Why Decision Theory Tells You to Eat ALL the Cupcakes

cupcakeImagine that you have a big task coming up that requires an unknown amount of willpower – you might have enough willpower to finish, you might not. You’re gearing up to start when suddenly you see a delicious-looking cupcake on the table. Do you indulge in eating it? According to psychology research and decision-theory models, the answer isn’t simple.

If you resist the temptation to eat the cupcake, current research indicates that you’ve depleted your stores of willpower (psychologists call it ego depletion), which causes you to be less likely to have the willpower to finish your big task. So maybe you should save your willpower for the big task ahead and eat it!

…But if you’re convinced already, hold on a second. How easily you give in to temptation gives evidence about your underlying strength of will. After all, someone with weak willpower will find the reasons to indulge more persuasive. If you end up succumbing to the temptation, it’s evidence that you’re a person with weaker willpower, and are thus less likely to finish your big task.

How can eating the cupcake cause you to be more likely to succeed while also giving evidence that you’re more likely to fail?

Conflicting Decision Theory Models

The strangeness lies in the difference between two conflicting models of how to make decisions. Luke Muehlhauser describes them well in his Decision Theory FAQ:

This is not a “merely verbal” dispute (Chalmers 2011). Decision theorists have offered different algorithms for making a choice, and they have different outcomes. Translated into English, the [second] algorithm (evidential decision theory or EDT) says “Take actions such that you would be glad to receive the news that you had taken them.” The [first] algorithm (causal decision theory or CDT) says “Take actions which you expect to have a positive effect on the world.”

The crux of the matter is how to handle the fact that we don’t know how much underlying willpower we started with.

Causal Decision Theory asks, “How can you cause yourself to have the most willpower?”

It focuses on the fact that, in any state, spending willpower resisting the cupcake causes ego depletion. Because of that, it says our underlying amount of willpower is irrelevant to the decision. The recommendation stays the same regardless: eat the cupcake.

Evidential Decision Theory asks, “What will give evidence that you’re likely to have a lot of willpower?”

We don’t know whether we’re starting with strong or weak will, but our actions can reveal that one state or another is more likely. It’s not that we can change the past – Evidential Decision Theory doesn’t look for that causal link – but our choice indicates which possible version of the past we came from.

Yes, seeing someone undergo ego depletion would be evidence that they lost a bit of willpower.  But watching them resist the cupcake would probably be much stronger evidence that they have plenty to spare.  So you would rather “receive news” that you had resisted the cupcake.

A Third Option

Each of these models has strengths and weaknesses, and a number of thought experiments – especially the famous Newcomb’s Paradox – have sparked ongoing discussions and disagreements about what decision theory model is best.

One attempt to improve on standard models is Timeless Decision Theory, a method devised by Eliezer Yudkowsky of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute.  Alex Altair recently wrote up an overview, stating in the paper’s abstract:

When formulated using Bayesian networks, two standard decision algorithms (Evidential Decision Theory and Causal Decision Theory) can be shown to fail systematically when faced with aspects of the prisoner’s dilemma and so-called “Newcomblike” problems. We describe a new form of decision algorithm, called Timeless Decision Theory, which consistently wins on these problems.

It sounds promising, and I can’t wait to read it.

But Back to the Cupcakes

For our particular cupcake dilemma, there’s a way out:

Precommit. You need to promise – right now! – to always eat the cupcake when it’s presented to you. That way you don’t spend any willpower on resisting temptation, but your indulgence doesn’t give any evidence of a weak underlying will.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my new favorite excuse for why I ate all the cupcakes.

Will moving to California make you happier?

I pass dozens of brilliantly-colored flowers like this on my daily walk to work. (Photo credit: B Mully, Flickr)

I might have to disagree with a Nobel Laureate on this one.

According to Daniel Kahneman, Nobel prize-winning psychologist and author of the excellent Thinking Fast and Slow, the answer is “No.” A recent post on Big Think describes how Kahneman asked people to predict who’s happier, on average, Californians or Midwesterners. Most people (from both regions!) say, “Californians.” That’s because, Kahneman explains, the act of comparison highlights what’s saliently different between the two regions: their climate. And on that dimension, California’s a pretty clear winner.

And indeed, Californians report loving their climate and Midwesterners loathing theirs. Yet despite that, the overall life satisfaction in the two regions turns out to be nearly identical, according to a 1998 survey by Kahneman. Climate just isn’t that important to happiness, it turns out. The fact that it greatly influences people’s predictions of relative happiness in California vs. the Midwest stems from something called the “Focusing illusion,” Kahneman explains — a bias he sums up with the pithy, “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.”

So far, I have no beef with this interpretation. What I *do* object to is the conclusion, which Kahneman implies and Big Think makes explicit, that “moving to california won’t make you happy.”

I moved from New York, NY to Berkeley, CA, earlier this year, and — having read Kahneman — I didn’t expect the climate to make a noticeable difference in my mood. And yet, every day, when I would leave my house, I found my spirits buoyed by the balmy weather and the clear blue sky. I noticed, multiple times daily, how beautiful the vegetation was and how fresh, fragrant, and — well — un-Manhattanlike the air smelled. It made a noticeable difference in my mood nearly every day, and continues to, six months after I moved.

I was a little surprised that my result was so different from Kahneman’s. And then I realized: Most of those Californians in his study have always been Californians. They grew up there; they didn’t move from the Midwest (or Manhattan) to California. So it’s understandable that their climate doesn’t make a big impact on their happiness, because they have no standard of comparison. They’re not constantly thinking to themselves — as I have been — “Man, it’s so *nice* not to have to shiver inside a bulky winter coat!” or “Man, it’s such a relief not to smell garbage bags sitting out on the sidewalk,” or “Wow, it’s quite pleasant not to be sticky with sweat.”

I’m only one data point, of course, and it’s possible that if you studied people who moved from the Midwest to CA, you’d find that their change in happiness was in fact no different than that of people who moved from CA to the Midwest. But at least, I think it’s important to note that that’s not the study Kahneman did. And that, as a general rule in reading (or conducting!) happiness research, it’s important to remember that the happiness you get from a state depends on your previous states.

A rational view of tradition

In my latest video blog I answer a listener’s question about why rationalists are more likely to abandon social norms like marriage, monogamy, standard gender roles, having children, and so on. And then I weigh in on whether that’s a rational attitude to take:

RS episode #53: Parapsychology

In Episode 53 of the Rationally Speaking Podcast, Massimo and I take on parapsychology, the study of phenomena such as extrasensory perception, precognition, and remote viewing. We discuss the type of studies parapsychologists conduct, what evidence they’ve found, and how we should interpret that evidence. The field is mostly not  taken seriously by other scientists, which parapsychologists argue is unfair, given that their field shows some consistent and significant results. Do they have a point? Massimo and I discuss the evidence and talk about what the results from parapsychology tell us about the practice of science in general.

http://www.rationallyspeakingpodcast.org/show/rs53-parapsychology.html

You’re such an essentialist!

My latest video blog is about essentialism, and why it’s damaging to your rationality — and your happiness.

RS #48: Philosophical Counseling

Can philosophy be a form of therapy? On the latest episode of Rationally Speaking, we interview Lou Marinoff, a philosopher who founded the field of “philosophical counseling,” in which people pay philosophers to help them deal with their own personal problems using philosophy. For example, one of Lou’s clients wanted advice on whether to quit her finance job to pursue a personal goal; another sought help deciding how to balance his son’s desire to go to Disneyland with his own fear of spoiling his children.

As you can hear in the interview, I’m interested but I’ve got major reservations. I certainly think that philosophy can improve how you live your life — I’ve got some great examples of that from personal experience. But I’m skeptical of Lou’s project for two related reasons: first, because I think most problems in people’s lives are best addressed by a combination of psychological science and common sense. They require a sophisticated understanding how our decision-making algorithms go wrong — for example, why we make decisions that we know are bad for us, how we end up with distorted views of our situations and of our own strengths and weaknesses, and so on. Those are empirical questions, and philosophy’s not an empirical field, so relying on philosophy to solve people’s problems is going to miss a large part of the picture.

The other problem is that it wasn’t at all clear to me how philosophical counselors choose which philosophy to cite. For any viewpoint in the literature, you can pretty reliably find an opposing one. In the case of the father afraid of spoiling his kid, Lou cited Aristotle to argue for an “all things in moderation” policy. But, I pointed out, he could just as easily have cited Stoic philosophers arguing that happiness lies in relinquishing desires.  So if you can pick and choose any philosophical advice you want, then aren’t you really just giving your client your own opinion about his problem, and just couching your advice in the words of a prestigious philosopher?

Hear more at Rationally Speaking Episode 48, “Philosophical Counseling.”

Why this Meme Exploded

[cross-posted on Friendly Atheist]

Somehow, it went viral. In just 24 hours, the Secular Student Alliance (my organization)’s Facebook page exploded from 6,500 supporters’ “likes” to 18,000. I found myself thinking, “How the hell did that happen?” And then thinking, “Hmm… how can we do it again?”

The whole thing started with Kenny Flagg, one of our group leaders with the Freethinkers of UND. After noticing that the SSA’s Facebook presence was much smaller than Campus Crusade for Christ’s, he wanted to make a difference. He “grabbed both profile pictures for the groups, added the stats from each page, and threw in a quick meme for good measure.” Then he posted it on Reddit. That was it. Take a look – would you would expect it to inspire a frenzy of activity?


Yes, this is the image that launched a thousand clicks. Well, several thousand, actually.

I had to figure out why a simple picture like this inspired such a big reaction. The more I thought about it, the more psychology and rhetorical communication techniques I saw present. Kenny:

  1. Demonstrated insider status
  2. Invoked tribal/patriotic feelings, and
  3. Gave people direction.

Well look at that. In classic style, he hit the three branches of rhetoric: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos.

Kenny’s Insider Status (Ethos)

Kenny was a perfect person for the task. If my coworkers or I had been the ones to post, we would seem self-serving. Kenny, not being an SSA employee, comes across as a more objective voice. Do you trust the used car salesman or the blue book to tell you a car’s value? We tend to trust people more if they share our interest – and we trust them less if we suspect they’re looking out for themselves.

A great way to gain people’s trust is by proving that you’re a member of their community. Sharing group identity acts as a proxy for sharing values. The “Challenge accepted” meme accomplished that beautifully. It’s like using slang – it reinforces your status as an insider. Redditors heard the message: “I’m one of you.” He put that to good use.

Our Tribal Emotions (Pathos)

After establishing his credibility as an insider, Kenny appealed to an incredibly powerful emotion to get them to act: group loyalty. When groups of people get compared to their rivals, it creates an us-versus-them mentality. The competition angle rallied atheists on Reddit into a stronger, more unified group.

And the more atheist redditors rallied together, the stronger the social proof dynamic became. When we’re in a group, we tend to watch other people for cues about how to behave. As redditors saw other people commenting, upvoting the post, and liking the SSA’s page, it influenced their behavior. People got the impression: “This is what it atheists on Reddit are doing.” As part of that group, they felt moved to behave the same way.

Kenny’s post inspired group pride, anger at cultural opponents, and the desire to fit in – emotions that motivate us to act. But that motivation needed direction.

Giving a Direction (Logos)

Have you ever felt that you wanted to make a difference, but just didn’t know how to do it? Without direction, all that energy just sputters out. Telling people to “eat healthier” is overwhelming and vague, but saying “switch to 1% milk” is specific and helpful.

Kenny gave everyone a simple, concrete task: go click “like” on the Secular Student Alliance’s page. He had everyone share his big vision: to get the Secular Student Alliance as many “likes” as the Campus Crusade for Christ page. He even provided a link to the SSA’s Facebook page. The direction was clear.

It all fit together.

Can we do this again?

We never know for sure whether a meme will explode.

But we’ll be more likely to go viral if we pay attention to what works. If you’re interested, I recommend Chip and Dan Heath’s books Made to Stick and Switch. Kenny managed to use psychology techniques without meaning to, but we can be more deliberate with our efforts. (Be careful fostering us-versus-them feelings. Competition is all well and good, but actual hostility is dangerous.)

There might seem like a lot of it boils down to luck. But as Richard Wiseman found, capitalizing on “luck” is really a skill. The Secular Student Alliance prepared by generating student leaders who were enthusiastic to help us out. When we spotted the opportunity we posted like madmen, and even  hosted an “Ask Us Anything” to interact with the community. And yes, Kenny did a fantastic job.

For such a quick image, it had a lot going for it. It’s not exactly Cicero orating in the Roman Senate, but it was damn good rhetoric in its own way. Forget a thousand words, that picture was worth 12,000 Facebook fans.

Overcoming The Curse of Knowledge

[crossposted at LessWrong]

What is the Curse of Knowledge, and how does it apply to science education, persuasion, and communication? No, it’s not a reference to the Garden of Eden story. I’m referring to a particular psychological phenomenon that can make our messages backfire if we’re not careful.

Communication isn’t a solo activity; it involves both you and the audience. Writing a diary entry is a great way to sort out thoughts, but if you want to be informative and persuasive to others, you need to figure out what they’ll understand and be persuaded by. A common habit is to use ourselves as a mental model – assuming that everyone else will laugh at what we find funny, agree with what we find convincing, and interpret words the way we use them. The model works to an extent – especially with people similar to us – but other times our efforts fall flat. You can present the best argument you’ve ever heard, only to have it fall on dumb – sorry, deaf – ears.

That’s not necessarily your fault – maybe they’re just dense! Maybe the argument is brilliant! But if we want to communicate successfully, pointing fingers and assigning blame is irrelevant. What matters is getting our point across, and we can’t do it if we’re stuck in our head, unable to see things from our audience’s perspective. We need to figure out what words will work.

Unfortunately, that’s where the Curse of Knowledge comes in. In 1990, Elizabeth Newton did a fascinating psychology experiment: She paired participants into teams of two: one tapper and one listener. The tappers picked one of 25 well-known songs and would tap out the rhythm on a table. Their partner – the designated listener – was asked to guess the song. How do you think they did?

Not well. Of the 120 songs tapped out on the table, the listeners only guessed 3 of them correctly – a measly 2.5 percent. But get this: before the listeners gave their answer, the tappers were asked to predict how likely their partner was to get it right. Their guess? Tappers thought their partners would get the song 50 percent of the time. You know, only overconfident by a factor of 20. What made the tappers so far off?

They lost perspective because they were “cursed” with the additional knowledge of the song title. Chip and Dan Heath use the story in their book Made to Stick to introduce the term:

“The problem is that tappers have been given knowledge (the song title) that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it’s like to lack that knowledge. When they’re tapping, they can’t imagine what it’s like for the listeners to hear isolated taps rather than a song. This is the Curse of Knowledge. Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. And it becomes difficult or us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.”

So it goes with communicating complex information. Because we have all the background knowledge and understanding, we’re overconfident that what we’re saying is clear to everyone else. WE know what we mean! Why don’t they get it? It’s tough to remember that other people won’t make the same inferences, have the same word-meaning connections, or share our associations.

It’s particularly important in science education. The more time a person spends in a field, the more the field’s obscure language becomes second nature. Without special attention, audiences might not understand the words being used – or worse yet, they might get the wrong impression.

Over at the American Geophysical Union blog, Callan Bentley gives a fantastic list of Terms that have different meanings for scientists and the public.

What great examples! Even though the scientific terms are technically correct in context, they’re obviously the wrong ones to use when talking to the public about climate change. An inattentive scientist could know all the material but leave the audience walking away with the wrong message.

We need to spend the effort to phrase ideas in a way the audience will understand. Is that the same as “dumbing down” a message? After all, complicated ideas require complicated words and nuanced answers, right? Well, no. A real expert on a topic can give a simple distillation of material, identifying the core of the issue. Bentley did an outstanding job rephrasing technical, scientific terms in a way that conveys the intended message to the public.

That’s not dumbing things down, it’s showing a mastery of the concepts. And he was able to do it by overcoming the “curse of knowledge,” seeing the issue from other people’s perspective. Kudos to him – it’s an essential part of science education, and something I really admire.

Being a Dick is not Binary

(crossposted at Friendly Atheist)

“Should we be offensive?” is a common question in the secular movement. It’s also the wrong question.

The title of this post comes from Phil Plait’s “Don’t be a Dick” talk at TAM 8, which sparked conversation about the wisdom of offending people in the cause of critical thinking. Though it generated the most attention, it’s not the first time we’ve asked these questions: Should we condemn people for opposing LGBT rights? Mock people for believing in creationism? Call religion a delusion? Sometimes it seems like everything we do offends people – even the simple act of advertising our existence offended Iowa Governor Chet Culver.

In the face of that, it’s almost liberating, isn’t it? If everything we do is offensive, it doesn’t matter anymore – we can stop worrying about it. In fact, I used to argue that myself! When confronted with accusations that Everybody Draw Muhammad Day was offensive, I’d point to the bus ads and billboards and say, “People get offended at the most mundane things. We can’t let that hold us back.”

But offensiveness not a simple yes-or-no issue. Like Julia wrote a few months ago, it’s tempting to treat belief as a black and white matter. It’s not – we can hold beliefs with differing degrees of confidence, and if we treat it otherwise we lose a lot of power to make distinctions, see nuance, and chart the best course of action. It’s the same with asking whether or not to be offensive. We need to add nuance.

At the first level, it’s probably more helpful to phrase the question “How many people are my actions likely to offend?” Not all offensive statements are equal. Sure, saying “People can be good without god” offends people, but not as many people as “Religion is a myth.”

We can go further. Asking how many people we expect to offend still treats the issue as a binary: they’re either offended or they’re not. A better phrasing would be “How offended will people be?” Billboards reading “Religion is a myth” and “Jesus was a bastard” would both upset a lot of people – but not to the same extent.

But even this isn’t what we want to be asking. To take the final step, we need to dissolve the question away into what we actually want to know. Each time we ask “Should we be a dick in this situation?” we’re really wondering a lot of things, like:

  • Do we like the short-term and long-term reactions this will elicit?
  • Would it attract attention for our message?
  • Would it reduce the chance of persuading the target?
  • Would it help push the boundaries of the national conversation?
  • Would it damage a helpful relationship?

There isn’t an inherent property “being offensive” or “being a dick” – that’s just a heuristic, and it’s not very precise. Well, maybe I shouldn’t say just a heuristic – labeling a message as ‘offensive’ is a helpful way to talk about expected reactions. But we need to be able to step back and refocus our attention when the heuristic causes confusion.

And the heuristic IS causing confusion. Treating it as a single, inherent property leads people to miss the strategic benefits – and drawbacks – of getting people upset in different ways and contexts. Treating it as a binary question leads people to wield anger indiscriminately rather than tactically.

What we should be asking ourselves, when choosing a message, is this: “How offended do we want people to be, and offended how?”

For example, I still stand behind my support of Everybody Draw Muhammad Day – it did cause a lot of offense, but it offended people in the right way: by intentionally disregarding the Islamic demand that we respect their prophet. That was the goal – shocking people into paying more attention to a dogma which wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t support using mockery in a one-on-one conversation with a creationist. When we’re trying to educate someone, a small amount of offense is useful to catch their attention – say, by openly disagreeing. But mockery is a different kind of offense, one that reduces our chances of convincing them.

Sometimes it’s easier to talk about whether or not to offend people.  But we can be so much more precise thinking about it in terms of anger, surprise, disrespect, disagreement.

They say the devil’s in the details – so we should feel right at home.

Ender Wiggin, Harry Potter, and Kurt Godel

I love finding real-life connections to my favorite fictional characters. One of the consistent criticisms I hear about Ender’s Game is that people have trouble buying into the notion that children as young as six can be so intelligent, rational, and independent. That’s also a knock against Harry in Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (which was clearly influenced by Ender’s Game) – he just doesn’t fit with how we expect eleven-year olds to behave. But if we accept the premise of a hyper-intelligent child, would the other traits follow?

I was reading Rebecca Goldstein’s book Incompleteness on the life and work of Kurt Gödel, and young Kurt might fit the bill. Gödel was an extremely intelligent child, far more intelligent than his parents. Goldstein thinks he made this realization as early as five, and it had a big impact on his character:

It would be comforting, in the presence of such a shattering conclusion… to derive the following additional conclusion: There are always logical explanations and I am exactly the sort of person who can discover such explanations. The grownups around me may be a sorry lot, but luckily I don’t need to depend on them. I can figure out everything for myself. The world is thoroughly logical and so is my mind – a perfect fit.

It’s been a while since I’ve read Ender’s Game, but that sounded pretty familiar – the grown ups weren’t able (his parents) or willing (the teachers) to protect him, so he had to find ways to solve problems himself.

I’ve read Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality much more recently, and he might be a closer fit. In this version, Harry is extremely intelligent and raised by parents who love him, but are – frankly – unable to keep up. This particular passage caught my eye:

Harry nodded. “I still don’t know whether the Headmaster was joking or… the thing is, he was right in a way. I had loving parents, but I never felt like I could trust their decisions, they weren’t sane enough. I always knew that if I didn’t think things through myself, I might get hurt… Even if it’s sad, I think that’s part of the environment that creates what Dumbledore calls a hero – people who don’t have anyone else to shove final responsibility onto, and that’s why they form the mental habit of tracking everything themselves.”

Situations like Kurt Gödel’s are rare, but that’s the point of fiction. Given his example, perhaps it’s not SO big of a stretch that children who surpass their parents at such a young age would turn into an Ender Wiggin or “rational” Harry Potter.

At the very least, perhaps this connection will help people suspend their disbelief a little bit, and go read either of these fantastic works of fiction.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 505 other followers

%d bloggers like this: