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Reference Points

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.

Think Long Term to Make Good Decisions

On Tynan

I'm on a Southwest Airlines flight right now, heading from DC to San Francisco. The way food works on Southwest is they hold out a big basket full of snacks, and you take whatever you want for free. None of the snacks are healthy; it's crackers and cookies and chips.

I have to admit, I was really tempted to take a pack of Oreos. The justifications are easy to come up with: I've already paid for those Oreos, I'm coming off a long trip where I was off my diet, one small packet of Oreos doesn't really matter.

No Oreos for me, though. The huge basket was dropped on the middle seat next to me, I saw all the glistening blue packs of Oreos, and I avoided taking them. I don't always make the disciplined decision, but I make it a lot, and I'm getting better at it all the time. The trick, I've found, is to consider the aggregate long term in every decision.

Oreos are a short term play. For a period of thirty seconds or so, I will have the pleasurable biological response of eating something fabricated specifically to elicit that response. It's not about hunger or nutrition, it's about very short term pleasure. That by itself isn't so bad-- taking momentary pleasure in the joys of every day life is an excellent practice.

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