Sunday, August 21, 2011

Seven Thoughts On Rules And Willpower

1) John Tierney discusses ego depletion, the idea that willpower is an (unconsciously) expendable resource. He relates it to trade-offs: 
Once you’re mentally depleted, you become reluctant to make trade-offs, which involve a particularly advanced and taxing form of decision making.... To compromise is a complex human ability and therefore one of the first to decline when willpower is depleted. You become what researchers call a cognitive miser, hoarding your energy. If you’re shopping, you’re liable to look at only one dimension, like price: just give me the cheapest.
This is why I think learning about trade-offs can be so useful. The less novel a decision is, the less resources it should use up. The more general your schemas are, the more easily you'll adapt. 

2) How do people typically deal with ego depletion? Apparently,
[E]ventually [you] look for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences.... The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain. 
I think Tierney is a bit off here, as he neglects a crucial strategy: devising rules. "No coffee after two, no liquor before five." "Always take the middle option." Even, much more perniciously, statistical discrimination. For better or worse, we advance cognitively by thinking less

3) Marketers know that we use rules, and they (wisely) use our rules against us. This makes rarer rules more valuable (holding effectiveness equal), as they will be less exploitable. 

4) Before you go off devising your own un-gameable rule system, recognize that there are trade-offs to thinking about topics like this. It might be a better use of your time to just go along with most of the status quo rules and accept that you'll sacrifice some small amount of money to savvy marketers. As Ice T says, it's not about being mad at everything, it's about being really mad at the right things.

5) If willpower is a muscle, can you train it? Yes, self-control training can improve one's willpower to complete unrelated tasks. For example, in one study, maintaining better posture for two weeks (and keeping a diary about it) significantly improved hand-grip persistance (linkpdf). More examples here

6) As Tierney's article discusses, decision fatigue often helps trap people in poverty. But since willpower is apparently like a muscle, shouldn't exercising decision circuits improve willpower enough over time to escape the trap? 

7) I expect that the confound with the above is an interaction with stress. Making self-control decisions when you feel comfortable and empowered increases your set "willpower" level. But the emotionally stable undergraduates studied are not very representative of the population at large. When people must make decisions under psychological duress, it might instead condition a sort of "decision avoidance." Kind of like how overtraining your muscles can actually decrease strength.

Addendum 8/25: See Robert Kurzban's astute criticisms of this model (HT Brian Potter).