Tools Unmask Desires

How much do we really know about why we do what we do?  We are usually quite ready to explain the reasons for our actions in some detail, but on closer examination such explanations often seem to be rationalizations.  So how can we tell which of our explanations to believe?  If we are not willing to take people at their words, how can we learn what really drives their actions?

Automation offers an important clue. When people are willing to consistently delegate their choices to an automatic process that makes choices on the basis of certain explicit criteria, we can have more confidence that those criteria are really central to their preferences.

For example, many folks are willing to type an unknown address into an automated route-planning tool, and then actually follow the directions it provides.  If they were only deferential to a few tools, we might suspect they show allegiance to folks associated with such tools.  But in fact people seem willing to follow the routes of a great many tools.  Since these tools claim to seek the quickest path, and also seem to actually find quick paths, we have good clear evidence that many people in such situations actually do want quick paths, all else equal.  This offers a small but concrete advance toward figuring out what people actually want.

On the other hand, when people seem unwilling to use simple available tools that would directly give them what they say they want, we can conclude they aren’t entirely honest about what they want.  For example, consider someone who says they really want to lose weight, and yet are not willing to use a tool like, where they would arrange to suffer a self-chosen financial penalty for failing to lose weight.  While we might posit that they are unwilling to do something new or weird, the more comfortable they are with other new/weird things, and the less evidence that anyone would criticize them for this, the more confidently we can conclude they just don’t want to lose weight that much.

What other similar evidence can we find, via what other ways we might automate our decisions?

Added 9a: Time:

According to a 2008 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, dieters who had a financial incentive to lose weight were nearly five times as likely to meet their goal when compared with dieters who had no potential for a financial reward.

BBC:  In the US the [Stickk] scheme is said to be achieving success rates of up to 85%.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as:
Trackback URL:
  • Microbiologist

    > where they would arrange to suffer a self-chosen financial penalty for failing to lose weight

    Could it be as simple as them not wanting to suffer a painful financial penalty? You are looking on the bright side with your choice of adjective, “self-chosen.” But clearly, the suspended penalty won’t be effective unless it is of a painful magnitude (if actualized). And it won’t be highly effective unless it is highly painful. Therefore I think it is apt to call it a “painful financial penalty.”

  • JSE

    I don’t think I can follow you to your conclusion here. The most likely result of following the directions of Google Maps is that you arrive promptly at your destination. The most likely result of signing up for stickk is that you fail to lose weight and pay a financial penalty.

    • Erisiantaoist

      > In the US the [Stickk] scheme is said to be achieving success rates of up to 85%.

      That means you only have a 3/20 probability of a financial penalty; contrasted with a 17/20 probability of actually losing weight; unlike other programs which charge you equally whether you succeed or fail.

  • Timothy Brownawell

    Yet people are willing to try various crazy diets and calorie-counting programs and such to lose weight. So perhaps what’s really going on is that people like tools that help them do what they want, rather than tools that punish them for not succeeding (presumably because they don’t know how to do what they want).

  • Night people don’t use their alarm clocks to wake up far earlier than they’d like to, in order to be more on-time or not be in such a rush. We conclude that being late doesn’t bother them as much as they say, or that being on time yet in a rush isn’t the big deal they make it out to be (as long as that means they get to enjoy sleeping in).

    Mp3 consumers blab about how important it is to customize the listening experience — you can listen to whatever set of songs and in whatever sequence you choose! Yet most iPod owners put some list of songs on random shuffle or listen to songs on an album in the intended order. They’ve automated the decision of what songs will be heard and in what order, so the “fine tailoring” argument for using mp3s is bogus.

    The whole “information wants to be free” / do it yourself / open sandbox claim about why the internet is so great also fails. Most people making such a claim use some kind of automatic aggregator — a news or blog feed, browsing the NYT’s homepage (with its preselected list of featured articles, rather than examine the headlines of all sections in their entirety), etc. Blogs themselves are aggregators. People want less freedom to choose, not more, else chaos results.

    • Jess RIedel

      Are you arguing that because people don’t want to micromanage every single aspect of their experience they don’t really want choice in those experiences?

    • Timothy Brownawell

      We conclude that being late doesn’t bother them as much as they say, or that being on time yet in a rush isn’t the big deal they make it out to be (as long as that means they get to enjoy sleeping in).

      Or that while those are important, getting sufficient sleep is more important. So perhaps this has really uncovered stronger preferences that are unspoken (because they’re taken for granted?).

      They’ve automated the decision of what songs will be heard and in what order, so the “fine tailoring” argument for using mp3s is bogus.

      Partly. But part of “what songs will be heard” is what songs they put on the player in the first place. So there are degrees of customization, and a low degree is sufficient for most people most of the time.

      The whole “information wants to be free” / do it yourself / open sandbox claim about why the internet is so great also fails. Most people making such a claim use some kind of automatic aggregator

      I currently have 31 sites in my RSS reader. The specific set of sites changes slowly as I remove sites that duplicate eachother too often or post too much uninteresting stuff, and add new sites I’ve discovered. Just because I use some of the standard aggregators, doesn’t stop me from also maintaining my own list of interesting sources and participating in discussions.

      Blogs themselves are aggregators.

      Such as the one we’re commenting on now, I suppose? Most of what I follow tend to be original-content blogs, people presenting interesting ideas or first-hand facts rather than just reposting things.

    • nazgulnarsil

      in cases where the work involved would be disproportionate to the utility derived people use proxies for their values. so people will for example read NYT or a blog that they know they already agree to a certain extent with.

      If costs go up people will put up with less accurate proxies, if costs go down they will look for more accurate proxies. The internet has drastically lowered the cost of finding a proxy that more accurately resembles your values.

      I expect that if it were available, people would love to have an AI that models their values and does their filtering for them.

  • agnostic, that’s just the sort of thing I’m looking for, though of course the more detail the stronger the argument can be.

    • Edward

      Perhaps you should engage more with the many people who oppose your argument, rather than attach to the rare arguments that support your position.

  • JSE

    Agnostic’s examples are strange indeed. As far as I know, night people, like everybody else, do use alarm clocks when they have a morning appointment. People (like me) who listen to music mostly via .mp3 usually, I think, point to the convenience of not having to carry heaps of CDs around in order to have lots of listening options; and indeed, devices that allow people to carry thousands of .mp3s in their pocket are widely used. And people who like the access to many sources of information on the Internet do have blog feeds, but they get to (and do) choose what blogs go INTO their blog feed.

    By the way, Robin, I think the general thrust of this post is solid! I’m just still looking for an example I find compelling.

    Certainly people believe themselves to be strongly motivated by financial incentives; is there an automated tool, the use of which would result in people having more money than they do, and which people mostly don’t use? If so, maybe it would support the claim that people don’t want to gain money (or mind losing money) as much as they say they do.

  • Newerspeak

    People don’t want to lose weight? If not, why does the average movie star look like an Olympic athlete, and why do so many movies push the boundaries of credibility to make that known?

    More likely, people want to lose weight badly, and avoid Stickk because they believe (perhaps rationally) that they’ll probably fail. In this case the rationalizations we observe are run-of-the-mill misdirection to make our associates we could do this simple-seeming thing if we ever got around to it.

    It’s also possible that Stickk just hasn’t got its formula right yet. People really do want to get where they are going, but they still might avoid path-finding websites if they looked untrustworthy, gave sucky directions, or just took too long to return an answer. And people can’t even be said to be avoiding websites they’ve never heard of.

  • Doug S.

    “Quitters, Inc.” is a short story by Stephen King, about an organization that helps people quit smoking, and claims a 98% success rate. However, given their methods, could you fault someone for not signing up with them for help with quitting smoking?

  • Doug S.

    Also, there’s a limit to what motivation can accomplish. Just think of all those Olympic athletes that don’t win any medals!

  • For example, consider someone who says they really want to lose weight, and yet are not willing to use a tool like

    Route planners work (except when they don’t – I lost a good afternoon because of fucked up TFL planner not so long ago – but this was an exceptional case, normally they just work).

    This kind of reliability is very rare. In particular, dieting tends to fail hard, or at least has very underwhelming results compared to amount of effort put into it. is very much unproven, and I would be willing to bet some intrade money that when someone seriously analyzes it, it will be underwhelming.

    Even if you’re serious about weight loss, why would you try such an unproven tool, and pay when it fails? (paying only when it works would be far more sensible)

  • Would you consider people treated like tools such as slaves to be similarly revealing? Or are romanticists of the “peculiar institution” like Fitzhugh right that the relationship was not that tool-like?

    Off-topic, since open thread was a while ago. In Russ Roberts’ EconTalk podcast with Arthur de Vany it is mentioned (around the 16:42 mark) that the de jure strike-zone has shifted from the shoulder to the arm-pits, but the de facto strikezone is from the waist to nipples. Russ mentions that he thinks this is because a smaller strike-zone is advantageous to offense, and fans like offense so refs who shrink that zone are liked. My question is, why was the de jure zone only shrunk part of the way toward the de facto one?

    • nazgulnarsil

      people prefer to have the illusion that offense and defense are balanced b/c they don’t understand game design and that is the simplest form of balance they can intuitively understand.

  • I use leechblock a firefox add on that blocks certain sites during work hours. You can bypass it when you absolutely need to. But it does reduce the amount of time wasted on certain sites. What other similar tools do people use?
    Anti virus programs seem similar. People open documents they know to be dubious as they know they have AV that should stop the malware. This is a case of overly trusting the algorithmic safety decisions. In a similar way people put to much faith in safety devices they regularly see

    How is the tool of a safety belt that causes someone to drive more dangerously unmask their desires?

  • Buck Farmer

    You’ve posted about hypocrisy a lot recently and in the past, but you’ve focused mostly on unmasking examples of hypocrisy.

    First, this seems to me a bit old hat. Isn’t the whole reason economics looks at revealed preferences instead of stated preferences because people lie to other and themselves?

    Second, a more interesting and unexplored question is “What are the welfare implications of hypocrisy?”

    For this I see two main lines of inquiry: first, what are the descriptive effects of individual agent hypocrisy when aggregated over many interacting agents, and second, given hypocrisy what is the appropriate way of specifying a welfare function.

    In short, let’s stop the jeremiads and focus on doing economics.

  • Philo

    People who say they want to lose weight are almost always sincere; the questions, though, are *how strongly* do they want this at any given time, and *how consistent* is the strength of their desire over time? Surely they also want to enjoy eating as much as they like of foods they like, so they always face a trade-off. Someone may never act so as to lose weight even though he sincerely desires this, because he *more strongly* desires eating. And the *strengths* of these opposing desires may fluctuate over time. At time t the person really does more strongly desire weight-loss, but soon, at time t’, the desire to eat becomes the stronger. Perhaps your point is that when someone says he “wants to lose weight” he is suggesting that he *consistently* wants this *more* than he wants the pleasures of eating unrestrainedly, and *this* suggestion is likely to be false. That seems correct. Indeed, if he consistently had a stronger desire for weight-loss, he would lose weight without needing

  • Robin, your example of the route-planning tool is an example of a rule-of-thumb”. We use rules-of-thumb in just about every decision we make. Signing up for is not an example of a rule-of-thumb. In this case, you are simply changing the punishment for failure (or alternatively, the incentive for success). It does not give you a roadmap for how to lose weight.

    Using rules-of-thumb effectively “automates” our decision-making. Perhaps, you just distrust how we select the rules we use. Shouldn’t we let people be free to choose those rules that work for them, rather than trying to artificially “automate” them?

  • Why don’t people use Stickk to lose weight? Robin offers two possible answers. One, people don’t want to lose weight that badly. Two, people want to lose weight but have a stronger preference not to do something new and socially unusual. I would like to point out that there are other possibilities, closer to Robin’s second than his first suggestion. For example, people want to lose weight, but they also want to gain a sense of freedom and control which is undermined by entering into a contract with strict monitoring.

    To a greater or lesser extent this may be implicit when people say, “I want to lose weight.”

  • In the US the [Stickk] scheme is said to be achieving success rates of up to 85%.

    This is unscientific poll of highly self-selected group and means essentially nothing. Every diet fad will give similar numbers. I’ll wait for a real randomized trial.

  • Drewfus

    What about the affect of negative financial incentives, like losing medical insurance when you exceed a BMI limit?

  • I imagine the “dieting is not about losing weight” post.

  • Pingback: Tweets that mention Interesting point about tools - Robin Hanson "Tools Unmask Desires" --

  • exapted

    I want to get into slightly better shape by running twice per week and doing squats and a few other exercises once per week – let’s say my desire for that, as a weighted combination of peak intensity of desire and the integral of the intensity of my desire-moments over time, is 7. I also want to read blogs for an extra three hours per week – my desire for that, by the same metric, is 3. But I am somewhat undisciplined, especially so when it comes to fitness. So as I finish working and am deciding whether to go for a run or read blogs, the voice in my head that says “go for a run” lacks bargaining power. The voice that says “read blogs” wins because it would provide a reward now, while running would provide a reward later. I don’t discount future benefits according to anything like an exponential curve, because I don’t have a habit that would provide a rationale for aggregating the future reward of running consistently over many weeks, which, if I had it, might overcome the short-term desire to read blogs and allow me to do what I want even more than reading blogs for an extra three hours, which is to exercise.

    So I think the diet example is proof that people often don’t have very developed discipline, or they have too many distractions that confound their attempts at self-discipline and they know it. Why try if you know you’ll fail?

  • Stickks 85% success rate, is that based on self-reported success from participants? Or is it audited in some way?

    Because you gotta figure there’s going to be a strong bias if self-reported.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Err, umm, I think agnostic was joking.

    • I’ve read a decent amount of the stuff at his own blog and his comments above don’t seem out of the usual.