disjunctive AI scenarios: Individual or collective takeoff?

3 Kaj_Sotala 11 January 2017 03:43PM

Making intentions concrete - Trigger-Action Planning

24 Kaj_Sotala 01 December 2016 08:34PM

I'll do it at some point.

I'll answer this message later.

I could try this sometime.

For most people, all of these thoughts have the same result. The thing in question likely never gets done - or if it does, it's only after remaining undone for a long time and causing a considerable amount of stress. Leaving the "when" ambiguous means that there isn't anything that would propel you into action.

What kinds of thoughts would help avoid this problem? Here are some examples:

  • When I find myself using the words "later" or "at some point", I'll decide on a specific time when I'll actually do it.
  • If I'm given a task that would take under five minutes, and I'm not in a pressing rush, I'll do it right away.
  • When I notice that I'm getting stressed out about something that I've left undone, I'll either do it right away or decide when I'll do it.
Picking a specific time or situation to serve as the trigger of the action makes it much more likely that it actually gets done.

Could we apply this more generally? Let's consider these examples:
  • I'm going to get more exercise.
  • I'll spend less money on shoes.
  • I want to be nicer to people.
These goals all have the same problem: they're vague. How will you actually implement them? As long as you don't know, you're also going to miss potential opportunities to act on them.

Let's try again:
  • When I see stairs, I'll climb them instead of taking the elevator.
  • When I buy shoes, I'll write down how much money I've spent on shoes this year.
  • When someone does something that I like, I'll thank them for it.
These are much better. They contain both a concrete action to be taken, and a clear trigger for when to take it.

Turning vague goals into trigger-action plans

Trigger-action plans (TAPs; known as "implementation intentions" in the academic literature) are "when-then" ("if-then", for you programmers) rules used for behavior modification [i]. A meta-analysis covering 94 studies and 8461 subjects [ii] found them to improve people's ability for achieving their goals [iii]. The goals in question included ones such as reducing the amount of fat in one's diet, getting exercise, using vitamin supplements, carrying on with a boring task, determination to work on challenging problems, and calling out racist comments. Many studies also allowed the subjects to set their own, personal goals.

TAPs were found to work both in laboratory and real-life settings. The authors of the meta-analysis estimated the risk of publication bias to be small, as half of the studies included were unpublished ones.

Designing TAPs

TAPs work because they help us notice situations where we could carry out our intentions. They also help automate the intentions: when a person is in a situation that matches the trigger, they are much more likely to carry out the action. Finally, they force us to turn vague and ambiguous goals into more specific ones.

A good TAP fulfills three requirements [iv]:
  • The trigger is clear. The "when" part is a specific, visible thing that's easy to notice. "When I see stairs" is good, "before four o'clock" is bad (when before four exactly?). [v]
  • The trigger is consistent. The action is something that you'll always want to do when the trigger is fulfilled. "When I leave the kitchen, I'll do five push-ups" is bad, because you might not have the chance to do five push-ups each time when you leave the kitchen. [vi]
  • The TAP furthers your goals. Make sure the TAP is actually useful!
However, there is one group of people who may need to be cautious about using TAPs. One paper [vii] found that people who ranked highly on so-called socially prescribed perfectionism did worse on their goals when they used TAPs. These kinds of people are sensitive to other people's opinions about them, and are often highly critical of themselves. Because TAPs create an association between a situation and a desired way of behaving, it may make socially prescribed perfectionists anxious and self-critical. In two studies, TAPs made college students who were socially prescribed perfectionists (and only them) worse at achieving their goals.

For everyone else however, I recommend adopting this TAP:

When I set myself a goal, I'll turn it into a TAP.

Origin note

This article was originally published in Finnish at kehitysto.fi. It draws heavily on CFAR's material, particularly the workbook from CFAR's November 2014 workshop.

Footnotes

[i] Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: strong effects of simple plans. American psychologist, 54(7), 493.

[ii] Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Implementation intentions and goal achievement: A meta‐analysis of effects and processes. Advances in experimental social psychology, 38, 69-119.

[iii] Effect size d = .65, 95% confidence interval [.6, .7].

[iv] Gollwitzer, P. M., Wieber, F., Myers, A. L., & McCrea, S. M. (2010). How to maximize implementation intention effects. Then a miracle occurs: Focusing on behavior in social psychological theory and research, 137-161.

[v] Wieber, Odenthal & Gollwitzer (2009; unpublished study, discussed in [iv]) tested the effect of general and specific TAPs on subjects driving a simulated car. All subjects were given the goal of finishing the course as quickly as possible, while also damaging their car as little as possible. Subjects in the "general" group were additionally given the TAP, "If I enter a dangerous situation, then I will immediately adapt my speed". Subjects in the "specific" group were given the TAP, "If I see a black and white curve road sign, then I will immediately adapt my speed". Subjects with the specific TAP managed to damage their cars less than the subjects with the general TAP, without being any slower for it.

[vi] Wieber, Gollwitzer, et al. (2009; unpublished study, discussed in [iv]) tested whether TAPs could be made even more effective by turning them into an "if-then-because" form: "when I see stairs, I'll use them instead of taking the elevator, because I want to become more fit". The results showed that the "because" reasons increased the subjects' motivation to achieve their goals, but nevertheless made TAPs less effective.

The researchers speculated that the "because" might have changed the mindset of the subjects. While an "if-then" rule causes people to automatically do something, "if-then-because" leads people to reflect upon their motivates and takes them from an implementative mindset to a deliberative one. Follow-up studies testing the effect of implementative vs. deliberative mindsets on TAPs seemed to support this interpretation. This suggests that TAPs are likely to work better if they can be carried out as consistently and as with little thought as possible.

[vii] Powers, T. A., Koestner, R., & Topciu, R. A. (2005). Implementation intentions, perfectionism, and goal progress: Perhaps the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(7), 902-912.

[Link] Finding slices of joy

4 Kaj_Sotala 28 November 2016 10:10AM

[Link] How Feasible Is the Rapid Development of Artificial Superintelligence?

7 Kaj_Sotala 24 October 2016 08:43AM

[Link] Software for moral enhancement (kajsotala.fi)

6 Kaj_Sotala 30 September 2016 12:12PM

[Link] An appreciation of the Less Wrong Sequences (kajsotala.fi)

5 Kaj_Sotala 30 September 2016 12:11PM

View more: Next