Argument by lexical overloading, or, Don't cut your wants with shoulds

post by PhilGoetz · 2012-10-23T00:03:46.658Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 22 comments

I used the word "cut" in the title to mean the Prolog operator "cut", an operator which halts the evaluation of a statement in predicate logic.

Fiction writers often complain, "I keep procrastinating from writing," and, "Nobody reads what I write."  These complaints are usually the result of shoulds stopping them from thinking about their wants.

I've never heard anyone say, "I keep putting off playing baseball," or, "I keep putting off eating ice cream."  People who keep putting off writing don't want to write, they want to have written.  If you have to try to write more often than you have to try not to write, you've probably told yourself that you should write in order to attain some reward.  There's nothing wrong with that, but writers who complain that they keep putting off writing are often writing things with little potential payoff, like fan-fiction.  They don't stop and think how to improve the payoff that they want, because they get stuck on the should that they've cached in their heads.

I've repeatedly tried to help writers who complain that not enough people read what they write.  I explain that if you want to be read by a lot of people, you need to write something that a lot of people want to read.  This seems obvious to me, but I'm always immediately attacked by indignant writers saying that they want to write great fiction, and that one should write only to please oneself in order to write great fiction.  Sometimes these are the same people who complained that they want more people to read what they write.

Why does their desire to write great fiction take complete precedence over their desire to have readers?  Because they have cached that desire as a should.  (They haven't cached a should for their goal to get more readers because that goal arose much later, after they had already learned to write well and discovered, to their horror, that just writing well doesn't bring you readers.)  For a moral agent, shoulds trump wants, by definition.

I've explained before that I don't think there is any deep difference between wants and shoulds.  The English language doesn't pretend there is; we say "I should do X" both to mean "I have a moral obligation to do X" and "I need to do X to satisfy my goals."  The problem is that most people think there is a difference, and that shoulds are more important.  They have a want, they figure out what they need to do to satisfy it, they think aloud to themselves that they should do it, and boom, they have lexically convinced themselves that they have a moral obligation to do it.


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comment by gjm · 2012-10-23T11:23:56.124Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think you're making (among others) the following two quite different points. (1) If you keep putting something off, it probably means that what you want is more to have done it than to do it, and you should face that honestly. (2) There's something wrong with the thinking of a writer who cares more about writing Great Fiction than about writing what readers actually want to read (and the something-wrong is to do with turning pragmatic goals into moral imperatives).

I think there's a lot of truth to #1 but am very unconvinced by #2. After all, you yourself propose that these authors are more fundamentally concerned with Writing Great Fiction than with writing stuff that lots of people want to read; what do you think is wrong with that? (Other than that it doesn't pay the bills very well for most people, but I don't think "prioritize money above all else" is a fundamental principle of rationality.)

More precisely, I propose the following model for at least some of those authors. What they primarily want (for whatever reason) is to write well, which they might if pressed instrumentalize by saying that this means writing that, in the long run, most of the most discerning readers would find admirable. (There is some circularity here, but it's defensible.) They also want to have people read their good writing, because they think that would be to the benefit of the readers; and they also want to have people read whatever the actually end up writing, because that would bring them money and visibility and so forth. They prioritize those goals in that order; what drives them to write is the desire to write well, and they would be dissatisfied with providing lots of popular but (in their view) low-quality stuff not only because they aren't interested in writing it but also because they think it wouldn't be good for their readers. They complain that no one reads what they write because they think that reading what they write would benefit their readers, and saying "so write what they want to read" doesn't address this because they think that then reading their stuff would benefit their readers less. The only moral value involved here is that of wanting people to have things that are good for them, which is a widely shared goal and one I wouldn't have thought you'd want to condemn.

I think that (1) this model gives a plausible account of what these writers do and say, (2) it doesn't have to involve "cacheing desires as shoulds", and (3) it doesn't have to involve making a hard distinction between moral obligations and satisfaction of other goals.

It might well be that authors well-described by this model would be happier, or do more good, or even write better fiction in something like the sense they have in mind, if they paid more attention to writing what their readers want to read; so even if I'm right about its plausibility it doesn't necessarily contradict what you suggest that these writers do. But if it's right, then I think your diagnosis is wrong.

comment by Vaniver · 2012-10-23T15:08:26.056Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

After all, you yourself propose that these authors are more fundamentally concerned with Writing Great Fiction than with writing stuff that lots of people want to read; what do you think is wrong with that?

I didn't get that impression; what I heard was that they have internalized the "should" that they want to write Great Fiction, but the want that they care enough to complain about is their want for more readers. Their miscategorization of their wants into two categories- one moral and one not- makes it difficult for them to compare them accurately.

Part of the reason I have that impression is because I never internalized that "should"- I want to write stuff people will want to read. And so when editors look at my work and say things like "use less adverbs," I'm curious why. As far as I can tell, readers like more adverbs but Great Fiction uses less adverbs, and so the adverbs stay in.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2012-10-25T20:12:03.988Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree with Vaniver. I didn't mean it's wrong to care more about writing Great Fiction. I meant that it's incorrect to act as though that desire had weight 1, and the desire to have more readers had weight 0, when the latter desire evidently has weight > 0.

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2012-10-23T11:07:15.270Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Seems to me that you only consider wants and shoulds as relevant parts of the story, but what about urges? People are sometimes driven by forces they did not anticipate.

As an example -- I want to see what is new on LessWrong today, which would literally take 15 minutes at most. So I open the page in the browser, because those 15 minutes seem worth the pleasure I get from reading LW. This part was my conscious decision.

However there a few hyperlinks in the articles, other hyperlinks in the comment, my curiosity overpowers me to open them; some of them lead to wiki pages which are like crack for internet addicts. I also want to write some comment on LW and realize "there was one LW article really relevant to what I am trying to express, I should find it and hyperlink it", but then I find myself reading those other articles... and suddenly I realize that I am already 4 hours online, which means my whole evening today is over.

Now here is a conflict between my conscious wish to spend 15 minutes online and the reality of spending 4 hours online. My behavior was motivated by urges triggered by things that only happened after I started reading. If I were a perfectly rational being, I would have anticipated them based on my previous experience, and told myself "really, the choice is between no LessWrong, and on average 4 hours online; you don't realistically have a third choice here"; and there perhaps I could choose to read LessWrong only once in a week. Or if I had a software filter that would remove all hyperlinks to non-LW pages, and preferably even censor all comments containing them to avoid temptation, I would probably use it. Again, being more instrumentally rational, I would probably write such filter for myself, or pay someone else to do it; but at this moment, I don't have it.

So if my original plan for the evening is to read LW for 15 minutes and then play a computer game for 3 hours, but then I really spend 4 hours online, then I procrastinate playing a computer game. Yes, it happens. In the same way I also procrastinate watching movies.

So I think this article is confusing a different meanings of the words want ("feel an immediate urge" and "coherent extrapolation of near-mode conscious decisions") and should ("have a far-mode scenario about oneself", "have a biased conclusion about oneself triggered by conflicts between far-mode scenarios and near-mode observations").

Also, the situation does not have to "either -- or". I can procrastinate on writing my blog both because I would greatly enjoy having it written, but I enjoy actually writing it significantly less; and because my urges overcome my original conscious decisions and make me spend the whole evening online instead of writing the article, even if at the end I feel bad about wasting the evening online, and would have enjoyed somehow the writing of the article instead. Or that sometimes it is difficult to start writing a blog article, but then it is pleasant to continue writing it.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2012-10-25T20:16:39.244Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If that were at work here, we'd see the near-mode urges (I think that's "have more readers" in the example) taking priority over the far-mode goal (write great fiction). We see the opposite. Urges may be a different category and need different treatment, but I don't think they apply in this example, which is about a very analytic activity where everything is in far mode.

comment by CronoDAS · 2012-10-23T04:09:01.923Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've never heard anyone say, "I keep putting off playing baseball," or, "I keep putting off eating ice cream."

Sometimes I find myself putting off playing video games. Which is kind of confusing to me, because procrastination is usually done to avoid doing things one doesn't really want to experience the doing of, but apparently it's not that unusual for people to fail to get around to finishing games...

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2012-10-23T06:29:59.896Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I sometimes fail to get around to sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll.

comment by Lapsed_Lurker · 2012-10-23T07:53:10.544Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I find it is the downsides of those things that I generally blame for not doing them, though I do own a Bon Jovi CD.

comment by David_Gerard · 2012-10-23T07:24:45.323Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by sixes_and_sevens · 2012-10-23T10:22:36.207Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Procrastination often seems less about avoiding things you don't want to do, and more about failing to overcome petty obstacles that prevent you from carrying things out.

I think of this as a breadth-first pay-off assessment. I'd rather go out than sit inside and read Reddit, but at this level of the decision tree, Reddit has more immediate pay-off than putting my shoes on.

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2012-10-24T09:01:12.582Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Some people may have problem with introspection (knowing what they really want, instead of what they should), some people may have problem with navigating the decision tree (choosing the path with maximum total payoff, instead of choosing highest immediate payoff at every branch), and maybe it's often the combination of these two. Also we have hyperbolic temporal discounting of the value, difference between the experiencing self and the remembering self, and internal conflicts between different parts of our brains.

I suspect that with so many problems involved, there is probably nobody doing it right; there are just different kinds of doing it wrong (i.e. not optimally), and some of them give higher total payoff and/or seem more impressive from the outside.

comment by MileyCyrus · 2012-10-23T05:53:21.426Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I saw a study somewhere where subjects were given vouchers for fun stuff like ice cream or movies. A lot of the subjects procrastinated their redemption.

comment by Jayson_Virissimo · 2012-10-23T08:48:00.218Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, I went years without redeeming my "points" for donating blood.

comment by DaFranker · 2012-10-23T14:49:03.163Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

*quick look at a notepad list*

Hmm, I have nine games I haven't finished yet where I'm sitting just outside the final mission, but that I keep putting off in favor of new games because I don't feel like getting used to them again just to finish them.

I think this applies to me.

From my observations, this is mostly due to that cost-benefit calculation that says playing a new game is more fun and has more payoff than getting back into a previous game just to finish it. Some of the games I play (and the way I play them) are pretty costly in terms of "head-space", and can take up to an hour at times just to re-orient myself and become once again fully aware of everything that I need (with my ways to play them) to be aware of in order to play them "properly". Contrast with playing a new game where the awareness gets built up when it's supposed to be, i.e. at the beginning of the game / tutorial / etc.

Building mental awareness and models of the game is also half the fun, for me and at least 25% of my gaming friends.

comment by Vaniver · 2012-10-23T03:07:57.485Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"I keep putting off eating ice cream."

This is actually a pretty successful dieting technique :P

comment by [deleted] · 2012-10-23T16:27:21.542Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I actually find 200 kcal's worth of ice cream more satiating than 200 kcal's worth of most other stuff (EDIT: excluding very unappealing foodstuffs such as unseasoned rice).

comment by Vaniver · 2012-10-23T20:15:39.637Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Very possible- I eat raw cookie dough and notice a similar effect. It was also an oblique reference to intermittent fasting, in which one puts off eating all food, which is a pretty successful dieting technique- and one which makes things like cookie dough and ice cream a food you can eat, well, periodically.

comment by MixedNuts · 2012-10-23T14:22:01.878Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Fails for me, I put it off until I binge.

comment by maia · 2012-10-23T01:06:10.957Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

People who keep putting off writing don't want to write, they want to have written. Some people might actually enjoy writing if they started, but don't want to start.

When I have something that I want to do, then categorize it as something I "should" do, I generally want to do it less. Attaching the sense of moral obligation makes me forget that the original reason I put it in that bucket was because it was something I would actually enjoy doing. This seems to line up with your hypothesis that people conflate these two and cause problems for themselves. But this also seems to imply that there is, in fact, a relevant difference between "want" and "should," at least in one's own head.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2012-10-23T05:34:20.127Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

When I have something that I want to do, then categorize it as something I "should" do, I generally want to do it less.

I suspect you have cause and effect reversed there. If you want to do something a lot, you don't categorize it as a "should" you just do it. Thus the things you categorize as "should" are the things you want to do not quiet as much.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2012-10-24T03:08:02.915Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Shoulds sound like the far-mode version of wants.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2012-10-25T20:19:41.114Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

More like realizing a goal is far-mode, and encapsulating it in a near-mode rule (the "should") to give it a higher priority. Near-mode usually takes priority over far mode; here shoulds are taking priority over wants.