Tag Archives: Psychology

On the goodness of Beeminder

Beeminder.com improves my life a lot. This is surprising: few things improve my life much, and when they do it’s usually because I’m imagining it. Or because they are things that everyone has known about for ages and I am slow on the uptake (e.g. not moving house three times a year, making a habit of eating breakfast, making habits at all). But Beeminder is new, and it definitely helps.

One measurable instrumental benefit of Beeminder is that I have exercised for half an hour or an hour per day on average since last October. Previously I exercised if I needed to get somewhere or if the fact that exercise is good for people crossed my mind particularly forcibly, or if some even less common events occurred. So this is big. It seems to help a lot for other things too, such as working, but the evidence there is weaker since I used to work pretty often anyway. I’m sorry that  I didn’t keep better track.

Unlike many other improvements to my life, I have some guesses about why this is so useful. But first let me tell you the basic concept of Beeminder.

Take a thing you can measure, such as how many pages you have written. Suppose you measure this every day, and enter the data as points in a graph. Suppose also that the graph contains a ‘road’ stretching up ahead of your data, to days that have not yet happened. Then you could play a game of keeping your new data points above the road. A single day below the road and you lose. It turns out this can be a pretty compelling game. This is basically Beeminder.

There are more details. You can change the steepness of the road, but only for a week in the future. So you can fine-tune the challengingness of a goal, but can’t change it out of laziness unless you are particularly forward thinking about your laziness (in which case you probably won’t sign up for this).

There is a lot of leeway in what indicators you measure, and some I tried didn’t help much. The main things I measure lately are:

  • number of 20 minute blocks of time spent working. They have to be continuous, though a tiny bit of interruption is allowed if someone else causes it
  • time spent exercising weighted by the type of exercise e.g. running = 2x dancing = 2 x walking
  • points accrued for doing tasks on my to-do list. When I think of anything I want to do I put it on the list, whether it’s watching a certain movie or figuring out how to make the to do list system better. Some things stay there permanently, e.g. laundry. I assign each task a number of points, which goes up every Sunday if it’s still on the list. I have to get 15 points per day or I lose.

At first glance, it looks like Beeminder is basically a commitment contract: that it gets its force from promising to take your money if you lose. In my experience this seems very minor. I often forget how much money is riding on goals, and seem to keep the ones with no money on about as well as the others. So at least for me the threat of losing money isn’t what’s going on.

What is going on? I think Beeminder – especially the way I use it – actually does a nice job of combining a bunch of good principles of motivation. Here are some I hypothesize:

Concrete steps

In order to use Beeminder for a goal, you need to be clear on how you will quantify progress toward it. This means being explicit about the parts it is made of. You can’t just intend to read more, you have to intend to read one philosophy paper every day. You can’t just intend to do your taxes, you have to intend to finish one of five forms every week. You can’t just intend to ponder whether you’re doing the right thing with your life, you have to intend to spend twenty minutes per week thinking up alternatives. Making a goal concrete enough to quantify it destroys ugh fields and makes it easier to start. ‘What get’s measured gets done’ – just making a concrete metric salient makes it easier to work toward than a similar vague goal.

Small steps

To Beemind a goal, you need to divide it into many small parts, so you can track progress. ‘Finish making my presentation’ might be explicit enough to measure, but the measure will be zero for a long time, then one. Breaking goals up into small steps has nice side effects. It removes ugh fields, induces near mode, makes success likely at any particular step. In Luke Muehlhauser’s terminology, it increases ‘expectancy’ and allows ‘success spirals’*. Trading long term goals for short term ones also avoids the kind of delay that might make it easy to succumb to procrastination.

Don’t break the chain 

Otherwise known as the Seinfeld hack. This might be the main thing that motivates me to keep my Beeminder goals, in the place of the money. Imagine you are skipping rope. You have made it to 70 skips. It was kind of hard, but you’re not so exhausted that you have to stop. You probably feel more compelled to keep going and make it to 80 than you did when you started. In general, once you have successfully done something a string of times, doing it again seems more desirable. Perhaps this is particular to OCD kinds of people, but a Google search suggests many find it useful.

Beeminder is a nicely flexible implementation of this, because the chain is a bit removed from what you are doing. You only have to maintain an average, so you can work extra one day to slack off the next. This doesn’t seem to undermine the motivational effect.

Hard lines in middle grounds

Firm commitments are naturally made to extremes. This is partly due to principled moral stances, which tend to be both extreme and firm. But that’s not all that’s going on. It’s hard to manage a principle of eating 40% less meat. If people want to eat less meat, they either eat none at all, or however much they feel like pushed down in a vague fashion with some bad feelings. The middle of the meat eating spectrum is too slippery for a hard line – it’s hard to tell how much you eat and annoying to track it. ‘None’ is salient and verifiable. In other realms intermediate lines are required: your diet can’t cut eating to zero. So often diets are more vague; which makes them harder to keep.

Similarly, it’s easy to commit to doing something every day, or every Sunday, or every month. It’s harder to commit to do a thing 2.7 times per week on average, because it’s awkward to track or remember this ‘habit’.

Compromised positions are often more desirable than extremes, and desired frequencies are unlikely to match memorable periods. So it’s a pity that vague commitments are harder to keep than firm ones. Often people don’t make commitments at all, because the readily available firm ones are too extreme. This is a big loss.

Beeminder helps with making firm commitments to intermediate positions. Since you only ever need to notice if the slope of your data isn’t steep enough, any rate is as easy to use as a goal. You can commit to eating 40% less meat, you just have to estimate once what 40% is, then record any meat you eat. I’ve used Beeminder to journal on average five nights per week. This is better than every night or no night, but would otherwise be annoying to track.

A small threat to overcome tiny temptations

While working, there are various moments when it would be easier to stop than to continue, particularly if you mostly feel the costs and benefits available in the next second or so, and if you assume that you could start again shortly (related). It is in these moments that I tend to stop and get a drink, or look out of the window, or open my browser or whatnot.

Counting short blocks of continuous time working pretty much solves this problem for me. The rule is that if you stop at all the whole block doesn’t count. So at any given moment there might be a tiny short term benefit to stopping for a second, but there is a huge cost to it. In my case this seems to remove stopping as an option, in the same way that a hundred dollar price on a menu item removes it as an option without apparent expense of willpower.

I originally thought it would be good to measure the amount of work I got done, rather than time spent doing it. This is because I want to get work done, not waste time on it. But given that I am working, I strongly prefer to do good work, fast. So there’s not much need for an added incentive there. I just need an incentive to begin, and one to not stop when a particular moment makes stopping look tasty. In Luke’s terminology, this kills impulsiveness.

Less stress

The long term threat of failing to write an essay is converted into a short term pleasure of winning each night at Beeminder. I’m not sure why this seems like a pleasure, rather than a threat of losing, but it does to me. Probably because losing at Beeminder isn’t that unpleasant or shameful. And how could getting points or climbing a scale not seem like winning? (This is about value in Luke’s terms).

More accuracy

It’s harder to maintain planning fallacy, overconfidence, or expectation of perfection in the future, in light of detailed quantitative data, and a definite trend line.

Just the difference between ‘I should do that’, and ‘I should do that, so how much time will it take?… About two hours, so I guess it should get 20 points.. that probably won’t be enough to compel me to do it soon, but that’s ok, it’s not urgent’ seems to change the mindset to one more sensitive to reality.

***

In sum, I think Beeminder partly works well because it causes you to think of your goals in small, concrete parts which can easily be achieved. It also makes achieving the parts more satisfying, and strings them into an addictive chain of just the right challengingness. Finally it lends itself to experimentation with a wide range of measures of success, such as measuring time blocks or ‘points’, at arbitrary rates. The value from innovations there is probably substantial. So, averse as I am to giving lifestyle advice, if you’re curious about the psychology of motivation in humans, or if you want to improve your life a lot, you should probably take a look at Beeminder.

*you can also increase expectancy by measuring something like time rather than progress.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: , ,

Grace-Hanson Podcast

Robin and I have a new podcast on the subject of play (mp3wav, m4a). Older ones are here.

Don’t be thrown by a bit of silence at the start of the m4a one. We also don’t have the time right now to figure out how to put it in better formats. Sorry about that. If anyone else does, and posts such files, I’ll link to them.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: , , ,

Good friends can make bad business partners

A new NBER working paper suggests that similar venture capitalists (VCs) are worse at making or managing shared investments:

This paper explores two broad questions on collaboration between individuals. First, we investigate what personal characteristics affect people’s desire to work together. Second, given the influence of these personal characteristics, we analyze whether this attraction enhances or detracts from performance. Addressing these problems in the venture capital syndication setting, we show that venture capitalists exhibit strong detrimental homophily in their co-investment decisions. We find that individual venture capitalists choose to collaborate with other venture capitalists for both ability-based characteristics (e.g., whether both individuals in a dyad obtained a degree from a top university) and affinity-based characteristics (e.g., whether individuals in a pair share the same ethnic background, attended the same school, or worked for the same employer previously). Moreover, frequent collaborators in syndication are those venture capitalists who display a high level of mutual affinity. We find that while collaborating for ability-based characteristics enhances investment performance, collaborating for affinity-based characteristics dramatically reduces the probability of investment success. A variety of tests show that the cost of affinity is not driven by selection into inferior deals; the effect is most likely attributable to poor decision-making by high-affinity syndicates post investment. Taken together, our results suggest that non-ability-based “birds-of-a-feather-flock-together” effects in collaboration can be costly.

Given that homophily rather than heterophily remains the norm, it seems these investors are not learning this lesson, or value working and affiliating with similar peers over maximising profits. All very well for them. But if you have a project that you truly want to succeed, you may be better off doing it with a talented stranger rather than the college mates you clicked with on day one. And if you are letting others invest on your behalf, you should beware of handing your money over to a homogeneous friendship group.

I wonder if this kind of research influences the institutional investors who often fund VCs? If not, it would suggest that even this highly competitive investment market is falling short of its potential to fund and grow promising new companies.

Some research suggests that corporations with more female board members perform better, though the direction of causality is disputed. I doubt females are innately more talented board members, so the causation, if real, could be the result of female ‘outsiders’ generating better management than a clique of natural friends. Shareholders don’t share the benefits of board members enjoying each other’s company, so if they had effective control of  the companies they owned you might expect then to appoint a diverse ‘team of rivals’ to the board to closely scrutinise one another’s ideas.  My impression is that precisely the opposite is the norm.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: , , ,

Does life flow towards flow?

Robin recently described how human brain ‘uploads’, even if forced to work hard to make ends meet, might nonetheless be happy and satisfied with their lives. Some humans naturally love their work, and if they are the ones who get copied, the happiness of emulations could be very high. Of course in Robin’s Malthusian upload scenario, evolutionary pressures towards high productivity are very strong, and so the mere fact that some people really enjoy work doesn’t mean that they will be the ones who get copied billions of times. The workaholics will only inherit the Earth if they are the best employees money can buy.

The broader question of whether creatures that are good at surviving, producing and then reproducing tend towards joy or misery is a crucial one. It helps answer whether it is altruistic to maintain populations of wild animals into the future, or an act of mercy to shrink their habitats. Even more importantly, it is the key to whether it is extremely kind or extremely cruel for humans to engage in panspermia and spread Malthusian life across the universe as soon as possible.

There is an abundance of evidence all around us in the welfare of humans and other animals that have to strive to survive in the environments they are adapted to, but no consensus on what that evidence shows. It is hard enough to tell whether another human has a quality of life better than no life at all, let alone determine the same for say, an octopus.

One of the few pieces of evidence I find compelling comes from Mihály Csíkszentmihályi research into the experience he calls ‘flow‘. His work suggests that humans are most productive, and also most satisfied, when they are totally absorbed in a clear but challenging task which they are capable of completing. The conditions suggested as being necessary to achieve ‘flow’ are

  1. “One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals. This adds direction and structure to the task.
  2. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and his or her ownperceived skills. One must have confidence that he or she is capable to do the task at hand.
  3. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows him or her to adjust his or her performance to maintain the flow state.”

Most work doesn’t meet these criteria and so ‘flow’ is not all that common, but it is amongst the best states of mind a human can hope for.

Some people are much more inclined to enter flow than others and if Csíkszentmihályi’s book is to be believed, they are ideal employees – highly talented, motivated and suited to their tasks. If this is the case, people predisposed to experience flow would be the most popular minds to copy as emulations and in the immediate term the flow-inspired workaholics would indeed come to dominate the Earth.

Of course, it could turn out that in the long run, once enough time has passed for evolution to shed humanity’s baggage, the creatures that most effectively do the forms of work that exist in the future will find life unpleasant. But our evolved capacity for flow in tasks that we are well suited for gives us a reason to hope that will not be the case. If it turns out that flow is a common experience for traditional hunter-gatherers then that would make me even more optimistic. And more optimistic again if we can find evidence for a similar experience in other species.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: , ,

The Smart Are MORE Biased To Think They Are LESS Biased

I seem to know a lot of smart contrarians who think that standard human biases justify their contrarian position. They argue:

Yes, my view on this subject is in contrast to a consensus among academic and other credentialed experts on this subject. But the fact is that human thoughts are subject to many standard biases, and those biases have misled most others to this mistaken consensus position. For example biases A,B, and C would tend to make people think what they do on this subject, even if that view were not true. I, in contrast, have avoided these biases, both because I know about them (see, I can name them), and because I am so much smarter than these other folks. (Have you seen my test scores?) And this is why I can justifiably disagree with an expert consensus on this subject.

Problem is, not only are smart folks not less biased for many biases, if anything smart folks more easily succumb to the bias of thinking that they are less biased than others:

The so-called bias blind spot arises when people report that thinking biases are more prevalent in others than in themselves. … We found that none of these bias blind spots were attenuated by measures of cognitive sophistication such as cognitive ability or thinking dispositions related to bias. If anything, a larger bias blind spot was associated with higher cognitive ability. Additional analyses indicated that being free of the bias blind spot does not help a person avoid the actual classic cognitive biases. …

Most cognitive biases in the heuristics and biases literature are negatively correlated with cognitive sophistication, whether the latter is indexed by development, by cognitive ability, or by thinking dispositions. This was not true for any of the bias blind spots studied here. As opposed to the social emphasis in past work on the bias blind spot, we examined bias blind spots connected to some of the most well-known effects from the heuristics and biases literature: outcome bias, base-rate neglect, framing bias, conjunction fallacy, anchoring bias, and myside bias. We found that none of these bias blind spot effects displayed a negative correlation with measures of cognitive ability (SAT total, CRT) or with measures of thinking dispositions (need for cognition, actively open-minded thinking). If anything, the correlations went in the other direction.

We explored the obvious explanation for the indications of a positive correlation between cognitive ability and the magnitude of the bias blind spot in our data. That explanation is the not unreasonable one that more cognitively sophisticated people might indeed show lower cognitive biases—so that it would be correct for them to view themselves as less biased than their peers. However, … we found very little evidence that these classic biases were attenuated by cognitive ability. More intelligent people were not actually less biased—a finding that would have justified their displaying a larger bias blind spot. …

Thus, the bias blind spot joins a small group of other effects such as myside bias and noncausal base-rate neglect in being unmitigated by increases in intelligence. That cognitive sophistication does not mitigate the bias blind spot is consistent with the idea that the mechanisms that cause the bias are quite fundamental and not easily controlled strategically— that they reflect what is termed Type 1 processing in dual-process theory. (more)

Added 12June: The New Yorker talks about this paper:

The results were quite disturbing. For one thing, self-awareness was not particularly useful: as the scientists note, “people who were aware of their own biases were not better able to overcome them.” … All four of the measures showed positive correlations, “indicating that more cognitively sophisticated participants showed larger bias blind spots.”

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: , ,

Illusory Power Transference

“Illusory Power Transference” is the academic name for feeling powerful due to a superficial connection to a powerful person, such as having once been in the same room:

Suppose that one day, an employee at a large multinational corporation attends an event in which the company’s rarely seen chief executive officer (CEO) makes an appearance. As the CEO works the room, the employee greets him with a handshake, followed by a brief conversation in which they exchange pleasantries. The CEO thanks him for being ‘‘part of the team’’ and then excuses himself to deliver his keynote address. When the event is over, the employee walks back to his office and resumes his job as an investment manager. How would this brief association with the company’s most powerful figure affect the employee’s mindset and behavior when he resumes his work? …

We propose that … associating with the powerful CEO suggests that he, too, must be powerful. Moreover, this minimal connection with the CEO would actually lead him to act as if he personally possessed more power when making important decisions on the job and interacting with others. ….

We use two experiments to … demonstrate that men who have a tenuous association with a powerful other (versus a powerless or equal-power other) felt more powerful and were more optimistic, confident, and risk seeking, even though they could not leverage the associate’s power. (more; HT Tyler Cowen)

I have suggested that lot of otherwise puzzling behavior can be explained by strong evolved desires to affiliate with high status (i.e., impressive or powerful) people. Apparently even very weak affiliations can make big differences. This can help explain our preferring live art and sport events, and our uncritical relations to academics, real estate agents, investment advisors, doctors, lawyers, etc.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,

Desires Surveyed

I’ve seen surveys on what people are doing at random times. Here’s one on what people desire at random times:

208 participants (66% female) … indicated at least one current desire on half (49.9%) of the occasions at which they were beeped and responded (N=10,558), reported at least one recent desire on 26.7% of occasions, and reported neither a current nor recent desire on 27.6% of occasions. The most frequent desires among the total of 7,827 desire reports were those rooted in basic bodily needs: desires to eat (28.1%), sleep (10.3%), and drink (8.6%); followed by desires for media use (8.1%), leisure (7.2%), social contact (7.1%), hygiene-related activities (5.9%), tobacco use (4.8%), sex (4.6%), work (3.0%), coffee (2.9%), alcohol (2.7%), engagement in sports (2.6%), and spending (2.2%; category “other”: 1.9%). …

53.2% of desires [were] rated as not conflicting at all, 14.7% as mildly conflicting, 12.4% as somewhat conflicting, 10.9% asquite conflicting, and 8.8% as highly conflicting. On average,desires were actively resisted on 42% of occasions and enacted on 48% of occasions. (more)

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as:

Easy Job Fix?

I’ve been slowly working my way through Triver’s book Folly of Fools. Chapter six reviews the many amazing benefits that appear to arise from having people write about their troubles. For example:

Writing about job loss improves one’s chance of reemployment. This sort of writing appears to be cathartic – people immediately feel better. More striking, at least in one study, is a sharply increased chance of getting a job. After six months, 53 percent of writers had found a new job, compared with only 18 percent of non writers. One effect of writing is that it helps you work through your anger so it is not displaced onto a new, prospective employer or, indeed, revealed to the employer in any form.

Here is the cited ’94 study:

Subjects in the study were 63 professionals (62 men, 1 woman), with a mean age of 54 years (representing of range of 40 to 68 years) and an average tenure of 20 years with their former employer, a large computer and electronics firm. Subjects had held engineering or other professional positions with the company. They were voluntarily recruited to the Writing in Transition Project from … an outplacement firm, following a large-scale layoff from their company. At the time of the study the length of unemployment was five months for all subjects. All [100] potential subjects were informed that the project involved a writing process that was expected to benefit them in their search process. Forty-one of [them] volunteered for the study and were randomly assigned to either the experimental writing (N = 20) or the control writing (N = 21) conditions. …

[We saw] a significant difference (… p = .018) between those who got jobs and those who did not. … The effects were not mediated by measures of heightened motivation. That is, subjects in the experimental condition did not receive more phone calls, make more contacts, or send out more letters than controls. … Most subjects had very powerful emotions about their termination experience. (more)

This suggests an easy way to increase employment, at least if the problem is employee attitudes. Digging more, I found this ’01 review, which seems to confirm the benefits of writing therapy. It all does seem a bit hard to believe, but stranger things have been true.

Added 31Dec: jsalvatier finds a good ’06 meta analysis:

One hundred forty-six randomized studies of experimental disclosure were collected and included in the present meta-analysis. Results of random effects analyses indicate that experimental disclosure is effective.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,

Smiles Signal

Many who complain about my signaling stories seem to think human behavior falls into neat and distinct categories, including: things we like, and things we do to show off. So if they introspect and see that they genuinely like to do something, they conclude that it cannot be signaling. But consider the simple smile – while we do genuinely like to smile, our tendency to smile depends on socially context in ways that also help smiles to serve as signals:

The zygomatic major [muscle], which resides in the cheek, tugs the lips upward, and the orbicularis oculi, which encircles the eye socket, squeezes the outside corners into the shape of a crow’s foot. The entire event is short — typically lasting from two-thirds of a second to four seconds. … Other muscles can simulate a smile, but only [this] peculiar tango … produces a genuine expression of positive emotion. … Most [psychologists] consider it the sole indicator of true enjoyment. …

College yearbook … Women who displayed [genuine] expressions of positive emotion in their 21-year-old photo had greater levels of general well-being and marital satisfaction at age 52. … Smiles of professional baseball players captured in a 1952 yearbook, … could explain 35 percent of the variability in [their] survival. … Compared to smiles taped during honest interviews, the nurses gave fewer genuine … smiles when lying. … Women smile more than men. …

A massive meta-analysis … from 162 studies and more than 100,000 participants … isolated three variables that influence sex-smiling disparities. … [1:] When people know they’re being watched … sex differences in smiling are greater. … [2:] When men and women share a task or role that follows rigid social rules — like those requiring flight attendants to smile and funeral directors to remain somber — the grin gap diminishes. … [3:] Embarrassing or socially tense situations cause females to smile more than males, but happy or sad situations have no such effect. …

[Researchers] observed the smiles of test participants told to share some of the fee they received from the study with a friend. When people were engaged in this sharing activity they exhibited more [genuine] smiles than during a neutral scenario. … Some were primed for exclusion through an essay task that required them to write about a time they were rejected. … Excluded participants showed an enhanced ability to distinguish [genuine] smiles from false ones … [and] a greater preference to work with individuals displaying genuine … smiles. (more)

Also consider one more data point: our happiest moments by far are during sexual orgasm, but we rarely (NSFW source) smile at such moments.

Signals can be socially wasteful, as some of each person’s gain from their signaling effort can come at the expense of others made to look worse by comparison. Yes our enjoying things makes their efforts less costly, but even so there are real costs that can be socially wasteful.

Even with smiling. For example, we tend to be happier when we smile, and we smile more when we are around others. But I doubt we’d be better off if forced to be around others more often. Our smiles would come at a needlessly higher cost.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,

Skill Awareness Biases

I’ve posted before on

“Unskilled and Unaware of It“. … everyone’s favorite theory of those they disagree with, that they are hopelessly confused idiots unable to see they are idiots; no point in listening to or reasoning with such fools.

Here is a much better study; it goes a long way to disentangling the effects:

We study … 656 undergraduate students, tracking the evolution of their beliefs about their own relative performance on an IQ test as they receive noisy feedback from a known data-generating process. … Subjects (1) place approximately full weight on their priors, but (2) are asymmetric, over-weighting positive feedback relative to negative, and (3) conservative, updating too little in response to both positive and negative signals. These biases are substantially less pronounced in a placebo experiment where ego is not at stake. We also find that (4) a substantial portion of subjects are averse to receiving information about their ability, and that (5) less confident subjects are causally more likely to be averse. We unify these phenomena by showing that they all arise naturally in a simple model of optimally biased Bayesian information processing. (more; HT Dan Houser)

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: