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In "Things I have been meaning to look up for a long time and I have finally been triggered to do something about right now", do you have any recommendations for good first-hand accounts of people who were prescribed those dangerously high levels of antipsychotics? It sounds like a fascinating result.

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I'm curious how this interacts with the idea of willpower as a finite resource. It's a lot easier to skip dessert at a restaurant for example than to walk by the doughnuts on kitchen counter all day. Maybe this is due to the "eat doughnut now" agent updating its belief every time you see them, whereas your frontal cortex only has a baseline prior? If your brain accumulates evidence over a time period instead of just polling at a given instant, then "reusing" evidence might lead to that particular failure mode.

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if you want to play Civilization in a way that doesn't require willpower to stop playing, I recommend "Play By Email"-style, one turn at a time. You can't binge, and it makes it social. This website facilitates it well, and here's a game for ACX readers ( password: willpower ) https://www.playyourdamnturn.com/game/a7c9c3ae-6165-45d7-8241-0b5a082d90d7

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I find the nature of my own willpower to be quite perplexing. My willpower seems to suffer from a strong inertia that resets each day after a night's sleep. If I wake and begin my day by sitting down at my desk (or doing some other 'productive task') then I am on a clear track towards 12+ hours of productive work that comes easily. However, if I begin my day with a non-productive indulgence (youtube, social media, even reading something without a clear purpose) I am catapulted into a repetitive cycle of lethargy that is likely to consume my day, and I am unlikely to get fully back on track until I start again the next morning.

The strange thing is that the dominant variable seems to exclusively be the arbitrary decision I make at the start of the day (sit at desk and work or sit on desk/couch and browse), and not any of the variables you might expect (amount of sleep the night before, caffeine intake, general mood). Curious to know if others experience something similar or if this is just my own quirky psychology.

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<I> prior on motionlessness (which makes you want to lie in bed doing nothing)</I>

Which is a very good idea in an environment where food is scarce. Whatever you do don’t waste energy.

Hum...how does this relate to mania?

Great post BTW! So much to think about in a way I’ve never thought about things. This is so worth the money!!!!

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> which might make you more sympathetic to people with low willpower

Which suggests the prediction that people who struggle less with willpower won't really get the point; maybe a single straight edge is enough to see through the illusion, while others have to obscure more of the pattern and have more contrast on the straightedge?

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Look at that last paragraph of section three. What if there were a way in Substack to code it up so that the order of the elements in the experiment were randomized per reader? Nothing too fancy, just enough to be a natural experiment

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Scott, this is an interesting theory... but how would you factor in the (very common) perception that one's willpower is depleted? Or the feeling that, having faced an unpleasant experience one "deserves" a treat of some sort, even if it is unhelpful.

That is, your analysis of willpower makes a lot of sense in many ways, but it doesn't seem to capture the waxing and waning of willpower, or why one's "intellectual" signal might be able to override the "reinforcement" signal sometimes, but eventually fails.

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This implies that the keys to getting chores done are either to break them up into small enough pieces (finger wiggles / arm wiggles instead of rolling around) or to increase how satisfying they are to do.

Maybe whenever you do your dishes, look upon your drying rack and think "nice."

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This sounds like a partial re-hash of Freud's Superego-Ego-Id. Not a direct mapping, but if the Ego is the basal ganglia, and you add the prior for motionlessness, it seems like the same theory.

One theory I have glommed onto from experience + study is that you increase willpower by extending the timeframe over which the Reinforcement Learner does its reinforcement learning. Perhaps this is the "popular science" interpretation of ADD in adolescents. If a mouse needs to receive a reward within a short duration in order to train that part of its brain, it's less likely to "figure out" longer strategies (because its conscious calculation faculties are weak). If you can train a kid to resist their impulses for longer (the Marshmallow experiment), then maybe that means that more long-term and bigger-impact stimuli are encoded into the Reinforcement Learning systems. And thus they end up with better alignment with the cognitive "right thing to do". But if your reinforcement learning is only of a short-duration, you're going to get in conflict between the two systems more frequently.

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Doesn't 80% of the issue come down to just accepting something resembling the William James bear-approach, Kurzban-press-secretary-theory, modular-brain, Lamprey-experiment model of the brain.

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I think I’ll waste some time at work tomorrow making an animated version of that illusion image, where you can rotate the four-pointed stars back and forth with a slider control.

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Has anyone ever stared at an optical illusion long enough that it stopped working? Or otherwise figured out how to do that? I guess it's tough to test, I could just say that I perceive the lines as straight and you won't know if I'm lying. And I don't mean just being able to see that it's an illusion and check and come to the answer that the lines are straight. I mean, really rewire your perception so that you actually perceive them as straight. I wonder, if one could do this kind of thing, and do it enough over various optical illusions, that you'd eventually develop the meta skill of being able to will your perception to be different as you wished.

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Strongly-willed people aren't desirable under capitalism as it would lead to more labor disputes and stuff like that.

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I am unable to force myself to perceive the lines as straight, while my wife can do it with only a bit of concentration (actually, intentional dissociation). And she also has a lot more willpower.

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"Millions of people throughout history have failed to reproduce because they became monks for false religions; if they had just listened to their reinforcement/instinctual processes instead of their intellectual/logical ones, they could have avoided that problem."

How to even begin to reply to such a statement is beyond me. But to imply that not reproducing is a "problem" is problematic, as is the related assumption that not following one's "reinforcement/instinctual processes" is dumb. What is has no necessary implications on what should be - when's the last time metaphysics and ethics had an enlightening discussion?

That's to not even address the "false religions" jab - false according to whom and in what way? Even if we were to give you the benefit of the doubt and presume you have unshared inside knowledge here, the implication that just because a religion is not materially true by no means implies that following it is dumb. Indeed, even if we went by your vulgar measure of reproduction - what groups in the US have the the most children? Which city has the higher fertility rate: Oakland, CA or, say, Provo, UT?

The literature on the benefits of religious belief is voluminous - far larger than that on rationalism, I can assure you of that. And that's taking the giant leap of presuming a pragmatic/instrumental view of life is the "right" one.

A little less time reading Ezra Klein and more time reading folks like William James or, to indulge your bias for modernity, T.M. Luhrmann, may be instructive in that regard.

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https://ecosophia.dreamwidth.org/tag/will- John Michael Greer on increasing your willpower. I've tried it, it works.

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> Does this theory tell us how to get more willpower?

How about artificially creating the overwhelming intellectual evidence? Not just naively, like visualizing how fit you'll be in a year if you get off your butt and exercise, but like with a commitment device (he says, all self-consciously) where you're meaningfully altering your actual circumstances. If the commitment device is harsh enough then it's like the alcoholic hitting rock bottom or the teacher telling you you'll fail the class if you don't pass tomorrow's exam.

PS: I'm rereading our old post -- 5 years old now! -- on "what is willpower?" in light of this Bayesian theory. https://blog.beeminder.com/willpower/ So far I think it's compatible and I stand by it.

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It's been said that conscientiousness is the most important personality trait for positive outcomes. Is that just a manifestation of high serotonin levels?

Serotonin levels can be too high for sure, but would it be better if the median level in the population were higher?

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One thing that this doesn't address for me is that my willpower seems to work totally differently from my parents' willpower.

I've said in conversations that my willpower is right-aligned while there's is left-aligned. This doesn't mean anything about politics, but visualize tasks as a sheet with ranges bounded by two events: "task entry" and "task deadline". My parents will tend to prefer doing tasks close to the entry (left-aligned); I tend to prefer doing tasks close to the deadline (right-aligned). I don't understand that one. But I do know I have a low unhappiness reaction to unfinished tasks, so I wonder to what extent the difference is whether you're motivating intellectual task completion by unhappiness over an undone task or expectation of failure - which would lead to right-alignment, since certainty of failure goes up the more you put a task off.

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Re: the idea of different thoughts “bidding” in an auction, Crystal Society is a good sci-if book along these lines. It’s about an android whose AI uses “strength points” that different cognitive modules award or receive based on proposed decisions.

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I've recently been looking at Karl Fristons free energy principle. That the brain works by minimising free energy, ie wants to get to homeostasis / reduce dissonance in sub-functions of cognition expectation/Brain model versus sampled reality). Eg) Eat when hungry. Correct visual field with incoming optical data. But harder to explain complex actions with homoestasis?

Think it gels with this theory of willpower? We can think of the brain model as this hierarchy of competing processes. And can probably do this for any higher level function: willpower, or decision-making in general.

Take exercise. You do it if it felt good to do so previously and/or if intellectually you've learned that it's right thing to do. If you've neither the experience/memory of positive exercise (stronger motivator) or some intellectual model of exercise aiding health then you won't overcome inaction/inertia. If you weren't trained to exercise from young, even intellectualizing the benefits often doesn't create the habit.

Base evolutionary processes like hunger win out over positively reinforced learned action which in turn trumps the intellectually understood right thing to do (when there is conflict). This, like you said, maybe explains addiction. So maybe the best productivity advice is that dissonance (and negative inaction) can be reduced with alignment of goals, with time. But you'd need to override the positive reinforcement patterns in the short-term to escape bad spirals.

As for neurochemical imbalances, no idea, but hopefully it's possible that aligning goals over some period is possible to get better attuned to evidence / improve chemical outputs.

Of course, it's easy to say align goals. Harder to (a) actually identify these goals , and (b) plan some program you'll follow; when you're currently not in a state that your intellectual brain is given much authority in action. (Explains recourse to/through meds/therapy/life coaches/etc)

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Does this imply that we should expect people with lots of willpower to have more dopamine than the rest of the population? Or is this only a model to explain how certain changes in relative dopamine levels can produce changes within a person?

Additionally, are we thinking that high willpower people are a conceptually distinct class to high conscientiousness and high ability-to-delay-gratification people? The latter two groups seem quite good at things like writing essays and not getting distracted, implying there's significant overlap. But shouldn't we then expect these good-at-essays people to also display behaviours one sees when most people take stimulants e.g. being more chatty and interested in others, since they have more dopamine which is enabling them to write the essays?

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My experience with willpower is that if I imagine myself completing the task and I don't get any taste of feeling better than I do now, then I probably won't be able to convince myself to do it. If the simulated future makes me feel good, then there's a good chance I will.

I think this can explain, for example, procrastination. Sufficiently long time periods before the due date, I don't feel panicked about the upcoming deadline yet. So I imagine myself completing the work early, I still feel just normal, and I don't do it. Come just-before-deadline time, now I'm filled with dread, and now imagining the done-state gives me the taste of relief I need to push me forward.

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How do I know that my ruler isn't just crooked?

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The intervention this suggests to me is manipulating the reward center. Taking a hit of sugar or another happy drug every time you do homework doesn’t work, because your brain is definitely smart enough to just short circuit to “take the pill”. But what if you had a little hip injector that upped your blood sugar while you were working, automatically? Seems like the kind of thing that should actually work pretty well over time (assuming you prevent diabetes)

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I AM able to see the lines of your optical illusion as indeed straight lines by slightly turning the monitor and my head to look at them from the side! This is MY triumph over your analogy. But YOU also have your victory over me as your blog's reader: well, I have performed ALL these tricks (from the index finger to rolling on the floor) expecting some results from the exercise... only to learn immediately you simply made me jump through these "hoops of the tasks"... ok, 1x1...

your blog is really something!

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It is possible the brain reacts not just to the "bulk" of dopamine "bribes" from the competing regions, but to the time-space dynamic of their delivery:

a complex PDE, and perhaps with some chaotic regimes not impossible.

Mathematically thus it is harder, than the probabilities: I would expect the actual process (with all the chem involved) to be harder, than, say HFT. And why would the human brain be less complex, than the markets?

Nonetheless, there is an attractive simplicity in the Bayesian idea: maybe it can be used for *some* simple situations...

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This perfectly fleshes out the sloppy sentence I wrote here https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/sleep-is-the-mate-of-death#comment-1522219 : "we could do a random selection of task priorities comparable to the mechanisms described in the chamber of guf / guyenet on motivation posts." - your post feels like the perfect explanation of the mechanism I was looking for.

I still think our understanding of the feedback mechanisms involved is lacking. Your explanation seems fully correct, and as I pointed out, there should by something like a slowly-oscillating biochemical process in manic depression, but what is this feedback loop? And can we tap into it?

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If things are bidding on actions, it would make more sense to think of the bids as representing expected values, rather than evidence.

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"These didn't actually require different amounts of useful resources from you, like time or money or opportunity cost"

I was reading this and doing the actions, but when it came time to jump my brain said "unable to jump while sitting down, do you want to also stand up?" which sounded like a lot of extra hassle and would make it harder to keep reading, so I didn't.

It doesn't disprove your overall point, but I think it's relevant to this example.

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Thanks, Scott. Already much to consider, but what about the increasing evidence that host-microbe interactions play a key role in homeostasis, or the research on Toxoplasma gondii? Could the very notion of a singular organism making decisions, weighing evidence… be too imprecise to capture the whole story? Might viewing human behavior more as a cross-species, negotiated phenomenon get us closer to clarity?

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24997043/ https://academic.oup.com/schizophreniabulletin/article/33/3/757/1882426

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"Millions of people throughout history have failed to reproduce because they became monks for false religions"

As opposed to true religion(s)?

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There are no false religions. Perception is reality. Remember the woman and the hair dryer.

I say this because monks have often been the safeguard of our cultural heritage. You think it's about what they said they believed and you didn't understand it's about what they did.

I don't know how to be anything but blunt: this is catastrophic to get wrong, and Rationalists often suffer this way. It's as if people who could become convinced of things by words could be convinced of anything at all.

You were astute about the reason you can't give the intellect total power over the system of the human mind: erratic behavior would result and often does. But you picked an example of intellect and willpower functioning correctly to produce the desired result: a culture which preserves the study of its heritage.

(Hint: People like Scott Aaronson who dream of leaving the world of sex have been around for literal, actual centuries. People pick their beliefs. Then the systems of human culture, oft 'society,' find a place for them.)

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A partial solution to the illusion at the end (and it’s metaphor) is to cross your eyes, blurring the image, but simplifying the data stream entering your brain. Doing this causes the illusion to disappear and one can easily visualize the perpendicular black and white lines being perfectly straight. This solution applied to the greater post could suggest that low willpower is a result of too much information overwhelming underlying logical/rational truths - if you simplify the challenges in your life and focus less on the details - somewhat paradoxical - things become “clearer”/easier to parse.

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This seems very at odds with either gay meth sex orgies or adderall induced cleaning sprees. Both of which definitely exist.

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Reinforcement learning offers another candidate theory: discount factor. When tuning RL algorithms a key choice is how much to discount future (uncertain) rewards over immediate (certain) ones. The reward delta for doing the dishes or your homework _now_ instead of later is small and distant. The reward for playing just one more round of Civ immediate.

Perhaps willpower is about increasing the discount factor; people do unpleasant things now for astonishingly distant future rewards. It makes sense that this would be regularised to prevent us always sacrificing immediate reward for larger future ones, because this leads into all sorts of traps.

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How do psychedelics fit into this picture? Psychedelic assisted therapy seems to often be useful against alcoholism. I'm not sure about how strong the evidence for this is. (Here's a section on wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychedelic_therapy#In_alcoholism)

Regarding your section on willpower and alcoholism, I was reminded of a podcast I was listening to yesterday: Sam Harris and James Fadiman on Psychedelics (https://samharris.org/subscriber-extras/242-psychedelics-self/ [paywalled; see 00:34:40])

Here's a quote by Fadiman where he talks about an interview with a former alcoholic who recovered over night in one of the Spring Grove Experiments with psychedelics in the 60s:

"The filmmaker is saying, well can you talk about your drinking? I haven't had a drink in 40 years. The filmmaker talks about willpower and the man laughs and says: It has nothing to do with willpower, I haven't had any interest in drinking ever since."

This is super speculative but could it be the case that psychedelics smack the neurophysiology of the brain in some way that it can sometimes cause the reinforcement learner part of the mind to lose interest in e.g. alcohol?

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"The lines here are perfectly straight - feel free to check with a ruler. Can you force yourself to perceive them that way? If not, it sounds like you can’t always make your intellectual/logical system overrule your instincts, which might make you more sympathetic to people with low willpower."

I can. Just squint hard enough to obscure the elements leading to the optical illusion.

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I'm going to be a curmudgeon here and argue that we are confusing several things under the 'willpower' label. Yes, I suspect that Scott's Bayesian model is worthy... but it is a model for the initial decision to act (or not). But once you have decided to act continuing to act is another set of conditions, repeated over and over until your Bayesian factors combine into stopping to act.

So, take the famous 'willpower' experiment where the subjects sits on a chair and extends their right leg horizontal to the floor. (That's the initial decision). The subject keeps their leg parallel to the floor for some time. (That's the continuing decisions to continue). The subject then decides to relax their leg. (That's the stop condition). This is taken to be a measure (or perhaps proxy) for the strength of their will. But we are not measuring 'will power', we are measuring how long it takes for the original Bayesian decision to be replaced by fresh Bayesian decisions to stop the actions of the first decision. There is (perhaps) no 'willpower' - that's folk psychology, a false internal model, or a handy social label, so talking of what can deplete willpower is misleading.

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One thing you didn't seem to consider here is that we can collect evidence for the generic proposition "i am capable of accomplishing my goals." Or, more simply, "i can control myself", or, to speak a modern heresy, "I have free will."

If evidence for generic propositions like this plays a role in the Bayesian computation - and i don't see why it wouldn't - then you might expect there to be something like an exponential process at work in a person who repeatedly tells themselves they have a strong will, and, in exercising it, finds additional pieces of evidence that they do, in fact, have a strong will.

This notion of 'a pile of evidence that i can control myself' lines up with my own experience. I wrote about it here:


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I think you can extend this to mapping to self-efficacy and burnout.

Alberto Bandero defines self-efficacy as "a personal judgment of how well or poorly a person is able to cope with a given situation based on the skills they have and the circumstances they face" (there's a 10 question scale at http://userpage.fu-berlin.de/~health/engscal.htm - scroll down!) Assuming that there is a substantial feedback component, this gives us Bayesian priors and posteriors for the hypothesis that we can cope with whatever today will throw at us, and - in an ideal world - a benevolent positive feedback loop as those with high self-efficacy are indeed more likely to engage with their challenges and succeed.

Burnout is characterised by Schaufeli and Enzmann (1998) as experiencing persistent negative mental states, negative emotions and feelings, exhaustion, and the overall mindset of reduced competence.

What happens if someone with high self-efficacy encounters an environment where they cannot cope with the given situation, where for whatever reason, efforts do not deliver results? Presumably their self-efficacy level goes down, as done their performance, as they end up in a damaging positive feedback loop heading towards depression, and burnout as defined above.

It seems like the Bayesian perspective provides a great model for how this would work.

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He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.

Friedrich Nietzsche

So in psychotherapy is common to fail to induce change just through fear (eg smoking will give you cancer and such) or logic. But once you align reinforcement (pleasure/pride) level and high level consciousness it works more frequently. What i mean is: creating a solid, stable and strong FELT sense of how much happier an exsmoker is (anticipating emotionally the prize of the right course of action) adds up and if done properly can more frequently build up enough willpower/dopamine in that direction. Just a thought.

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I've been reading Peter Godfrey-Smith's "Other Minds" and he also seems to believe in a two-stage brain. What first evolves is a kind of subjective experience that is like the reinforcement learner, though he emphasizes that a brain exists not just to make predictions but also to coordinate action among the many bodily players. That's important point for some of the potential effects of drugs that Scott mentions in the post. Seems just as likely that those drugs are messing with the coordination system?

Subjective experience comes first, and you can see it in our reinforcement learning, instincts, reflexes, experiences of pain and pleasure. Then there's consciousness, which he thinks of as also deeply connected to the coordinating purposes of the brain. Consciousness for him involves a broadcasting of ideas across the brain, which makes that idea/thought/inner speech available throughout the systems. (I think, I'm trying to understand.) Broadcasting is meant in a fairly literal sense.

(I think this means that working memory is not a "space" but instead the effect of the brain's broadcasting system at work. There would be a fundamental limit on how much information you can broadcast without the signals conflicting.)

Anyway, a divided brain seems like the oldest idea about the mind. Reinforcement learning vs high-level consciousness. System 1 vs. System 2. Hume's constant correlation vs causation. Ego vs Id. Higher and lower desires. Good angel on one shoulder vs little devil on the other. The snake vs. the law of God.

I can't help but see this as an insight that people who think about the self have come to over and over again. The details are complex enough that each generation feels a need to reinvent the distinction and provide it with new shadings and details. But the idea feels like one that people have been thinking about ever since we've been thinking.

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Good post. Regarding the prior on 'motionlessness', I would generalize it, and rename it to something like prior on 'low effort / pleasant activity'. And instead of the 'reinforcement learner' prior I would consider it responsible for playing Civilisation for 10h instead of doing some more mentally/physically strenuous work. This prior also would also nicely explain procrastination.

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I didn't even wiggle my finger. What does that say about me?

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I think it's useful to differentiate willpower and motivation.

Willpower is the ability to keep doing something even if you find it unpleasant; motivation is the ability to get up and go start a new task.

I don't struggle with willpower much at all. Once I've started a task, I can usually see it through. Motivation is another story. The hardest part of my daily workout is deciding to get up and put my shoes on.

For whatever reason my brain doesn't like shifting gears from one mode to the other. I can have meetings all day at work, or I can do a deep-dive into spreadsheets, but Lord don't ask me to do both on the same day. The best analogy I have is a multi-purpose arena that functions for both basketball and hockey. The way to draw the most fans might be to have basketball on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday with hockey on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday, but if you put the facilities crew in charge, they'd prefer to schedule four or five hockey games all back-to-back. That's why the facilities crew shouldn't be in charge, but if you run those guys needlessly ragged, everything will end up falling apart.

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ADHD sometimes involves hyperactivity, impulsivity, and fidgeting, and Adderall/Ritalin reduces these symptoms. (Something roughly like this is true even in fruit-flies, btw: https://www.ted.com/talks/david_anderson_your_brain_is_more_than_a_bag_of_chemicals ). Your explanation based on a prior of motionlessness does not seem to account for why fidgeting would result both from too much and from too little dopamine. (Related question: does giving mild-to-moderate doses of antipsychotics to (young) children with normal dopamine levels result in hyperactivity? (I guess you'd need this to be an animal study or a control group to pass the ERB?))

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>Does this theory tell us how to get more willpower?

Yes! Cocaine, right?


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This reminds me of the recent thread on the subreddit of real life experiences with trapped priors: https://old.reddit.com/r/slatestarcodex/comments/m4h1al/where_have_you_experienced_trapped_priors_in_your/

It does seem that this model is broadly correct - that our brain is making forecasts and acting accordingly. What I find fascinating is how we cannot convince our brain of something on an intellectual level - the brain has to convince itself of this with real experiences to update from.

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But it sounds like if we had a drug that was able to temporarily turn off the "reinforcement" part of the brain for short periods, we could make huge advances in public health and crime (things like gambling, smoking and alcohol), politics and science (digging into biases and refusing to change opinions seems like a "reinforcement" thing to me), education and business, etc.

At the risk of being way too optimistic, this sounds like a Very Important Problem.

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So what I'm hearing is: Ketamine to weaken old priors and hence make setting new ones easier, followed by amphetamines for a temporary boost to frontal cortex / "higher logical reasoning" priors, which due to the ketamine is cemented, so now you permanently have higher willpower! It's the perfect ploy!

(I know nothing, there's no way this would just work, it's just the obvious synthesis of Scott's post's on these matters)

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> But it also improves willpower (eg Adderall helping people study).

Does it? When I take my methylphenidate for ADHD, I don't feel any significant willpower surge, my thoughts and impulses are just far less labile – it often manifests in doing one particular task (the one I find myself doing when I start to feel the effects of MPH), be it productive or not.

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Typos, all in the paragraph beginning with "Now not only can the frontal cortex":

"to overcome the prior" (missing "to")

", even the limbic system" (missing comma)

And these read wrong to me, but are more likely to be correct:

"limbic system instinctual processes" -> system's?

"frontal cortex conscious processes" -> cortex's or cortex' or something?

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I’m surprised to see Scott endorse the idea that people who drink too much need to “hit rock bottom” before changing. That’s an AA platitude that is not supported by evidence. In fact, if you ask people who overcome drinking problems, they don’t necessarily say there was a “rock bottom”—sometimes they naturally grow out of the heavy drinking, sometimes they decide to change without any particular low moment. Look at survey data from Anne Fletcher.

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If I squint very hard I can make myself see straight lines in the picture. Dont know why.

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This would make a lot of sense with recent evidence showing that procrastination isn't about 'time management' or any of those logical processes, but about negative emotion. Doing the 'whatever I SHOULD be doing right now' may trigger negative emotion in all sorts of ways, including fear of failure (what if I put a lot of work into this paper/work presentation and it's still not very good?), fear of success (if I do well, everyone will expect me to KEEP ON doing well, which sounds like ... a lot of work and stress), and fear that the task will be boring/unpleasant/overwhelming.

There's also recent research showing that while people in general aren't great at estimating how boring or unpleasant a task will be, those with ADD/ADHD are even worse at it, tending to severely over-estimate the boringness and unpleasantness of tasks. (Ask people to rate the task before starting, then ask them again once they're in the middle of the task.) They're also worse at estimating how enjoyable/satisfying something will be, making them more reluctant to get up off the couch and go see their friends or go to a show, to work out etc. All this fits with the role of dopamine in these processes. We see, now, that dopamine is not just a reward system, but also part of that anticipation system that motivates us.

Gotta love the stimulants. I'm sure civilizations were only built once people started consistently using tea, coffee, mate ....

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Buddhists describe liberation escaping the grips of "clinging" and "aversion", which in a sense is freeing oneself from strong, impulsive motivators. In my anecdotal experience, this may contribute to anhedonia to those predisposed (like me). But over the long haul, I think it serves to de-habituate from such strong motivators, which in turn permits weaker but consciously-chosen motivations to win. Perhaps developing willpower is a matter of reducing the strength of impulsive motivations so that these weaker, chosen motivations have a chance. This, in turn, allows for the cultivation of "vīrya" ("the mind intent on being ever active, devoted, unshaken, not turning back and being indefatigable. It perfects and realizes what is conducive to the positive" - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V%C4%ABrya).

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Does this say anything about why people have various sorts of actions which are easier for them to do, or even feel like a default while other people need willpower to do those sorts of things? Some people find thinking and research to be a default, and there are people who like exercise.

I was talking with a man who really *likes* keeping things clean and in good order. I don't think he was BSing-- the seafood section behind him looked very good. It sounded like it would be a strain for him to not clean up.

As a general point, willpower is good, but not an unlimited good. People with anorexia or exercise disorders are overdoing it.

And people in charge are reasonably likely to impose tasks with insufficient concern for their subordinates-- just having willpower for what you're told to do is not reliably the best thing.

I'm studying <a href="https://www.energyarts.com/">a style of qi gong</a> which includes the 70% rule. When you're practicing, only do 70% of what you can do, physically and mentally. This applies with a good bit of subtlety. When you're raising your arms, if you feel a little glitch, don't raise them that high. And do less than 70% if you're sick or injured. 50%! 30%!

I've been doing this for a few years, and (aside from making injury much less likely) it pays off because what I can do easily has increased and movement has become more pleasant.

However, *not* using willpower to push through pain or stiffness takes a good bit of willpower and conscientiousness itself, though taking care has become somewhat of a habit.

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I had been thinking about something similar recently in the context of the CEO of Texas Roadhouse who killed himself. It was said that he was in perfect mental health, had no previous signs of depression, but was a long-haul covid survivor suffering from significant tinnitus.

I've suffered from tinnitus and visual snow for years. I don't know if these two conditions are related (there is some material online suggesting they are), but my subjective experience of this is of constant low-level noise in my perceptual systems. In my case, it seems less like a problem with the mechanical function of my eyes and ears and more a problem with line-noise somewhere between the physical sense perception and the sense data processing.

My brain has become very good at filtering out the noise. I can go for weeks or months without thinking about tinnitus or visual snow and my subjective experience is that they don't exist. I still notice it - particularly in silent rooms, or in darkness - I just don't linger on it and the brain goes back to filtering out the noise.

Then, seemingly at random, the filter fails. My brain will become fixated on the noise. I won't be able to easily stop hearing the ringing or, alternatively, seeing the snow. This can last for days. It's maddening and eventually resides.

Returning to the CEO: I have had tinnitus for much longer than he and he may have had a very severe case, but I have to wonder if he hadn't just stuck it out, if his brain would have learned to be more effective at filtering the false information. Without any theory that "this is something you will learn to ignore, or at least ignore more than you do now" he would have been far more despairing of his future.

I wonder (entirely as arm-chair speculation) if there is a connection between psycho-somatic perception of pain and the brain's sense-attentional systems. Are some people just better (in some abstract sense) at creating filters while others who are not experience chronic pain with no clear physical cause? By paying heed to that pain, do they train their brains that "this signal should be promoted as sensory evidence" and compound their problem? Is there any role of consciousness in helping to promote or demote the importance of certain threads of sensory information? Is this what we mean by "willing away the pain" or "walking it off" ?

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nor would an individual ant be a counter-example for an example with an individual human :) strictly speaking!

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Recording this before I finish reading so I can remember my "naive" priors about willpower: At first blush, I'm not sure willpower is a thing-in-itself that resides in our minds/thoughts/selves and governs our ability to work toward goals. Maybe it's a value we hold, a useful concept, like trustworthiness, that helps us make sense of the world and express should-bes and oughts. Maybe it's a story we tell ourselves. Why did I eat too big a breakfast? No willpower. Why did I persevere and finish my exercise? I owe it all to my willpower. I strongly suspect that any study in the general neighborhood of willpower (the marshmallow test, for example) is measuring other things.

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Very interesting stuff.

My recent ADHD diagnosis and subsequent stimulant prescription have not affected my willpower much - while I can do some tasks more easily, I still struggle a lot with the "important" ones (i.e. I sought treatment because I was worried about being fired and it has only barely improved my work product). My work trajectory has been a degrading orbit for years - the stimulant addition was like a booster rocket, but not strong enough to keep the orbit from degrading.

In Bayesland this all makes sense. I've been attempting to live a "secure" lifestyle in a way that's incompatible with my personality, telling myself that providing for myself and my wife and performing work tasks is what a good person does. But my lower-level brain is deeply unconvinced by that argument because when I perform tasks, there is no reward feedback. My prefrontal monologue can yell "no this is rewarding!" at the top of its lungs, but if it's not, the ganglia will give it less and less weight over time until my insistence that, "no really, this time you're going to feel good about completing this" has no impact on my actions.

I don't care for this idea because it takes "the things I've decided to do" as not only a weak influence on my actions, but currently as "not an influence on my actions at all." That's not exactly an uplifting theory of the mind. :/

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Visualization and/or focused cultivation of intentions is one of the only real magic willpower fixes, and I think it basically works this way. You improve your Bayesian credence that the course of action will yield a desirable state by flooding your brain with a vivid sensorial simulation of what that will be like. You are putting your finger on the Bayesian scale by, in a sense, fabricating some evidence in the direction you want to push.

Amusingly, the main place where visualization-type interventions fail is ... failing to do the visualization intervention in the first place because your credence that doing such an intervention will work is low.

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My impression is that the willpower (or whatever it is) to do things is more common and possibly easier than the willpower to do new thinking about whether what you're doing makes sense in terms of your larger goals.

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I think this fits well with theories of superstimulus. In part what superstimulus is doing is providing far too much evidence.

In particular, this explains a bunch of "productivity hacks" as "willpower hacks" (where a 'hack' is a very specific solution to a very specific problem) -- that work by turning homework into a superstimulus, or otherwise making it supersalient.

Even simple things like leaving the box you need to unpack on your desk (in your visual field) act here to increase willpower to unpack the box, because it's more salient/stimulus when its inside your visual field than outside of it.

This also suggests further hacks, like having your homework be in bright colors or large/sharp letters. Maybe purely cognitive things like visualizing a stadium of people cheering you on (if you like that sort of thing -- maybe some people would be terrified of that). Anything that would increase the provided stimulation would increase the "evidence" to the basal ganglia.

Also, this would fit with why productivity hacks / willpower hacks tend to lessen in effect over time. Superstimulus / supersalience is in part a function of your sensitivity to it, and the more you use it, the more resistance you'll build up (as the odds ratio of supersalient evidence decreases to that of normal evidence).

Which fits with what I've observed personally and in others: the best productivity hacks / willpower hacks are actually lots of experimenting and rotating hacks, instead of finding one that works well and sticking with it.

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Bayes Theorem is a branch of Probability Mathematics {https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Probability} which was the only published mathematical work of Bayes. {https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayes%27_theorem}

If "Willpower is the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals"' , forming a probabilistic theory of willpower with Bayesian mathematics is a very simplistic or superficial approach to human behavior. Consider willpower and panic attacks, drug and other addictions, OCD, ADHD, depression, bipolar disorder...

Bayesian inference {https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayesian_inference}

Bayesian Knowledge Tracing {Bayesian Knowledge Tracing}


Interesting, the post is also reproduced on


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So it's to do with fun, right? Dopamine is the "fun" brain chemical: https://www.healthline.com/health/dopamine-effects#how-it-makes-you-feel

And the willpower struggle is between "but playing games is fun!" versus "doing the dishes/doing my homework is not fun". Sticking to plain boiled broccoli is less fun than a slice of Black Forest Gateau. Exercise is less fun than sitting at the computer surfing the Internet. Fun is fun, duty is not.

And the prior on motionlessness is simple inertia: the tendency of a body at rest to stay at rest.

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(1) Monks and nuns were passing on the evolution of ideas and if becoming abesses/ abbots facilitating the standing of their families with genes close to them

(2) Young people volunteer for wars to defend their country and often perish before they have offspring, but their community survives because of it, and procreates, with genes closer to theirs (than the genes of their farther away based enemy)

(3) The margins of survival in human history are very narrow: this very behavior commonly contributes to at least something related to them to survive

(4) It is debatable with part of going to the monastery or going to defend your country is due to the higher enforcing by a cognitive function which fights the instincts, or by a "selfless" gene instinct to defend your own!

(5)A smaller example: if one sees "bad guys" attacking a small child or a defenseless woman the instinct is to interfere, to mobilize, and to fight the bad guys off, while the reasoning stops some from doing so - so in this case the willpower is aligned with the instinct and not with the reasoning

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I did all four of the literal exercises.

Also, an observation that I think is either extremely deep or shallow: I think that this might have to do with the idea of Lagrangian multipliers. Suppose that you want to maximize f(x) subject to the constraint g(x) = c, and suppose f and g are sufficiently "nice" functions. The direct maximization is hard. However, we observe that at a local maxima, the gradients of f and of g must be parallel, so this turns out that we can do this optimization by maximizing f(x) + lambda*g(x) for generic lambda, then tuning lambda so that g(X) = c for the local maxima X.

More concretely, because we only have a finite amount of energy and moving muscles consumes energy, evolution or whatever wants to maximize reproductive success subject to using a fixed amount of energy. Instead of searching through the strategies that use that amount of energy to maximize reproductive success, evolution can instead program (proxy for reproductive success) - lambda*(proxy for energy), and then tune lambda. So what feels from the inside like a prior against using energy could turn out to be just a hacky means of doing constrained optimization.

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"Millions of people throughout history have failed to reproduce because they became monks for false religions; if they had just listened to their reinforcement/instinctual processes instead of their intellectual/logical ones, they could have avoided that problem."

So the true religions are the one where clergy marry and have families, like Protestantism, Islam, Hinduism and Judaism? 😁

The problem with that, though, is evidenced in Trollope's characters in "Barchester Towers": Mr Quiverful and his wife are very fruitful by their instinctual processes but this means that they are dependent on the wife of the new Bishop for promotion in order to support their large family, and that causes dislike and problems due to her meddling:

"Barchester Towers concerns the leading clergy of the cathedral city of Barchester. The much loved bishop having died, all expectations are that his son, Archdeacon Grantly, will succeed him. Owing to the passage of the power of patronage to a new Prime Minister, a newcomer, the far more Evangelical Bishop Proudie, gains the see. His wife, Mrs Proudie, exercises an undue influence over the new bishop, making herself as well as the bishop unpopular with most of the clergy of the diocese. Her interference to veto the reappointment of the universally popular Mr Septimus Harding (protagonist of Trollope's earlier novel, The Warden) as warden of Hiram's Hospital is not well received, even though she gives the position to a needy clergyman, Mr Quiverful, with 14 children to support."

Secondly, so what is the reason for the problem today of those who are not monks or clergy of any religion, but are not reproducing? They are listening to their instinctual processes in that they are bound and determined to have sex, but they cut off the connection between sex and reproduction.

Should we be crying "shame, shame!" at them and at those lay persons who are childless and unmarried today? They don't have the religious precepts stopping them, so why don't they have fourteen children each? 😁

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> My model has several different competing mental processes trying to determine your actions. One is a prior on motionlessness; if you have no reason at all to do anything, stay where you are. A second is a pure reinforcement learner - "do whatever has brought you the most reward in the past". And the third is your high-level conscious calculations about what the right thing to do is.

Hah, this is very Freudian. Freud first posits the "Nirvana Principle": the goal of the nervous system is to reduce stimulus as much as possible. Hence the prior on motionlessness. Then, the split between Death Drive (compulsive repetition, i.e. "follow past rewards") vs Life Drive (do something new, and whether this results from conscious calculations or pure impulse isn't necessarily relevant. Although, if we look at older Freud texts, we see a distinction between "primary" unconscious and "secondary" conscious processes, which also vaguely maps to asimilar position).

> Guyenet describes various brain regions making "bids" to the basal ganglia, using dopamine as the "currency" - whichever brain region makes the highest bid gets to determine the lamprey's next action.

Freud also used this metaphor back in the late 1800s (The Interpretation of Dreams), describing desire as a "little entrepreneur" which is "backed" by the unconscious "capitalist", which we might call predictive confidence. This is commonly known as his "economic model", in contrast to his "dynamic" and "structural" models, and there's a lot of literature on the interplay of these metaphors (of particular note is Paul Ricoeur's "Freud and Philosophy").

Speaking of dopamine too, I'm sure Freud's prior (1880s) work on cocaine helped him come to these conclusions regarding the structure of the psyche.

The use of having a theory like this, which addresses the "psyche" rather than the "brain", is that we can look at the role of *fantasy*, which is to say: we have some capacity to simulate situations and imagine the rewards, and it is the fantasy which ultimately convinces us to try something different (because otherwise, how can we even make judgments about the worth of what will happen if we try something new?).

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Seems like "short term vs long term" might be a factor. The rewards for finishing my paper are long term, while the rewards for playing Civilization are quick. And if you're potential prey a bias toward short term is useful.

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Interestingly, I can much more easily force myself to perceive the lines in the last picture as straight if I close one eye.

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> naive attempts to "provide more evidence" that a certain course of action is good will fail; the brain is harder to fool than people expect.

I would disagree with that.

Every time I lose motivation to lift weights, reading bodybuilding forums/subreddits, watching progress videos etc helps a lot.

In general, hanging out with people in the same boat provides a lot of evidence in favor of the correct course of action: if everyone around you is doing it, it must be something worth doing.

My brain sometimes is just too easy to fool. Just make it consume sufficiently many blog/reddit/forum posts and tweets uncritically, and it will believe anything.

Scott Alexander's brain may be harder to fool, and maybe it needs to get sufficiently tired before consuming motivational material? So perhaps reading r/CleaningTips or r/konmari after a long working day will provide enough evidence to do the dishes?

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How does this relate to people who have a high levels of executive function or workaholics? From what I've been able to gather it's not willpower as they genuinely enjoy working/doing what they need to do. I'm sure we all know people who love crossing things off their todo list.

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> The lines here are perfectly straight - feel free to check with a ruler. Can you force yourself to perceive them that way?

I _used to be_ able to force myself to do that by pure force of will, for basically any optical illusion. (The inverted face was the one exception I remember.) I'm not sure when I lost that ability but the change was probably packaged with a decrease in depression.

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Breakdown of Will by Ainslee. He covers self prediction

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Just wondering where Allen Carr’s Easyway to Stop smoking fits into this schema. People who have used it know that he claims you don’t need to use willpower to stop smoking. In the UK the ASA banned his ads as a result. Of course you need willpower. But people like me who used the book report that well, no, you don’t need willpower provided you follow his method. Which is basically to persuade you (intellectually) that you don’t enjoy smoking.

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Simplistic IFS answer to dishes: Musician part does not want to do dishes, Doctor thinks you should do dishes but making you do it is definitely not his top priority. With strong enough inner conflict Doctor barely has enough inner power to make you study for a test. So there is no one to do dishes: Musician just doesn't want, for Doctor this means trade-off he doesn't want to make.

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I just noticed I can significantly diminish the optical illusion by squinting my eyes almost closed, so my eyelashes obscure much of my vision but still leave a blurred image. That blurred image seems like a simple, straight grid.

Do you think it's fair to say that at that point my sensory input is diminished and some prior of a grid is taking over? Or is it just that I'm obscuring the part of the sensory input that makes the lines seem to be bent (all the little details) and what's left just looks like a grid?

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I often find that a lot of optical illusions don't work as well on me as on other people - I have some of the hallmarks of schizophrenia and gender issues, both of which interact with optical illusions weirdly - but that last optical illusion is the strongest version of that effect I've seen by a WIDE margin. A lot of the horizontal-bar images seem more or less horizontal to me, less so if seen quickly, but this one is brain-hurty in a good way.

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I'm curious how this fits with Kahneman's system 1/2 stuff (which is more descriptive, not mechanistic like the discussion here, so it probably isn't really a question of agree/disagree). He talks about how using system 2 is effortful/tiring, and your description of the intellectual/logical system trying to fight the intuitive system certainly sounds like system 2 fighting system 1.

I think willpower depletion would be something that these two frames view differently, so whether it's real (I have no clue) is probably useful. I don't immediately see why, in your model, the bayesian calculus falling one way would influence how it falls 10 minutes later, whereas in Kahneman's framing that phenomenon jumps out. Does anyone know how real willpower depletion is?

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Credit to AC Harper for mentioning the notion of a person holding their leg out and then keeping it out to contrast deciding to do something with continuing to do something.

What I think is getting missed there is not continuing to do something doesn't necessarily happen because of insufficient willpower. Muscle failure is a real thing. Presumably, there is some analog with purely mental effort. All of these activities you mention as being "reinforcing" aren't necessarily reinforcing so much as passive. Doom scrolling requires no effort. You can do it forever well past the point of having no mental energy left. Clearly, eating falls into a category like this. Unless you're eating something extremely low in calorie density, it is inherently an energy giving activity.

Notably, the ability to make your muscles last longer is about more than just grabbing more calories and accumulating ATP. Muscles can be trained. They can learn to move more efficiently. The absolute capacity to generate force can be increased. I see no reason to think brains can't do the same. Unfortunately, I can't think of any way to express this without contrasting mental strength with mental weakness, which seem taboo thanks to moral judgments in the larger culture that obtain about those notion in a way they don't about physical strength and weakness. For whatever reason, we don't (mostly) assign moral value to physical strength, but we do mental strength, which makes it hard to talk about because it inevitably sounds like you're implying some people are worse than others because their brains are less naturally strong or less trained.

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Remember that book you reviewed about the guy who thought people in the classical period didn't think they had their own thoughts, but instead thought Gods were talking to them? I was thinking about that in the context of AA and their insistence on accepting a higher power the other day. Maybe accepting a higher power moves the thoughts about not drinking back into the God realm. So before AA you'd think to yourself "aww Gee I really shouldn't have a drink", but you're not going to take advice from some drunk. But when you go to drink after accepting the higher power you hear Gods voice in your head telling you not to drink, and him you listen to.

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My basal ganglia doesn't seem to believe in independence of irrelevant alternatives. If I'm given the choice of doing nothing in particular or repetitive level grinding in a game, I find it hard to summon up enthusiasm for level grinding. But if I have the choice between doing nothing, level grinding, and doing unplesant but very important homework, I suddenly have a great deal of enthusiasm for level grinding.

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"a quick experiment: wiggle your index finger for one second. Now wave your whole arm in the air for one second. Now jump up and down for one second......"

1 minute after reading this I watched the 5 year old I'm staying with go down into a crab crawl and dance/run/shimmy his way down the hall to his parents bedroom. Why does this not seem to apply to kids?

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Using Scott's model we would say kids have a low propensity for doing nothing, a low propensity for talking ourselves out of things or top down inhibition and a high propensity for motor action as pleasure/play

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Interesting. Spencer Greenberg also just wrote about self-control/willpower, and his solution between the conflict of "willpower is used up"-studies not replicating and the strong anecdotal evidence of willpower being used up was the following: split it up into a few subcategories (classical self-control, helpful preferences, pain tolerance), some of which could be subject to being used up and others not.

You can read the post here: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/JgBBuDf5uZHmpEMDs

I think it is a good thing that attention is coming to the topic, because it is one of the bigger mysteries in cognition, and a little more graspable than, let's say, consciousness or free will.

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There’s nothing Bayesian about this account - it’s just argmaxing over inputs from different areas of the brain. Unless there’s some specific evidence the Basal Ganglia does marginalisation (even then, this would result in v. different behaviour to picking the recommendation with the strongest signal, it’d be some weird blend or maybe the MAP). It just seems like more fetishisation of Bayes rule where people want to believe this simple probability theorem is the silver bullet to everything

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So the idea here is that willpower is an illusion? We want and do stuff, and sometimes we may have an intellectual notion that we should be doing something other than what we're doing, but it's not like we can "will" ourselves into doing something that we wouldn't otherwise be doing already?

I mean, this is fine - free will is also an illusion. Error theory about the mind is completely legitimate.

I do wonder why playing Civilization is such an easy option, though - it's not as though it does much to help either survival or reproductive success.

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How would the H in ADHD fit in this?

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> My model has several different competing mental processes...These all submit "evidence" to your basal ganglia

> Guyenet describes various brain regions making "bids" to the basal ganglia, using dopamine as the "currency"

> the predictive coding community uses a different one: they describe it as representing the "confidence" or "level of evidence" for a specific calculation.

> My theory of willpower asserts that [dopamine] affects decision-making [by] representing the amount of evidence for a hypothesis.

Why do you think that? It's ironic to suggest without evidence that a "Bayesian evidence" theory is better than a simpler "brain regions making bids" theory — assuming the latter is governed not by something Bayesian but just ordinary physics produced by evolution, which might resemble something bayesian but not really well.

Also, while I have read a lot of Scott Alexander, Yudkowsky and other rationalists (and much enjoyed it), none of these authors have addressed basic questions like where priors (should) come from, or like "if Bob tells me X, and then Cathy tells me X, and then Dan tells me X, is that three pieces of evidence for X or just one?"

How can we claim something is "Bayesian" when we don't have any criteria to distinguish Bayesian reasoning from "I heard something that sounded subjectively plausible from someone I subjectively felt was credible, so I 'updated'"?

> You could give an evolutionary explanation - in the past, animals were much less smart, and their instincts were much better suited to their environment, so the intellectual/logical processes were less accurate, relative to the reinforcement/instinctual processes, than they are today. Whenever that system last evolved, it was right to weight them however much it weighted them.

This isn't a bad approach, except that final sentence. No, it wasn't "right to weight them however much it weighted them". Evolutions are stupid (but work anyway - https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/jAToJHtg39AMTAuJo/evolutions-are-stupid-but-work-anyway); evolutionary results aren't "right" except relative to the animals that died young or went extinct. As you said, even today, logical/intellectual processes can be pretty dumb.

> Even today, logical/intellectual processes can be pretty dumb. Millions of people throughout history have failed to reproduce because they became monks for false religions; if they had just listened to their reinforcement/instinctual processes instead of their intellectual/logical ones, they could have avoided that problem.

How did you conclude that religious beliefs are a consequence of "intellectual/logical reasoning" rather than "reinforcement/instinctual processes"? I just checked: it's not April 1, it's just a strange thing for an atheist to say.

> Any convincing sophist can launch an attack through the intellectual/logical processes; when they do, the reinforcement/instinctual processes are there to save us

The intellectual/logical processes are what save people from intellectual/logical attacks.

The reinforcement/instinctual processes are there to say "gee, those statements sure *feel* true and I can't help but be impressed with the confident manner with which that sophist speaks." But wait, how does this even relate to your thesis?

On the whole, I think your theory muddies the waters. When I am deciding whether to procrastinate an important task to play a video game, I my intellect can dig up genuine "evidence", like "you procrastinated before and you were unhappy with the consequences", and still lose the debate against Mr. "video games are SO fun!!!" — I mean, how is that "evidence"? It's evidence I will temporarily feel high, okay, but not evidence that it's a good idea from any practical standpoint such as replicating my genes in offspring. But still it wins.

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I can force those lines straight. Now can I be unsympathetic?

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Scott, I'm curious how you would integrate your ideas with what is known about the tonic and phasic release of dopamine. The difference between them doesn't obviously grant a bayesian process at play for motivation. But perhaps that could be flushed out.

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Can you train your willpower like a muscle?

Any recommendations for an actual exercise? The ones I can come up with seem physically demanding or time-consuming. How bad of an idea is it to take high levels of antipsychotics and practice getting out of bed? Could that translate to anything useful in real-life (even just making it easier to get out of bed on a normal day)?

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I can make my eyes perceive the lines straight by squinting :)

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I've been confused about willpower for a long time, and this explanation makes more sense than anything I've read before.

However, in my experience, the whole sub agent thing, defiantly works, and I know many other people who have successful used this method. So I'm not going to accept a framework that completely disregard this experience. But the sub agent model is not trying to be accurate, it's just trying to be useful. I actually expect it to work worse if you take it to literally, instead of just a framework to play around with.

So assuming that Scott Alexander is correct, why does the sub agent method work?

Both the Bayesian model and the sub agent model says that the experience of willpower failure happens because some other part of you make a stronger bid or present stronger evidence.

The sub agent method is saying that you can query those other bids, and consciously look at the evidence for each bid. If you can accept and incorporate all evidence into your conscious reasoning, you will less often find yourself in an internal struggle over what action to take.

But shouldn't this just make your concision reasoning more inline with your other drives, and not the other way around, which will result in more playing computer games and less productive work? In my experience the answer is "no", and I have some speculation why this is.

As my conscious reasoning get better at listening to and incorporate *all* the evidence and argument, (including arguments like "computer games are fun") this system will start to output better suggestions. Going along with my conscious choice of action will become reinforced. This sort-of also explain the experience of running out of willpower. If my conscious reasoning is suggesting too many non rewarding actions, it will loose in trust and influence.

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I'd be curious to hear more about your model of these other agents/hypotheses. You talk about three of them - the motionlessness prior, the reinforcement learner, and the logical planner. Do you think there's actually a small discrete number of them? Maybe there's a small discrete number of top level kinds, but the reinforcement learner and planner are composed of sub-agents with similar dynamics among each other?

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For me having more willpower is all about reducing any sources of discomfort or annoyance (I'm guessing this is true for most). So willpower suffers if I'm sleep deprived, feel fat, need haircut, knee hurts, hungry/too full...etc. The tricky part is I need to have some willpower to achieve these states of lowered annoyance, but it is definitely a reinforcing cycle in either direction. Transforming the intellectual/logical inputs into instincts by making them regular habits is key.

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Yes of course. Humans are perfectly logical beings rationally weighing evidence. "reinforcement/instinctual processes" get a mention at the end, expressed in a negative light, yet this is the greatest source of motivation/willpower in existence.

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I had to look at the optical illusion a couple of times to see them as other than straight and parallel. They automatically look straight to me. I've done a lot of art training, which seems to be affecting this more than some other optical illusions.

Looking closely is like other things -- we probably *can* use alternative systems to overrule instinctual ones, but not immediately. In the case of seeing in a way that's useful for things like drawing complex patterns, it usually involves several months of intentional practice. The first several dozen times I had to do visual exercises like live figure drawing, blind contour drawing, or perspective from life, it was unpleasant and I felt sort of angry about it. It took a lot of -- not exactly willpower, but actually going to live classes where someone was telling me what to do, and timing it. But afterwards it was fine and even enjoyable. It felt like visual muscle building, very analogous to other forms of exercise. I still don't draw or paint for my own amusement, though; I only ever do it for other people, even though I don't mind it once I've started.

As to why I'm posting here instead of painting, even though I know I'd feel better about myself after painting, and would get social approval for that... I think it has more to do with some tasks being much easier to switch in and out of than others. I'm married with a toddler, and know that writing an essay requires a four hour uninterrupted block of time, during a part of the day when I'm not tired, or at night when I won't have to get up the next morning. So I haven't written an essay in years, even though I like writing and feel accomplished afterwards. I also haven't read a challenging novel in years for similar reasons. To make a painting, I know I need something like a three hour uninterrupted block of time in a well ventilated area. This can be at night, so every once in a while I do make a painting when my daughter goes to bed, and could do so more if I bought a window fan for proper ventilation.

Reading blogs and message boards, on the other hand, can be done very easily with background noise on in three minute chunks of time (though I don't usually comment -- I have a bit more uninterrupted time at present than usually).

I've found that many of my willpower problems are actually environmental, and I can do the tasks perfectly well if I change contexts. That was also true when I was single, so it's probably not other people's fault, but simply that I'm constantly underestimating how important setting up the physical space is to achieving "willpower," and have the space set up to encouraging sitting on the couch on my laptop.

That's also true of dishes -- I have much less problem doing dishes if there's a drainer near the sink, and a plastic tub in the sink, and a clean dishrag, and a place to put the clean dishes. However, I have gone months in some houses without setting any of that up, and had dirty dishes sitting around all the time as a result.

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For my money, "willpower" in the classic sense of your "intellectual agent" overpowering your "reinforcement learner" is a suckers game. The "intellectual agent" has to put in increasingly loud and desperate bids to temporarily overcome the resistance of the "reinforcement learner". Sounds like an unpleasant brain to be in! And exhausting.

How much better it would be for your "reinforcement learner" to experience doing your homework as rewarding. But the more your "intellectual agent" tries to exert pressure, the less likely the "reinforcement learner" is to think of homework as a fulfilling and worthwhile pursuit.

Incidentally, I disagree on your assessment of an alcoholic hitting rock bottom. To me, for the most part, hitting rock bottom doesn't work because your intellectual agent finally receives enough ammunition for his fight with the reinforcement learner - rock bottom is powerful because the negative effects finally have become so obvious that they were felt by the "reinforcement learner". I'm a bit uncomfortable keeping the binary distinction between brain functions here. In essence, rock bottom in my opinion is not about thoughts, it is about *feeling* the impact in a way that causes a significant Bayesian update by the brain.

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Not sure how your theory differs materially from the "subagent" model, aside from terminology relabeling. Also, your model seems to have some trouble addressing the concept of willpower fatigue. Why would the balance between the processes change merely because of the length of time they have been in conflict -- if their respective power is entirely based on the quality of their evidence? The quality of the evidence doesn't change with time (or duration of the struggle).

Are you suggesting willpower *doesn't* fade, that this is an illusion? I have certainly personally experienced a fading of willpower -- you are able to do X or Y because of a determination to do so, but after a certain length of success it *does* appear more difficult not to fall off the wagon, so to speak. Have you not?

So how would your model explain why the balance of power between the processes can shift based on nothing more than the passage of time? (One possibility: that the intellectual process always tends to overestimate the rewards attendant on "doing your homework" -- a version of the Planning Fallacy -- and that therefore after the intellectual process succeeds for a while, and more concrete evidence is gathered for its actual rewards, the evidence of its superiority begins to weaken.)

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If this decision making willpower process runs on dopamine, could general increase in dopamine (like by antidepressants) make it better in some people?

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The alcoholism example is illustrative of the non-triviality of willpower deficits (as Scott suggests), since, biologically, after the disease has progressed past a certain point, alcohol itself becomes the medicine that treats the acute illness that rises to the surface whenever alcohol is absent.

Critics with deficiencies of empathy enjoyed mocking disease theories of addiction, preferring to celebrate willpower as something, well, simply ordered up by the will. But this example illustrates the conflict isn't purely a standoff between the intellect and instinct -- and I would guess this phenomenon bleeds over into more pedestrian examples of employing will (like, say, doing homework), whereby some people, for varying reasons, struggle against brain-chemical imbalances that utterly muddle the ways in which the mind uses its tools.

Maybe it's his consequentialist leanings throwing me off course, but I can't really make sense of Scott's conclusion -- that what he finds most valuable about theorizing on willpower is that it provides evidence that willpower actually exists. I thought Scott effectively ripped apart Caplan's gun-to-the-head "test" (which ludicrously insists that if you can do something with a gun to the head you should be able to do it anytime, anywhere), so why so insistent about defending such a loaded and archaic term?

Once again I find myself reading along pretty much in synch, but then baffled by the conclusions and memes Scott manages to extract from the exploration process. It's probably all tangled up with the great difficulty I have comprehending how any empathetic determinist could settle on libertarianism as the most rational response to the lottery that is life. I'm just a boring old liberal, but the more I learn about how much is just chemistry, the more I prioritize taking care of one another, whereas the consequentialist libertarian impulse always seems to default to motionlessness when it comes to politics.

Perhaps paternalistic consequentialism is useful in a therapeutic setting, but I think the most reasonable political conclusions for an increasingly rational society will sooner or later (hopefully sooner) be perfectly aligned with the universal basic income (for example).

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I don't think that particular sequence of requests demonstrates the point, although I don't know how you could have done it better.

I've had blogs ask me to get up, reach for the sky, take a couple deep breaths, touch my toes, and come back to the blog. And I did it. For yours, I did the first one, but I was reading ahead to the second, and the third, and the fourth, and it just seemed like a lot of stuff to do. If you had asked me immediately to just stand up and jump, I probably would have: I wouldn't have rolled around on the floor in any case, that just isn't the sort of thing that I do.

There is an inhibitory force that pushes against going down a chain of arbitrary instructions. I'm ADD, so it's stronger for me, but I'm fairly confident everyone experiences this.

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I have no valid comment on willpower, having none myself. However, I do understand that the opportunity cost for putting away dishes is 5 seconds less of Civ time, then the dishes have to wait.

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I like posts like this a lot, but at the same time it often seems too convenient to completely subscribe to the views presented. It seems a little *too* simple, elegant, and fortunate, that we often end up analyzing important critical systems (e.g. willpower) and conclude that they operate on a well-known, mathematically elegant system, which we all happen to know and love quite a bit.

I still think they're useful systems and models for analyzing and reasoning about the underlying substrates, but I do wonder how accurate such models really will end up being.

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If your conception of the will generates the problem of akrasia, and thus the necessity of a concept of willpower to explain deficiencies in will then maybe it's your conception of the will that's deficient. Aristotle framed the problem wrong and we won't get on the right track again until we question our greek inherited conceptions of the problem.

This paper gives a brief introduction to an alternative, for the problem of moral akrasia specifically, that I'm partial to.


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One of the problems with this theorising is the lack of empirical basis. I come from a linguistics background, and what was interesting about what Chomsky did early on was that he very explicitly divorced his theory from the underlying brain mechanisms. He sought a formal theory of language, and only decades later did he attempt to map it to any kind of neurological process. He was able to do that because language corpora are massive and easily available, and come in discrete chunks of easily-evaluated data.

Willpower theorising doesn't have that empirical base to work off, and so it seems stuck in a theoretic-empirical mush.

What would be useful would be to have some - pretty much any - operational definition of willpower that can be easily empirically assessed. The problem at the moment is that anything that someone does can be evaluated as either (a) an example of willpower (because they did something they willed themselves to do) or (b) an example of failure of willpower (because they did something they were willing themselves not to do); and there doesn't seem to be any good formal model that allows us to distinguish between the two.

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I object to the claim about hitting bottom. We have no evidence anything is going on here other than things tending to get worse once they get out of control until the person finally decides to stop.

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Are you familiar with Robert Pirsig's thoughts on electroconvulsive therapy? Here is a passage from Lila that seems relevant to your model:

"The value of shock treatment is not that it returns a lunatic to normal cultural patterns. It certainly does not do that. Its value is that it destroys all patterns, both cultural and private, and leaves the patient temporally in a Dynamic state. All the shock does is duplicate the effect of hitting the patient over the head with a baseball bat. It simply knocks the patient senseless. . . . But what goes unrecognised in a subject-object theoretical structure is the fact that this senseless unpatterned state is a valuable state of existence. Once the patient is in this state the psychiatrists of course don't know what to do with it, and so the patient often slips back into lunacy and has to be knocked senseless again and again. But sometimes the patient, in a moment of Zen wisdom, sees the superficiality of both his own contrary patterns and the cultural patterns, sees that one gets electrically clubbed day after day and the other sets him free from the institution, and thereupon makes a wise mystic decision to get the hell out of there by whatever avenue is available."

Of course Pirsig was largely focused on his particular East-West philosophical fusion, and his attitudes toward ECT were very much a product of his time. But your Bayesian take on rock-bottom alcoholism reminded me of this "moment of Zen wisdom" Pirsig describes from his own experience with ECT.

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This theory sounds similar-ish to the book "proscrination equation". look it up?

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This theory seems similar to the book "proscrination equation". Check it out maybe?

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I find that things that I don't think of as productive or don't contain valuable experiences become less attractive to me over time, such that I often don't feel like finishing side objectives in games, and am not attracted at all to mobile "time waster" games. But I'll still play the tales gacha game because it's my favourite series so I attach value to experiencing it.

I do have trouble resisting sweets especially if they're nearby, but once I researched micro and macro nutrients and low fodmap foods etc, it became much easier to eat them (eg now I'm quite fond of spinach). And once I set an imaginary "max weight" on the scale it became much easier for me to stay under it... once I determine the benefits of a specific exercise it becomes much easier to keep doing it consistently.

I don't know if this anecdote is helpful at all I just felt motivated to share it.

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laziness, hedonism and common sense walk into a bar and the basal ganglia asks them: what do you want? ...

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"Failed to replicate" + Kurtzban glucose arguments.

Those are very distinct issues.

1. The glucose explanation isn't critical to echo depletion theory. It is a possible explanation, that even Baumeister himself wasn't sure about as early as 2010. And he never bothered that much to sustain it

2. Replication trials have failed miserably in the eyes of the strong replication crowd - not always the most reputable crowd, as any replication - however badly summer - is always a decisive refutation in their eyes.

There was a RRR multi lab study, which tried to get the full procedure pre-approved by Baumeister himself, and it failed to replicate. But there were interesting cover arguments but Baumeister himself.

Generally, there is no consensus that it is a refuted effect. With even some replication fans refusing to have a revised view

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To me, the most striking thing about the darker blue bands is not that they are straight, but that they are parallel.

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I think there's a way to test this...sorta. If you have someone who regularly takes Adderall and is productive on Adderall, what happens when you replace the Adderall with a bottle that's 50% Adderall and 50% placebo? Does the effect of the Adderall get weaker even on the days where's he's taking real Adderall? Is the placebo impressively effective? Does the placebo get stronger if they're given a bottle with 75% Adderall and told as much?

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What prevents these competing mental processes from cheating and misrepresenting how much evidence there is for a certain action?

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New Beeminder blog post reacting to this! https://blog.beeminder.com/bayes/

Also possibly useful is this excerpt summarizing Scott's theory:

His theory says that your brain collects and weights evidence from different mental subprocesses to determine every action you take. The three subprocesses are:

1. Do nothing

2. Do what’s most immediately rewarding

3. Do what you consciously deem best

These all submit evidence via dopamine to your basal ganglia and the winner determines what action you take. There’s a high prior probability on “do nothing” being best, which can be overridden by high enough anticipation of reward, which can be overridden by high enough evidence from your conscious mind.

In this theory, akrasia — Scott Alexander says “lack of willpower” — is an imbalance in these subprocesses. Physiologically maybe that means insufficient dopamine in your frontal cortex such that the evidence from your conscious brain is underweighted. (Dopaminergic drugs seem to increase willpower so I guess that argues in favor of the theory? I’m so out of my depth here.) Hacking your motivation would mean increasing the evidence supplied by your intellectual/logical brain.

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Among the godfathers of A.I. research, Geoff Hinton has proposed neural network models in recent years ("Capsule Networks" and "GLOM") which operate as you describe. Yet, it seems critical to remember, also, that many impulses are paradoxical *on purpose*. For example, you have a drive for stability and comfort, while also having a drive toward curiosity and surprise - the result is often a subtle compromise, *sensitive* to the environment. When two *springs* oppose each other this way, neither extreme is meant to win - they are a spring-gauge, measuring with sensitivity. I'd gone into this concept in more detail in "Inertia of Loss", Anthony Repetto.

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May 27, 2022·edited May 27, 2022

Two things to possibly add to the model:

1. The tendency to do conscious planning is an assembly of stimulus/response behaviors just like doing what worked in the past is a stimulus/response behavior. So it makes some difference how you do your conscious planning - a scheme that succeeds will be easier to do than a scheme that doesn't. Willpower is the extent to which the assembly of stimulus/response behaviors that constitute conscious planning is functioning.

2. If you have a false model of how the world works, then conscious planning that presupposes the false belief won't give good results. That detrains the stimulus/response chains that are conscious planning, so it decreases the ability to do conscious planning. So beliefs matter and false beliefs are harmful to willpower.

I would like feedback on whether these additions are plausible and useful.

This predicts that, other things being equal, succeeding at an intentional act gives you more willpower and failing gives you less. I don't remember this claim being stated in the willpower research, so either it is new, it is already disproven, or I haven't read and retained as much of the existing willpower research as I would have liked.

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WIllpower seems to decrease over the course of the day. Eg, most people break diets at night. Yet, the 'evidence' does not seem to fluctuate as much within a day. How is your theory of willpower consistent with this empirical fact?

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