Akrasia

Description to come later

June 18, 2017 — September 9, 2023

Figure 1

A useful insight from behavioural economics is that coordinating between my past self, my current self, my near future self and my far future self is a difficult cooperation game I sometimes think of time management as a mechanism design problem where all the players are me, at different points in the past and future.

Akrasia is the beeminder term for thinking about this

Akrasia (ancient Greek ἀκρασία, “lacking command over oneself”) is the state of acting against one’s better judgment, not doing what one genuinely wants to do. It encompasses procrastination, lack of self-control, lack of follow-through, and any kind of addictive behavior.

There is deep theory on akrasia; e.g. Guzey (2018)

Much economic research is concerned with the question of why our commitments to ourselves fail, whether it’s lack of self-confidence, lack of willpower in the face of temptations, conflict between the “selves”, or one of many other explanations. We introduce and formalize a new model of commitment failure. We posit that the subjective experience of failing a commitment is frequently indistinguishable from the subjective experience of following it. Thus, we model a person consisting of two selves: Planner (she) and Doer (he). Planner devises the rule for the person’s long-term benefit and Doer follows his perception of Planner’s rule. We analyze the conditions under which Planner is (not) able to devise an effective rule. We show that under some conditions, Doer, while believing that he continues to follow the Planner’s rule, descends into complete procrastination, while, under some conditions, Doer always works to the person’s long-term benefit.

Have a slada of other notes and questions on the theme of akrasia.

1 Role playing time management

Experiment: Pretend to be someone else, a counsellor or something, who would advise you on what to do and really wants the best for you. If you take their imaginary advice on what to do right now, does make you get more stuff done. It does for me. Why?

Figure 2

2 Discounting

Peter Clark calls this the “Intrapersonal Collective Action Problem”, which I like because it emphasises that our preferences might be inconsistent across timescales, or even inside ourselves. A complementary concept: “precrastination”.

Tim Harford on hyperbolic discounting:

…what to do about the hyperbolic discounting problem? I have two suggestions. The first helps bring a long-term perspective to the daily to-do list. Don’t draw up your list of tasks first thing in the morning — do it the previous evening, when you will have a slightly more distant perspective. When you do so, think about the two or three tasks you would feel most satisfied to have ticked off. Put those at the top of the list and make them your priority.

The second suggestion flips the telescope around and brings today’s perspective to tomorrow’s commitments. When being invited to do things months in advance, the diary usually looks pretty clear and it’s tempting to say “yes”. But whenever a new invitation arrives, ask yourself not, “should I accept the invitation in March?” but, “would I accept the invitation if it was for this week?”

Aside: I should look up why they always call this “hyperbolic discounting”. Sure, maybe it’s not exponential discounting, but has anyone empirically fit a good hyperbolic curve in particular to typical discounting behaviour, or do we use this term solely because it’s the most clever-sounding thing that’s got fewer syllables than “non-exponential”?

And when we say hyperbolic discounting, are we emphasising the far future tail, or the immediate inflation? Surely this is a non-parametric estimation problem?

Related: the problem of optimal hedonism.

Figure 3: The fun scale by Sketchplanations

3 Tying yourself to the mast

Economics is the branch of applied mathematics concerned with the theory and application of constrained maximization. Without exception, every microeconomic decision problem can be framed as the choice of decision variables in order to maximize some objective function (utility, profit, etc.) subject to constraints on the quantity and quality of resources and the manner they are used. To the extent that macroeconomics has theoretical content, it is similarly formulated.

Mathematics is a language. Language strongly influences thought. The language of con-strained maximization has led economists to think of constraints as self-evidently welfare-impairing, and to quantify the welfare cost of constraints through use of shadow prices.

Consider, however, the following types of behavior: My teenage son’s bicycle, though perfectly usable, is to him unaesthetic, because the left pedal is different from the right one; our efforts to remove and replace the odd pedal have defied every tool, technique and muscle. For the past three weeks, he has voluntarily denied himself the convenience and pleasure of using the bicycle, because “if I use it, you and I will never feel the need to take the time to get it down to the bike shop”.

Maital (1986).

Related: avoiding ease traps.

Figure 4: Oglaf on upskilling

There’s A Time For Everyone, Scott Alexander argues thusly:

Marriage is a contract, no different in theory than an airline’s contract with an airplane manufacturer. The airline says they’ll buy X planes over the next ten years; the manufacturer says they’ll provide them at such-and-such a price. At the moment of signing, both parties think it’s a good idea. If they both knew it would stay a good idea, a contract would be unnecessary. But something might change. The air travel market might crash, and then the airline would regret having ordered more planes, and want to back out. The price of raw materials might go up, and then the manufacturer would regret offering such a low price, and want to back out themselves. But it would be unfair for the airline to make the airline manufacturer commit to a complicated course of action — building new factories, hiring lots of workers — and then change their mind, leaving them in a worse position than when they started. And it would be unfair for the manufacturer to make the airline commit to a complicated course of action — opening new routes, signing contracts with more airports — and then pull the rug out from under them and demand a higher price. So if you’re committing to a mutual enterprise where both sides are going to make big irreversible changes to satisfy the other, you want a contract where they both agree not to back out, and agree to suffer heavy social and financial sanctions if they do.

(Eliezer Yudkowsky sometimes describes this as ‘changing yourself into a more coherent person in order to become a better bargaining partner’, which I find strangely romantic.)

4 In practice

See time management.

5 Addiction

See addiction.

6 As an alignment problem

How do I align myself no with all my future and past selves?

7 Incoming

8 References

Allcott, Braghieri, Eichmeyer, et al. 2019. The Welfare Effects of Social Media.” Working Paper 25514.
Berg. 2003. “Normative Behavioral Economics.” The Journal of Socio-Economics.
Bernecker, and Becker. 2021. Beyond Self-Control: Mechanisms of Hedonic Goal Pursuit and Its Relevance for Well-Being.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Bernheim. 2002. “Taxation and Saving.” In Handbook of Public Economics.
Bernheim, and Rangel. 2009. Beyond Revealed Preference: Choice-Theoretic Foundations for Behavioral Welfare Economics*.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics.
Dezfouli, Griffiths, Ramos, et al. 2019. Models That Learn How Humans Learn: The Case of Decision-Making and Its Disorders.” PLOS Computational Biology.
Dezfouli, Nock, and Dayan. 2020. Adversarial Vulnerabilities of Human Decision-Making.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Dolan, and Kahneman. 2008. Interpretations Of Utility And Their Implications For The Valuation Of Health*.” The Economic Journal.
Edelmann. 2022. Values, Preferences, Meaningful Choice.”
George. 2009. Preference Pollution: How Markets Create the Desires We Dislike.
Guzey. 2018. How Our Commitments Slip Away From Us.”
Lin, Sidani, Shensa, et al. 2016. Association Between Social Media Use and Depression Among U.S. Young Adults.” Depression and Anxiety.
Maital. 1986. Prometheus Rebound: On Welfare-Improving Constraints.” Eastern Economic Journal.
Primack, Shensa, Escobar-Viera, et al. 2017. Use of Multiple Social Media Platforms and Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety: A Nationally-Representative Study Among U.S. Young Adults.” Computers in Human Behavior.