I commented on an article at New Scientist a bit back called, "You say sin, I say disease" -
Here's my comment -
More and more, I'm starting to come to the awful conclusion that most people have very little control over how their lives go. They maybe have a few key decision points in their life - but maybe not all that many.
And the rest is autopilot. They watch some subset of the new movies, new TV programs, websites they stumble across. They eat whatever's more or less served near them and eaten by people they associate with. They pick the political party that matches their friends and relatives, or no party, or maybe they pick up a book that has an emotional impact on them and swear loyalty to that. Maybe.
I hate this idea, because it seems to subtly advocate for totalitarianism, which I've been against my whole life. But then there's nagging voice that says, "well, just ban all the food that's unhealthy, and people will eat better..." - but we know where that road leads.
It's strange being someone who strives to be self reliant, studies and analyzes to make ethics from scratch, constantly examines and re-examines everything... I think there exists less people like this than I originally thought. No, less than that. Okay, divide that number by 10 again.
Less than that, even? Maybe.
Scary thoughts. I'm going to go eat some oatmeal now.
Some good discussions came of it. Sam DeCesare and I had a good exchange by email discussing it. He graciously gave me permission to share his thoughts -
I agree that a person's environment strongly predicts their behavior. I don't think that necessarily means they aren't making decisions, rather their decision function is placing a higher value on convenience than on quality or health. For them the extra effort required to seek out good food is not worth it.
Another reason is that change is often stressful and difficult, even when the result of that change makes you better off. Back to food, you can either go to the Applebee's down the street that you've been to a bunch of times, or you can go to the Korean place in the city you heard good things about. With Applebee's there's no uncertainty; you know how to get there, you know how to dress for it, you know how much it will cost, you know what the food will taste like, etc. With the Korean place, you might not know any of that, and uncertainty makes people anxious: "What should I get?", "Will I like it?", "How expensive is it?", "Where do I park?", "Will it cost money to park?", "Do I have enough spare change?", "What's the dress code?", "Will I need a reservation?", and on and on. So people avoid change, it's easier to just continue along with their habits, and usually it requires some external force to instigate change.
Of course everyone is different; some people require less of a push to change, some people embrace it. Some people value interestingness (whether it be interesting foods, interesting places, or interesting people) over the comfort of the familiar. You seem like one of those people. You probably read the last paragraph and thought it was ridiculous to worry about all those things when going to a new restaurant. When deciding what to do you place a high value on quality and novelty, which leads you to make different choices than the people who value convenience and familiarity. You're both still making choices though.
Thought-provoking stuff, eh?
To get in touch and/or read more insights by Sam:
Thanks for the discussion, Sam. Good points.
> a person’s environment strongly predicts their behavior
This doesn't mean it's autopilot, though. We choose our environments, and our friends. When you say
> They pick the political party that matches their friends and relatives, or no party
I would say that people don't normally gain many friends with a radically different outlook on politics/life/whatever. In other words, it's hard to tell whether someone chose behaviour based on their friends', or friends based on behaviour/ideas.
I just spent some time reading Thomas Schelling's "Choice and Consequences" and I heartily recommend it. Here's a Google books link to the chapter I was reading, "The Intimate Contest for Self Command."
It's fascinating, and if you like LessWrong, rationality, understanding things, decision theories, figuring people and the world out - well, then I think you'd like Schelling. Actually, you'll probably be amazed with how much of his stuff you're already familiar with - he really established a heck of a lot modern thinking on game theory.
Allow me to depart from Schelling a moment, and talk of Sam Snyder. He's a very intelligent guy who has lots of intelligent thoughts. Here's a link to his website - there's massive amounts of data and references there, so I'd recommend you just skim his site if you go visit until you find something interesting. You'll probably find something interesting pretty quickly.
I got a chance to have a conversation with him a while back, and we covered immense amounts of ground. He introduced me to a concept I've been thinking about nonstop since learning it from him - reference points.
Now, he explained it very eloquently, and I'm afraid I'm going to mangle and not do justice to his explanation. But to make a long story really short, your reference points affect your motivation a lot.
The concept of Value vs. Price is one that I am inexplicably fascinated by. Maybe it's the fact that most people ignore it entirely, or maybe it's because following its principles virtually guarantees success in any area.
Most people do not understand the difference between value and price or, at the very least, greatly underestimate it.
So, what is the difference between value and price? Value is the benefit derived from an action, and price is the benefit lost by performing an action. What makes this such a profound concept is that every action has a value and a cost associated with it, and it is usually fairly easy to measure. Our unconscious minds are constantly evaluating the price and value of every possible choice, which ends up governing many of our actions.