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.
An example would help.
What does the average person think about he thinks of running? He thinks of huffing, puffing, being tired and sore, having a hard time getting going, looking fat in workout clothes and being embarrassed at being out of shape. A lot of people try running at some point in their life, and most people don't keep doing it.
On the other hand, what does a regular runner think of? He thinks of the "runner's high" and gliding across the pavement, enjoying a great run, and feeling like a million bucks afterwards.
Since that conversation, I've been trying to change my reference points. For instance, if I feel like I'd like some fried food, I try not to imagine/reference eating the salty greased food. Yes, eating french fries and a grilled chicken sandwich will be salty and fatty and delicious. It's a superstimulus, we're not really evolved to handle that stuff appropriately.
So when most people think of the McChicken Sandwich, large fry, large drink, they think about the grease and salt and sugar and how good it'll taste.
I still like that stuff. In fact, since I quit a lot of vices, sometimes I crave even harder for the few I have left. But I was able to cut my junk food consumption way down by changing my reference point. When I start to have a desire for that sort of food, I think about how my stomach and energy levels are going to feel 90 minutes after eating it. That answer is - not too good. So I go out to a local restaurant and order plain chicken, rice, and vegetables, and I feel good later.
Schelling talks about in Choice and Consequences about how traditional economics applies a discount rate, but how that fails to explanation many situations. Schelling writes, "[The person who] furiously scratches would have to be someone whose time discount is 100% per hour or per minute, compounding to an annual rate too large for a calculator."
Schelling raises more questions than answers. But I think one of the answers is clear, and that answer is reference points. The man who scratches his rash at the expense of a much worse condition immediately isn't discarding the future. He simply isn't referencing it when he makes his decision. He itches, he references scratching with an immediate abatement of the itch.
Eliezer writes in the theory of fun that to sell an idea to someone, you usually don't need to convince them it's a good thing to live with for their whole life. You only need to convince them that the first hour or day after they choose is going to be good.
And... I think that's scary, because it's true. People reference the immediate very short-term consequences of their actions, instead of the broader pictures. Whether that's exercise, junk food, scratching a rash, buying a bigger TV, or conceptualizing eternity.
This explains a lot of why people act the way they do. It also explains a way forwards for you - gradually evolve your reference points so that thinking of junk food is thinking about feeling that heavy weighted-in feeling in your belly and so that exercising is the rush of good hormones and pleasantness of a good workout. Imagine scratching a rash as doubling your discomfort instead of abating it and imagine how incredibly nicer your future surroundings if you save and invest that money for just a short time longer.
Your reference points establish how you value things. Change them, and how you value things will change.
Discussion also available at LessWrong.
'bout a week ago, I had a great conversation with Sam Snyder. Sam is really, really, really smart. If you haven't been to his site, you should click over there and at least skim until you find something personally fascinating to you (and you will), and then you'll probably be a fan of his for life.
We covered a lot of ground talking. The first thing I made a note of was on reference points for exercise. We were talking why fitness is so enjoyable, such a good thing, but people often don't do it?
Sam said something really insightful - he said people's reference points for fitness are probably thinking about the hard part of starting, when you're getting going it, when you're not into the flow of it. When someone thinks exercise, they don't think about being engaged mind and body, feeling strong, feeling alive. They think about the beginning part where the body and bones and muscles feel creaky and it's hard to do.
I'm paraphrasing - I'm not even capturing the sentiment of it really well, it was a very sharp insight. The takeaway for me was, when thinking about exercise think about the height of enjoyable moments from it. Not the hassle, not the details, not the admin, not the pain. But the most enjoyable moments. Make that your reference point.
"Everything that goes on in the world can be reduced to cause and effect." We talked about tracing ways through cause and effect, and how you could have more predictive power if you did. Economic events, social events, wealth, and so on. We talked about some ways on how you model what was going to happen and make predictions. Fascinating stuff - Sam's playing on a really high mental level.
AJ Jacobs was kind enough to be a guest at 27GoodThings.com and through emailing him and reading his post I found the books he's written. How had I missed them ? A funny guy who does a lot of self-experimentation and then writes books about it, that's what I love to read. I picked up Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection from the public library and here are some of my favorite quotes, so far.
On our evolutionary taste buds:
If evolution worked perfectly, healthy food would taste delicious and unhealthy food would make us gag. On Halloween, kids would fill their pails with quinoa and cauliflower. Dairy Queen would sell millions of bok coy Blizzards.
This anecdotal story about how the buff lads and ladies in protein shake ads come about: