Tag Archives: Experimentation

Personal experimentation: summary

I asked how it could be that experimenting in my own life could be worthwhile, given that if such things were worthwhile other people should have already figured them all out. My suggested explanations:

  1. I am strange: nerdy, recent, young
  2. Innovation: there are constantly new things to experiment with
  3. Findings are not spread: or so much noise is also spread that the information is lost
  4. Context-specificity: your findings don’t apply to me, because people are unique or situations are complicated
  5. I am wrong: it’s easy to underestimate nebulous costs, to overstate fleeting or illusory benefits, to want to be the kind of person who tries new things, or to be too hopeful that life can improve fast

It seems to me that 3 is the biggest: results are collected so badly as to be often worthless and are aggregated poorly. It’s not clear to what extent this is because of 4: other people’s findings are just not so useful. Personal experimentation seems worth it even without good aggregation, but probably only if you avoid the same errors of measurement yourself. It could be worth it even with purely placebo gains, if you enjoy the placebo gains enough. But in this scenario, the gains are much smaller than you imagine, so you are probably over-investing a lot. There also seems to me a real risk that everything is so context specific that what you learn will be worthless as soon as you change many other things (4).

Explanations that involve others finding experimentation a lot less worthwhile (e.g. 1) seem unlikely to help much because it looks like others often find experimentation worthwhile. The problem seems to be somewhere between others making such efforts, and me having useful information as a result. Innovation (2) seems a bad explanation because it doesn’t explain the lack of information about age-old lifestyle questions. It seems likely that I have overestimated gains relative to losses in the past (5), but gains still seem larger than losses (it’s hard to disentangle causes, but my lifestyle has obviously improved substantially over the last  year or more, some of which seems directly attributable to purposeful experimentation and the rest of which seems at least not terribly damaged by it).

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Personal experimentation: context specific?

A last way that personal experimentation could be worth it for me, yet not already completely covered by others, is that most of the facts one is likely to learn are quite context-specific. That way, everyone in history might have figured out for themselves what the best time and sugar-content for lunch is, and it would be worthless to me.

This also seems quite plausible. It could either be that people are so varied that there is just no good answer to whether it is better for productivity to eat snacks throughout the day or a few big meals for instance. Or it could be that which value of one parameter is best depends on all the other ones, so if you tend to eat more sugar than me and sleep less and laugh more, exercise might make you less sleepy than I.

The latter possibility bodes poorly for those who would experiment a lot. After you have determined the best quantity and timing of exercise, you might go on to try to optimize your sleep or sugar intake and make the original finding worthless.

This explanation would also seem to explain the observations in the last post: that many people do seem quite keen advise on the details of one’s life, but that the content of such recommendations seem a bit all over the place. Perhaps each person’s discoveries really do work well for them, but just look like a sea of noise to all the other people.

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Personal experimentation: not shared?

I’ve been talking about how personal experimentation could be worth it for people like me, without relevant info being depleted long ago.

My next potential explanation is that people do experiment, but results aren’t aggregated and spread, so everyone has to reinvent everything.

This is exactly what you would expect in a simple model where people benefit from information, but bear a net cost from spreading it. Without incentives to contribute one’s own findings to others, there is no reason information should spread. But on closer inspection this is roughly the opposite of what the world looks like. There is a lot of advice about how to run the details of a life. Sometimes it is offered for money, but often so enthusiastically and freely as to make the most curious life-optimizer want to run away. The problem seems to be more that there is so much advice, advising pretty much the full range of behavior. There are apparently incentives for spreading such ‘information’, but not incentives to actually find any information to begin with.

This is doubly puzzling. It’s not surprising if all the possible self-help books exist. But for folks volunteering their own time to tell me about whatever relaxation technique or diet, spreading random misinformation seems low value. And again we have the question of why it wasn’t worth it, for their own benefit, to get some actual information to begin with.

A plausible explanation to me for both of these things is that just about any random innocuous change makes life seem better, and people are genuinely trying to be helpful by telling others about such ‘discoveries’. So the problem then would be widespread use of informal data collection, which is much more unreliable than people think. In which case, my own experimentation is just as likely to fail if I rely on such data collection. Experimentation in general would not be as useful as suspected – continually experimenting would make you feel like things were good, but none of your efforts would have long term payoffs.

This leaves the questions of whether and why people would be misinformed about their abilities to casually collect information about the effects of interventions on their lives. What say you?

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Personal experiments: fueled by innovation?

Another way personal experimentation might be worth it for me, yet not used up by those before me: there is so much innovation that there are constantly new things to test, even if people experiment a lot. Beeminder and Workflowy are new. The abilities to prompt yourself to do things with a mobile phone or eat Japanese food or use your computer in a vast number of ways are relatively new.

I doubt this explains much. The question applies to many things that have been around and not that different for a long time, e.g. wheat, motivation, reading, romantic arrangements. And even if Beeminder is new, many of the basic ideas must be old (e.g. ‘don’t break the chain‘). As a society we don’t seem to have a much better idea of the effects of wheat on a person than we do of Beeminder.

Another way innovation could explain the puzzle is if all kinds of innovations change the value of all kinds of ancient things e.g. prevalence of internet use changes the effects of going to bed early or sitting in a certain way or doing something with your hair or knowing a lot of stories. If this is the case, experimentation is worth less than it seems, as the results will soon be out of date. So this goes under the heading ‘I’m wrong: experimentation isn’t worth it’, which would explain the puzzle, except the bit where everyone else perceives this and knows not to bother, and I don’t. I will get back to explanations of this form later.

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Personal experiments: for the unusual?

I asked in what kind of world personal experimentation could seem worth it for me yet not already exhausted. Today I’ll look at one potential explanation, popular with commenters last time: I and my friends are weird in some way that causes to benefit more than usual from experimentation. Several of the suggestions below were seconded by commenters.

Robin makes a plausible suggestion in this realm: in general people do quite well by copying the right other people’s behavior in some kind of clever, intuitive, context specific way. Nerds are terrible at this though (either because they fail to copy at the outset, or because they can’t do the social interpretation necessary to correctly generalize). So they have the choice to copy other people badly, or try to reinvent a lot of things from scratch. So experimentation is much more useful for nerds. Coupled with the premise that I’m a nerd, this explains the observations and has some intuitive appeal.

If something like this is true, there seem to me to be traits beyond lack of copying skill that incline nerds toward working such things out from scratch. In general if you are already unusual on many axes, copying others on a particular one is less good, so you will have to figure things out for yourself more. Once you have determined to sleep in the daytime and practice radical honesty, the usual answers about how to improve your mood or attract a partner may not apply as well. Nerds are also more likely to have the quantitative skills to do experiments well. And nerds seem more unsettled by adherence to traditions handed to them without explanation or instructions.

These things might explain enthusiasm for explicit experimentation and innovation, but the reasons experimentation seems worth it didn’t make reference to enthusiasm. Non-nerds may copy one another fine, but there seem to be better things to do than copying. It could also be that experimentation is not worthwhile, and nerds just tend to over-rate it. But fits nicely into a category to be explored later: ‘I’m wrong’.

Another relevant way I and my friends might be weird is that we live so late in history, and in such a rich world. Perhaps it has only recently become cheap enough to track such experimentation usefully. This seems important for the more elaborate data-tracking kinds of experiments. But it seems like you can do a lot with a pen and paper, and maybe a calculator and a coin. Also, as Robin points out, there are more people to copy now, so the ‘experiment little’ path is also easier. Arguably, I say.

Another way I am strange is in being relatively young. Youth clearly makes experimentation more valuable. However I feel like it is valuable enough, and that the gains are soon enough, that I would want to do it if I were similar to myself apart from having thirty years less to live. It could be that older people are unlike me however, in that they have learned a lot more by experimentation when they were young. Is this so? It’s not clear to me.

None of these explanations seem that great. Are there other ways I’m weirdly good at benefitting from experimentation?

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Why personal experimentation?

I experiment with many things, as do those around me. Some of this is randomization and explicit records, more is just trying different things, muttering ‘VOI‘ and repeating what felt good. I refer here to everything between a cautious banana-mustard-ham sandwich and polyamory.

Robin has suggested that I over-invest in such exploration. That most new things should be bad, and so most experimentation a private loss for public gain. What’s more, there shouldn’t be lots of low hanging fruit in trying things out. Most of the things humans frequently want to do (eat, sleep, change moods, organize time, learn, interact with others) should have been well figured out in ancient times. And anything that does still need checking out should be divided between many people.

Nonetheless, it looks to me like experimentation is worth it. Lots of the things we do seem barely satisfactory, there seem likely to be better alternatives, it seems hard to learn what has been tried for what ends, or what is good from listening to others or reading, and I and my friends seem to actually find good things by looking. e.g. Beeminderexplicit charity evaluation, unusual degrees of honesty, workflowy and explicit organization seem to often add value over the defaults, not to mention many tiny things, like banana-mustard-ham sandwiches.

If it is true that a lot of experimentation is worth it, we have a slight puzzle: if there is valuable information I might glean by experimentation, why hasn’t it been worth it for others in the past to collect it and put it where I can see it?

I will try to answer this over the next few posts. Before that, what do you think?

 

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