Channel factors

post by benkuhn · 2014-03-12T04:52:40.026Z · score: 17 (18 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 17 comments

Or, “how not to make a fundamental attribution error on yourself;” or, “how to do that thing that you keep being frustrated at yourself for not doing;” or, “finding and solving trivial but leveraged inconveniences.”

Note: cross-posted from my blog, so some of this may be rather elementary to LessWrong readers or CFAR workshop attendees. If that's you, feel free to skip or skim to the end, where I try to crowdsource a list of interesting channel factors.


One of the key insights of social psychology is that our reactions to events are hugely dependent on the fine details of the situation in question, and often pretty much independent of personality. For instance, suppose you have a bunch of people to playing the Prisoner’s Dilemma with each other, and you want to figure out who will defect. Most people’s theory of mind here says something like, “people defect because they’re self-interested or grumpy or vindictive.” So you might ask a player’s friends how cooperative they were, and use that to guess who will cooperate.

Unfortunately, this approach is totally useless. People are equally likely to cooperate whether or not their friends think they’re cooperative. In the Prisoners’ Dilemma, your friends’ assessment of your personality does not correlate at all with your behavior.

Fortunately, there’s something else which is a pretty good predictor! In particular, it matters a lot whether the instructions of the game called it the “Community Game” or the “Wall Street Game.”1

A graph of Liberman's results.

Yep, a single phrase of the instructions, repeated twice, causes cooperation rates to double. If you ever like to think of yourself as some kind of agent whose decisions are controlled by a rational ego (instead of some random words you heard once upon a time), you might find that a bit worrying.

On the other hand, if you like to think of yourself as the kind of person who prefers to have true beliefs, you might be excited because your beliefs just got truer! You probably sometimes fail to impose egoistic control on your own decisions, and if you understand your brain purely as a consciously-controlled ego then you will be really confused when this happens, and spit out solutions like “try harder next time” or “have more willpower” or “don’t be dumb” or “don’t get distracted” or something.

These are fake solutions. They would totally solve your problem, except that they’re not really actions you can take.

So you should change your model. There are examples everywhere of seemingly trivial changes to circumstances that disproportionately change your behavior. Another example in the literature is that students advised to get tetanus inoculations were far more likely to do so if they were given a map to the university health center and times of operation, which the majority of the students already knew.2 (Of course, intent to get an inoculation had almost no predictive power unless students were given a map.)

The psychology term for such things is a “channel factor,” and it’s probably the most useful psychology concept I’ve learned this semester. Since acquiring it, I’ve noticed it cropping up a lot. For instance:

The common thread is that the inconvenience is so trivial that I didn’t even notice it until I was specifically on the lookout for channel factors. My usual model of myself is too sane to do things like not floss because I didn’t have the thing that made my fingers slightly more comfortable while I do it. Whoops.

Anyway, this results in a heuristic of, when I am frustrated by the fact that I ‘end up’ not doing something I ‘want’ to do, looking for channel factors. So far, it’s been pretty successful at uncovering small modifications with large effects:

Have you discovered any channel factors of your own? What am I missing?


  1. Lieberman, Varda, et al. “The Name of the Game: Predictive Power of Reputations versus Situational Labels in Determining Prisoner’s Dilemma Game Moves.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, September 2004 vol. 30 no. 9: 1175-1185. doi:10.1177/0146167204264004

  2. Leventhal, Howard, et al. “Effects of fear and specificity of recommendation upon attitudes and behavior.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 2(1), Jul 1965: 20-29. doi:10.1037/h0022089

  3. Apparently staying in touch with classmates is just not worth the extra 10 seconds per text on my phone keyboard. 

17 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by jsalvatier · 2014-03-15T01:28:03.722Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This seems quite close to Beware Trivial Inconveniences. It's good to have an outside established name for this, though.

comment by benkuhn · 2014-03-15T03:11:23.238Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes; I found that linked from Scott's blog today and hadn't previously read it. Hopefully the more explicit angle of "these are happening to you and you should do something about them" is still helpful to people.

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2014-03-12T18:10:43.914Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Concerning game name changes:

I don't think of myself as a cooperator or defector; I consider myself to be one who (edit: tries to) cooperates if my opponent cooperates and defects if my opponent defects.

So, if the name changes, that can change what I expect others to do, and thus what I find that I should do.

It's not clear how much of the effect is itself that - the expectation that others will see it differently. I wonder what would happen if you told the two players different things as to what the name of the game was, and then told one or the other player - or both - what the other player had been told the game would be.

comment by roystgnr · 2014-03-12T14:06:10.058Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you ever like to think of yourself as some kind of agent whose decisions are controlled by a rational ego (instead of some random words you heard once upon a time), you might find that a bit worrying.

Or I might not. You just finished suggesting that the way people treat me in the future will be based in part on my reputation for being cooperative. If a sociological study frames its questions in ways that make them sound correlated with real-life situations in which it's socially demanded that I be cooperative, why would I want to defect and risk my reputation? For sociological study points? Even if I'm told that my results will remain anonymous, "do bad things when you're pretty sure you won't get caught" isn't exactly a winning life strategy either.

It's also possible that for some people, "number of times I've cooperated when I know it's socially desirable to do so" is part of their utility function, independent of whatever other utility they receive from the act. "Being good for the sake of being good" certainly isn't an unheard-of philosophy in the general population, and I'd expect this group to be greatly overrepresented in a typical study of people who volunteer to participate in studies.

comment by FeepingCreature · 2014-03-13T11:22:36.976Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

For browser tabs, I recommend TooManyTabs, an addon that lets you take all your tabs and stick them somewhere where they're still there, but not taking up RAM (and attention) anymore. Satisfy your hoarding instinct!

comment by Pablo_Stafforini · 2014-03-13T10:34:33.693Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

closing browser tabs as soon as I’m done with them

Have you tried the Tab Wrangler Chrome extension? Prevent Duplicate Tabs may also be useful.

comment by Mestroyer · 2014-03-12T18:15:43.773Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Something that's helped me floss consistently: (a) getting a plastic holder thing, not the little kind where it's still extremely difficult to reach your back teeth, but a reusable one with a long handle that you wrap floss onto, and (b) keeping it next to my computer, within arms reach.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2014-03-12T06:52:55.395Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"closing browser tabs as soon as I’m done with them" - how'd you train this?

comment by [deleted] · 2014-03-12T10:30:50.553Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I can't speak for benkuhn, but I guess like you train all habits through trigger - routine - reward. I.e. you open a browser and think what you want to train. Then you focus your attention on the trigger, in this case "being done with a tab". When you notice the trigger, you do your routine - closing the tab - and then you reward yourself by smiling and internally congratulating yourself on your decisive victory against the forces of evil. And then you use spaced repetition to train this. And whenever you notice you forgot to do this routine you immediately smile and congratulate yourself on noticing this, which of course means you're more likely to remember it next time.

comment by Error · 2014-03-12T13:23:38.273Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

And whenever you notice you forgot to do this routine you immediately smile and congratulate yourself on noticing this, which of course means you're more likely to remember it next time.

Upvoted for this part. I'm not sure if reward for noticing failure is mentioned in most self-training routines, but it feels like an important missing piece to me. The normal reaction to noticing failure is some degree of self-loathing instead, which of course encourages putting the task out of one's mind.

Also I like the idea of simple self-congratulation as a reward. Most examples I see are things like "eat an M&M when you do what you're supposed to", which is useless if the thing you are trying to train is not eating junk food (or if you're like me and will munch through the whole bag without being aware of it).

comment by Nisan · 2014-03-14T04:23:21.163Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Reward for noticing failure is something CFAR taught as part of its "internal operant conditioning" suite. I don't know if it's strictly a CFAR thing, and I don't know whether they still teach it.

comment by ShardPhoenix · 2014-03-13T00:42:08.276Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why do you want to do this? Personally I get mad when I lose my old browser tabs due to Firefox's cache getting corrupted.

comment by drethelin · 2014-03-13T01:43:57.340Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Most of the browser tabs most people leave open are open loops serving no actual value. They're the internet equivalent of hoarding. "What if I want this later! I can't throw away this used paper towel/link to 4chan!"

comment by benkuhn · 2014-03-12T13:15:17.630Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Poorly. I'm still not very good at it. "Being done with browser tabs" is not a very concrete trigger. I'm actually considering writing a Chrome extension that will do this for me.

comment by Daniel_Burfoot · 2014-03-12T17:32:19.545Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

closing browser tabs as soon as I’m done with them

There should be a browser feature something along the lines of: if a tab is deeply buried and hasn't been used in a while, it gets closed automatically.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-03-12T17:38:05.342Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

In my head I have images of Clippy popping up and cheerfully saying "I see you haven't used these tabs for a while so I closed them for you!"