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.

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