Tag Archives: psychology

Motivation on the margin of saving the world

Most people feel that they have certain responsibilities in life. If they achieve those they feel good about themselves, and anything they do beyond that to make the world better is an increasingly imperceptible bonus.

Some people with unusual moral positions or preferences feel responsible for making everything in the world as good as they can make it, and feel bad about the gap between what they achieve and what they could.

In both cases people have a kind of baseline that they care especially about. In the first case they are usually so far above it that nothing they do makes much difference to their feelings. In the second case they are often so far below it that nothing they do makes much difference to their feelings.

Games are engaging when you have a decent chance at both winning and losing. Every move you make matters, so you long to make that one more move. 

I expect the same is true of motivating altruistic consequentialists. I’m not sure how to make achievements on the margin more emotionally salient, but perhaps you do?

Stop blaming efficiency

Andrew Sullivan, quoting and commenting on Adam Frank:

We’re more efficient than we’ve ever been, but extreme efficiency has drawbacks:

More efficient forestation means running through forests faster. More efficient fishing methods means running through natural fishing stocks faster. … The truth is that we have limits. True connections between family, friends and colleagues can not be compressed down to tightly scheduled “quality time.” The relentless logic of efficiency can unintentionally strip the most valued qualities of human life just as easily as it strips forests.

Under a common meaning, ‘efficiency’ is just getting more of what you want for a given cost. Since people want different things, what is efficient for you may be very inefficient for someone else. If you don’t want deforestation, then my efficient tree harvesting method is not an efficient way to pursue your goals. Often people seem to forget this and think of the fact that other people are efficiently pursuing goals they don’t like as a problem with the concept of efficiency. This can then prompt them to go back and reject the original goal of efficiency in their own endeavours. Which is a very bad idea, if they are hoping to get what they want, without wasting other things they want in the process. Which is very likely what they are hoping for.

For instance if ‘the most valued qualities of human life’ are stripped by spending most of your time say efficiently pursuing career productivity, the problem is not that efficiency is bad, the problem is that you are efficiently pursuing the wrong goals. i.e. goals that are not your own, or at least not all of what you value. Being inefficient about, say, work is a terrible strategy for improving your home life, since only a miniscule proportion of the ways to be inefficient at work involve any home life improvement, and most of those not efficient improvements. Fortunately people using this strategy probably know intuitively that they will have to aim at the set of ways of being inefficient at work that do help their family lives. But once you have got as far as pursuing the values you actually care about, being efficient about them has really got to help, no matter how much your enemies also like efficiency. Similarly, don’t abandon ‘succeeding’, just because bad people also like it.


Added: Another example.

Reasons for Persons

Suppose you are replicated on Mars, and the copy of you on Earth is killed ten minutes later. Most people feel like there is some definite answer to whether the Martian is they or someone else. Not an answer got from merely defining ‘me’ to exclude alien clones or not, but some real me-ness which persists or doesn’t, even if they don’t know which. In Reasons and Persons, Derek Parfit argues that there is no such thing. Personal identity consists of physical facts such as how well I remember being a ten year old and how much my personality is similar to that girl’s. There is nothing more to say about whether we are the same person than things like this, plus pragmatic definitional judgements, such as that a label should only apply to one person at a given time. He claims that such continuity of memories and other psychological features is what matters to us, so as long as that continuity exists it shouldn’t matter whether we decide to call someone ‘me’ or ‘my clone’.

I agree with him for the most part. But he is claiming that most people are very wrong about something they are very familiar with. So the big question must be why everyone is so wrong, and why they feel so sure of it. I have had many a discussion where my conversational partner insists that if they were frozen and revived, or a perfect replica were made of them, or whatever, it would not be them. 

To be clear, what exactly is this fallacious notion of personal identity that people have?

  • – each human has one and only one, which lasts with them their entire life
  • – If you cease to have it you are dead, because you are it
  • – it doesn’t wax or wane, it can only be present or absent.
  • – it is undetectable (except arguably from the inside)
  • – two people can’t have the same one, even if they both split from the same previous person somehow.
  • – They are unique even if they have the same characteristics – if I were you and you were me, our identities would be the other way around from how they are, and that would be different from the present situation.

So basically, they are like unique labels for each human which label all parts of that human and distinguish it from all other humans. Except they are not labels, they are really there, characterising each creature as a particular person.

I suspect then the use of such a notion is a basic part of conducting social relationships. Suppose you want to have nuanced relationships, with things like reciprocation and threats and loyalty, with a large number of other monkeys. Then you should be interested in things like which monkey today is the one who remembers that you helped them yesterday, or which is the one who you have previously observed get angry easily.

This seems pretty obvious, but that’s because you are so well programmed to do it.There are actually a lot of more obvious surface characteristics you could pay attention to when categorising monkeys for the purpose of guessing how they will behave: where they are, whether they are smiling, eating, asleep. But these are pretty useless next to apparently insignificant details such as that they have large eyes and a hairier than average nose, which are important because they are signs of psychological continuity. So you have to learn to categorize monkeys, unlike other things, by tiny clues to some hidden continuity inside them. There is no need for us to think of ourselves as tracking anything complicated, like a complex arrangement of consistent behaviours that are useful to us, so we just think of what we care about in others as an invisible thing which is throughout a single person at all times and never in any other people.

The clues might differ over time. The clues that told you which monkey was Bruce ten years ago might be quite different from the ones that tell you that now. Yet you will do best to steadfastly believe in a continuing Bruceness inside all those creatures. Which is because even if he changes from an idealistic young monkey to a cynical old monkey, he still remembers that he is your friend, and all the nuances of your relationship, which is what you want keep track of. So you think of his identity as stretching through an entire life, and of not getting stronger or weaker according to his physical details.

One very simple heuristic for keeping track of these invisible things is that there is only ever one instantiation of each identity at a given time. If the monkey in the tree is Mavis, then the monkey on the ground isn’t. Even if they are identical twins, and you can’t tell them apart at all, the one you are friends with will behave differently to you than the one whose nuts you stole, so you’d better be sure to conceptualise them as different monkeys, even if they seem physically identical.

Parfit argues that what really matters – even if we don’t appreciate it because we are wrong about personal identity – is something like psychological or physical continuity. He favours psychological if I recall. However if the main point of this deeply held belief in personal identity is to keep track of relationships and behavioural patterns, that suggests that what really matters to us in that vicinity is more limited than psychological continuity. A lot of psychological continuity is irrelevant for tracking relationships. For instance if you change your tastes in food, or have a terrible memory for places, or change over many years from being reserved to being outgoing, people will not feel that you are losing who you are. However if you change your loyalties, or become unable to recognise your friends, or have fast unpredictable shifts in your behaviour I think people will.

Which is not to say I think you should care about these kinds of continuity when you decide whether an imperfect upload would still be you. I’m just hypothesising that these are the things that will make people feel like ‘what matters’ in personal identity has been maintained, should they stop thinking what matters is invisible temporal string. Of course what you should call yourself, for the purpose of caring disproportionately about it and protecting its life is a matter of choice, and I’m not sure any of these criteria is the best basis for it. Maybe you should just identify with everyone and avoid dying until the human race ends.

Why we love unimportant things

Consider all the things humans have ever invented. On average, the ones that have been adopted by the most people should be the most useful ones. This seems to be roughly what has happened.

Now consider the ones we get really excited about, and identify with, and celebrate. These are the ones that are not widely adopted. Chairs have been adopted by everyone, because they are great. Nobody ever mentions this. You might think they are just taken for granted because they are old. But consider skis. Skis have been around forever. But they are more controversial than chairs: they have never caught on with some people. Now notice that people who do like skis actually rave about them, and think about them, and consider themselves skiing enthusiasts.

Here are some more unpopular and raved about innovations: drying fruit in the sun, dancing, the iphone, the gin and tonic, the internet, Christianity, watercolour painting, eating a larger meal at lunch time than in the evening, sexual promiscuity, tea

Here are popular uncelebrated innovations: the escalator, the hat, the mobile phone (this was on the other list back when they were rare), the phillips head screwdriver, the computer, queues, tv, bread, floors

Here are the closest things I can think of to counterexamples: the internet (really fits in the first category, but many people who love it must rarely contact with those who don’t and vice versa. Then again people who rave about it often mean to support quite extreme and unorthodox use of it), anti-racism (virtually everyone seems to think they like it, but the ones who rave about it do at least seem to think that others do not), people rave about anything they consciously want at that moment (e.g. they have been standing for ages and they find a chair, or someone brings them a big cake) though they still don’t tend to speak up that item in general or identify with it, sex.

So it seems that we largely celebrate the things that are least important to our actual wellbeing. It even looks to me like the less consensus there is on the value of something, the more impassioned are its fans. At the extreme, when people make up their very own theory or cheesecake or whatever they can often become quite obsessed.

I take all this as a sign that we basically celebrate stuff to draw attention to our identities, not because it’s important.

Hidden motives or innocent failure?

There are many ways in which what humans do differs from what they should do if they wanted to achieve the ends they claim to want to achieve. Some of these are obviously because people don’t really want what they say they want. Few people who claim human life is valuable beyond measure are unaware that small amounts of money can save lives overseas for instance.

On the other hand, many cases are obviously innocent failures of imagination or knowledge. The apparent progress humanity has made over recent millennia is not just a winding path through various signaling equilibria; we have actually thought of better stuff to do. The stone age didn’t end because making everything out of stone stopped being a credible sign of a hardworking personality.

In between there are many interesting puzzles where it isn’t clear whether hidden motives or innocent failure are to blame*. Many people strongly prefer innocent failure as a default, but in general if you can think of some improvement to the status quo, it should be pretty surprising if heaps of other people haven’t also thought of it. Even if your idea is ultimately bad, there should be some signs of people having looked into it if its deficiency isn’t obvious. Often it is clear that people have known of apparently good ideas for ages, with no sign of action. So I think there is quite a case for hidden motives explaining many of these puzzles.

Sometimes when I point out such instances, I say something like ‘ha, you aren’t trying to do what you claim – looks like you are secretly trying to do this other thing instead’. Sometimes I say something like ‘if you are trying to do X, maybe you should try doing it in this way that would achieve X rather than that other way that doesn’t seem to so well’.

I’d like to make clear that my choice of explicitly blaming hidden motives vs. suggesting alternatives as though innocent failure were the cause is not necessarily based on how likely these two explanations are. I think either presentation of such a puzzle should suggest both hypotheses to some extent. If I blame hidden motives and you feel you don’t have those hidden motives, you should question whether you are behaving efficiently. If I blame innocent failure, and you don’t feel compelled to fix the failure, you might question your motives.

I expect the truth is usually a confusing mixture of hidden motives and innocent failure. In many such intrapersonal conflicts, it seems at least clear which side outsiders should be on. For instance if two parts of a person’s mind are interested in helping other people and looking like a nice person respectively, then inasmuch as those goals diverge outsiders should side more with the part who wants to help others, because at least others get something out of that.

Outsiders are also often in a good position to do this, due to their controlling influence on the part who wants to look like a nice person. They are the people to whom you must look nice. This means they can often side with the more altruistic part (or even if there isn’t one, for their own interests) just by insisting on higher standards of credible altruistic behaviour before they will be impressed. This is one good reason for pointing out what people should do better if they really cared, even if it seems unlikely that they do. Even if not a single reader really cares, one can at least hope to give them a measure by which to be more judgemental of others’ hypocrisy.


*The other very plausible explanation for a discrepancy between what seems sensible and what people do is always that people are in fact behaving sensibly, and the perplexed observer is just missing something. While this is presumably common, I will ignore it here.