A thought on the value of "rationality" as a value

post by D_Alex · 2013-07-30T09:27:14.981Z · score: 1 (10 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 11 comments

I read an interesting article today: ["Your app makes me fat"](http://seriouspony.com/blog/2013/7/24/your-app-makes-me-fat). Key quote:

"Researchers were astonished by a pile of experiments that led to one bizzare conclusion: Willpower and cognitive processing draw from the same pool of resources."

Now, when we tell people to behave rationally, we often tend to ask them to consider short term sacrifices for long term gains and act to maximise the overall "utility"; to run through a process of evaluation and taking action that uses up both cognitive processing and willpower at once.

I observed on many occasions that it is easy to make the "right' choice when you value the fact that you are trying to live your life in the right manner. The nice feels that you get when making the right choice compensate for the willpower expended in taking the corresponding actions.

And perhaps this is the value of "rationality" as a value.

11 comments

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comment by [deleted] · 2013-07-30T13:21:35.741Z · score: 6 (10 votes) · LW · GW

I'm peeved with the assumption that choosing cake over fruit demonstrates weak willpower. Not everybody is trying to limit calorie intake (or some other reason to choose the fruit even though one would enjoy the cake more) at any given time.

comment by DanielLC · 2013-07-30T18:05:46.827Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Choosing cake over fruit does not always demonstrate weak will power, but it's far more common than choosing fruit over cake demonstrating weak willpower. People who aren't trying to limit calorie intake will make the effect less noticeable, but they won't actually reverse it.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2013-07-30T22:29:23.359Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

And not everyone prefers cake to fruit in the first place, or even prefers a snack to no snack. But I looked up the original paperFruitOrCake.pdf) and they did actually test this, by giving participants a questionnaire after they had made their choice, about their thought processes as they did so and their attitudes to fruit and cake. From this they determined whether their decision "was driven more by affect than by cognitions". Another of the variables they measured was the number of thoughts the subjects had as they made their decision. They also looked at the effect of presenting the choices by pictures of the real thing, or by the real thing itself (having first tested the pictures to ensure that they looked equally like the real cake and the real fruit).

Personally, I don't take it seriously for a moment. I'm not going to attempt to persuade anyone else they shouldn't, as that would take an intensive study of the whole paper and all of whatever subsequent work has been done to replicate it, and I'm not that interested. I just find it unlikely that such a trifling task -- remembering either a single 2-digit number or a single 7-digit one -- is going to have the effects claimed, let alone the flood of story that Kathy Sierra elaborates on the foundation of that experiment and another on dogs. The expressions that leap to my mind are "researcher degrees of freedom" and "story time".

comment by [deleted] · 2013-07-31T09:33:22.085Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I just find it unlikely that such a trifling task -- remembering either a single 2-digit number or a single 7-digit one

I think there are plenty of people for whom remembering a 7-digit number is not trifling.

comment by Kawoomba · 2013-07-30T09:42:24.781Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I observed on many occasions that it is easy to make the "right' choice when you value the fact that you are trying to live your life in the right manner. The nice feels that you get when making the right choice compensate for the willpower expended in taking the corresponding actions.

Except that most people think they are habitually in the right, and that they are consistently making the right choices. If things don't work out, often it's either attributed to some evil circumstance, or to one big choice that was bad (yet probably because they were "too trusting", turning even the bad choice into a virtue. All/most other choices were right, of course). Compounded by incompetence.

On the contrary, it's the intricacies of rationality that open our eyes to how wrong our actions often turn out to be, or rather how woefully incomplete our information is, how inadequate our future-extrapolators. It's not even that we can say "given everything we knew, at the time it was the right choice". Not while learning about cognitive biases, even the most basic ones.

If you wanna have "the nice feel" that you're consistently making the right choice, don't study rationality.

comment by D_Alex · 2013-07-30T09:49:11.854Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

No, no - the objective is not to have "the nice feel", the objective is to get the nice outcome, presumably such as you get by behaving rationally. "The nice feel", as described above, is just a thing that happens to help you, under certain circumstances.

comment by Kawoomba · 2013-07-30T10:04:17.869Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It's not clear to me at all that explicitly studying rationality (out of an academic interest, as insight porn, whatever) makes you more successful in achieving outcomes which give you a "nice feel", compared to just mimicking/internalising heuristics and social cues by ways of being embedded in a subculture implementing them (probably without reflecting too much).

Studying "the art of winning", doesn't equal acquiring the knack to implement it, especially if the "it" turns out to be internalising all sort of hacked-together heuristics such that they become second-nature. Similar to how academically studying what makes a Roman a Roman probably makes you less of a Roman than simply growing up in a Roman household.

Consider studying acting tricks versus living as an actor, mimicking the tricks without even realizing.

Or mental discipline -- you can learn all day long how important it is, just being trained to have mental endurance (without the term ever coming) as a child will outweigh all that and more.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2013-07-31T11:23:44.049Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Studying "the art of winning", doesn't equal acquiring the knack to implement it

If it doesn't include it, it's a poor sort of studying. Studying rationality "out of an academic interest, as insight porn, whatever" is not what I would call "studying".

comment by itaibn0 · 2013-07-31T21:53:23.141Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Except that most people think they are habitually in the right, and that they are consistently making the right choices. If things don't work out, often it's either attributed to some evil circumstance, or to one big choice that was bad (yet probably because they were "too trusting", turning even the bad choice into a virtue. All/most other choices were right, of course). Compounded by incompetence.

You have here a very specific model of a failure mode a person can have with many details. Be more careful with claims about "most people".

comment by sketerpot · 2013-08-01T06:38:48.554Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Do you know what the best thing is? The best thing is when you habitually recognize the most common forms of human irrationality, and easily steer away from them. This works when you're short on will power, when you're sleepy, when you're drunk, when you're under the influence of religious experiences; whenever. It works because it doesn't require any real effort, in the moment. The effort comes when you try to train yourself to think like this, and you can do that beforehand, at your leisure.

(This isn't actually the Best Thing. The real Best Thing is practically unachievable, and only a superintelligent friendly AI can tell you precisely how unachievable it is. But this is still pretty great: a way to be reasonable without much depleting your supply of willpower. Reasonable by human standards, I mean.)

comment by D_Alex · 2013-08-01T07:05:04.142Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The [very, very good ] thing is when you habitually recognize the most common forms of human irrationality, and easily steer away from them.... ... ...it doesn't require any real effort, in the moment.

I agree! But you will encounter situations, pretty often at first and ever more rarely as you get experience in recognising irrationality, where your willpower will be tested. And then it is easier to expend the needed effort if you feel good about the process you are going through.