Sunday, September 14, 2014

Of Behavioural Red Flags and Unfunded Campaign Promises

One of the key meta-points of the rationality crowd is that one needs to explicitly think about problem-solving, because one's intuitions will frequently be wrong. In general, sophistication about biases is crucially important - awareness of the possibility that one might be wrong, and being able to spot when this might be occurring. If you don't have that, you'll keep making the same mistakes over and over, because you won't consider that you might have screwed up last time. Instead, the world will just seem confusing or unfair, as unexpected (to you) things keep happening over and over.

For me, there are a number of red flags I have that indicate that I might be screwing something up. They're not ironclad indications of mistakes, but they're nearly always cause to consider problems more carefully.

The first red flag is time-inconsistent preferences (see here and here). When you find yourself repeatedly switching back and forth between preferring X and preferring Not X, this is usually a sign that you're screwing something up. If you go back and forth once or twice, maybe you can write that off as learning  due to new information. But if you keep changing your mind over and over, that's harder to explain. At least in my case, it's typically been due to some form of the hot-cold empathy gap - you make different decisions in cold, rational, calculating states versus hot, emotionally charged states, but in both types of state you fail to forecast how your views will predictably change when you revert back to the previous state. I struggle to think of examples of when repeatedly changing your mind back and forth over something is not in fact an indication of faulty reasoning of some form.

The second red flag is wishing for less information. This isn't always irrational - if you've only got one week to live, it might be entirely sensible to prefer to not find out that your husband or wife cheated on you 40 years ago, and just enjoy the last week in peace. (People tempted to make confessions to those on their deathbed might bear in mind that this is probably actually a selfish act, compounding what was likely an earlier selfish act). But for the most part, wishing to not find something out seems suspicious. Burying one's head in the sand is rarely the best strategy for anything, and the desire to do so seems to be connected to a form of cognitive dissonance - the ego wanting to protect the self-image, rather than admit to the possibility of a mistake. Better advice is to embrace Eugene Gendlin
What is true is already so.
Owning up to it doesn't make it worse.
Not being open about it doesn't make it go away.
And because it's true, it is what is there to be interacted with.
Anything untrue isn't there to be lived.
People can stand what is true,
for they are already enduring it.
The third red flag is persistent deviations between stated and revealed preference (see, for instance, here and here). This is what happens when you say you want X and are willing to pay for it at the current price, and X is within your budget set, and you keep not purchasing X. The stated preference for liking X is belied by the revealed preference to not actually buy it. Being in the budget set is key - if one has a stated preference for sleeping with Scarlett Johannson but is not doing so, this is unlikely to be violating any axioms of expected utility theory, whatever else it may reveal.

Conflicts between stated and revealed preference may be resolved in one of two ways. As I've discussed before, for a long time I had a persistent conflict when it came to learning Spanish. I kept saying I wanted to learn it, and would try half-heartedly with teach yourself Spanish MP3s, but would pretty soon drift off and stop doing it.

This inconsistency can be resolved one of two ways. Firstly, the stated preference could be correct, and I have a self-control problem: Spanish would actually be fun to learn, but due to laziness and procrastination I kept putting it off for more instantly gratifying things. Secondly, the revealed preference could be correct: learning Spanish isn't actually fun for me, which is why I don't persist in it, and the stated preference just means that I like the idea of learning Spanish, probably out of misguided romantic notions of what it will comprise.

Having tried and failed at least twice (see: time-inconsistent preferences), I decided that the second one was true - I actually didn't want to learn Spanish. Of course, time-inconsistency being what it is, every few years it seems like a good idea to do it, and I have to remind myself of why I gave up last time.

Being in the middle of one such bout of mental backsliding recently, I was pondering why the idea of learning another language kept holding appeal to me, even after thinking about the problem as long as I had. I think it comes from the subtle aspect of what revealed preference is, this time repeated with emphasis on the appropriate section:
when you say you want X and are willing to pay for it at the current price, and X is within your budget set, and you keep not purchasing X
Nearly everything comes down to actual willingness to pay. Sure, it would be great to know Spanish. Does that mean it is great to learn Spanish? Probably not. One thinks only of the final end state of knowledge, not of the process of sitting in the car trying to think of the appropriate Spanish phrase for whatever the nice-sounding American man is saying, and worrying if the mental distraction is increasing one's risk of accidents.

Of course, it's in the nature of human beings to resist acknowledging opportunity cost. There's got to be a way to make it work!

And it occurred to me that straight expressions of a desire to do something have a lot in common with unfunded campaign promises. I'll learn the piano! I'll start a blog! I'll read more Russian literature!

These things all take time. If your life has lots of idle hours in it, such as if you've recently been laid off, then great, you can take up new hobbies with gay abandon.

But if your week is more or less filled with stuff already, saying you want to start some new ongoing task is pointless and unwise unless you're willing to specify what you're going to give up to make it happen. There are only so many hours in the week. If you want to spend four of them learning piano, which current activities that you enjoy are you willing to forego? Two dinners with friends? Spending Saturday morning with your kid? Half a week's worth of watching TV on the couch with your boyfriend? What?

If you don't specify exactly what you're willing to give up, you're in the exact same position as politicians promising grand new spending schemes without specifying how they're going to pay for them. And this goes doubly so for ongoing commitments. Starting to listen to the first teach-yourself-Spanish MP3, without figuring out how you're going to make time for the remaining 89 in the series, is just the same as deciding you want to build a high speed rail from LA to San Francisco, and constructing a 144 mile section between Madera and Bakersfield without figuring out how, or if, you're going to be able to build the whole thing.

And like those politicians you scorn, you'll find yourself tempted to offer the same two siren-song mental justifications that get trotted out for irresponsible programs everywhere.

The first of the sirens is that you'll pay for the program by eliminating waste and duplication elsewhere. Doubt not that your life, much like the wretched DMV, is full of plenty of waste and duplication. But doubt it not as well that this waste and duplication will prove considerably harder to get rid of than you might have bargained for. If your plan for learning Spanish is 'I'll just stop wasting any time on the internet each day'... yeah, you're not going to get very far. Your system 2 desire to learn piano is like Arnie, and your desire to click on that blog is like the California Public Sector Unions - I know who my money's on. The amount of waste you can get rid of is probably not enough to fund very much activity at all. Just like in government.

The second siren is the desire to just run at a budget deficit. The area of deficit that almost always comes up is sleep. I'll just get up and hour earlier and practice the piano! Great - so are you planning to go to bed an hour earlier too? If so, we're back at square one, because something in the night's activities has to be cut. If not, do you really think that your glorious plan to switch from 8 hours a night to 7 hours a night, in perpetuity, is likely to prove feasible (absent long-term chemical assistance) or enjoyable (even with such assistance)? Every time I've tried, the answer has been a resounding 'no'. I say 'every time' advisedly, as this awful proposal manages to seem appealing again and again. You can in fact live on less sleep for extended periods - just ask parents with newborn children. It's also incredibly unpleasant to do so - just ask parents with newborn children. They'll do it because millions of years of evolutionary forces have caused them to feel such overwhelming attachment to their children that the sacrifice is worth it. And you propose to repeat the feat to learn the piano? That may seem like a great idea when you start out for the first night, fresh from a month of good sleeping. It seems like less of a good idea the next morning when your alarm goes off an hour earlier than usual. And I can assure you it almost certainly will not seem like a good idea after a month of being underslept, should you in fact get that far. Iterate forward, and don't start.

The real lesson is to only undertake things that you're actually willing to pay for. If you don't know what you're willing to give up, you don't actually know if you demand something, as opposed to merely want it. Confuse the two at your peril.


  1. In the stated and revealed preference problem, time doesn't even have to be the enemy. Weight loss is a classic for this. One strategy is just to eat less, and we could argue that this might even give a person more time, but still there is a cost in enduring hunger/discomfort and somehow this is enough to result in the revealed preference to maintain/gain weight.

  2. Interesting. I think weight loss illustrates how it's sometimes hard to tell apart different mistakes. One view of weight loss is that this is a straight stated/revealed preference question. In this setup, skinny+hunger is the stated preference over full+fat, but not the revealed preference. Which is true. But I would argue that there's time inconsistency there too - once people are full, they genuinely intend next period to choose skinny+hungry. In other words, it's not just that they airily say they'd like to start a diet tomorrow, a lot of the time I think they genuinely believe that they will start a diet tomorrow. And that's something that's perhaps not as obviously true for all stated/revealed preference cases. Sometimes they actually do start the diet, starting a diet for a few months, getting a bit thin, then giving up. What's very hard to do, however, is stick to those preferences over time.

  3. In any case, it's always an interesting/illuminating exercise to look at one's own life and choices to see where mistakes are being made. Be they time inconsistent or a stated/revealed preference divide, either way it can be sobering. We should just hope our politicians are making the same reflections on their choices.

  4. Really enjoyed this one. You've neatly identified that a large part of this is misunderstanding of the desire: that people confuse the process with the end-state. People say "I want to write a book", when what they mean is "I want to have written a book", ditto they "want to have lost weight" or "want to have learnt a language".

    1. Exactly. Whereas for things that are enjoyable but don't pose decision-inconsistency problems, this never happens. People say 'I want to watch that new movie', not 'I wish I'd already watched that movie'. For normal choices, they want the process and outcome. For weird choices, they often just want the outcome and don't distinguish between the two.