Category Archives: pico economics

Get 40% more done, keep it secret

Wow!  This a wonderfully counter intuitive bit of social science!

Imagine that you would like to be sword swallower.  In service of achieving that goal  you set out to accumulate assorted accouterments: a sword, some books on sword swallowing, you study your vocabulary, you watch some videos, you take a course.  Each of these moves you closer to your goal, and slowly you begin to think of your self as actually a sword swallower.

Or imagine you want to be a small businessman.  You print up some business cards.  You pick a name for your business.  You register with the town, open a bank account. You buy a suit and start wearing it.  Again each of these is a step toward constructing your new identity.

Wait!  Printing up business cards doesn’t make you a small businessman.  Owning a sword you intend to swallow does not a sword swallower make.  Intention is a far cry from being.  But, people get confused and questions arise.  How often to we declare success based only on our good intentions?  Do we confuse the means with the end?  Of course we do.  And, while the worse case delusions are obvious – a good costume doesn’t make yo a superhero – in most cases the lines are quite fuzzy.

What kicked off that musing was this wonderful article reporting four studies reported in Psychology Science: “When Intentions go Public” (pdf or pdf).  I was interested in this paper because I’m interested in privacy.  What happens if I show other people that sword I’ve bought?  What happens when students sign one of those honor codes?  What happens when a hacker publicly reveals some source code he’s working on.  Does it help?  Are we more or less likely to get a sword-swallower, an honorable student, or a open source contributor?

Obviously, we think that public revealing strengthens identity.  We certainly wouldn’t be asking students to sign honor codes if we thought otherwise.  But what if!  What if it undermines their aspirations to be honorable people!  I was already suspicious because of story we tell for why these things must work.  I.e. that this public revealing raises the stakes, that it puts our reputation at risk.  If everybody knows we have started a small business or taken up sword swallowing then we risk embarrassment when down the road we have to admit it all was a sham.  But I have my doubts about that, since I doubt that stakes is an effective means to controlling behavior.

So here is the surprise.  These studies suggest that public revealing of our intentions undermines our follow through.  These studies are all very simple.  Let’s look at one.  They get a group of students who really want to become psychologists and having them filled out a survey.  On the last page they ask them to write down what the intend to study next week in service of their goal.  The subjects are randomly split into two groups public, and private.  The kids in the private group are told that intend-to-study question was included by mistake, the experimenter tears it off and throws it away.  For the public group the experiment reads over the survey with the kid.  Nominally this is to check for errors, but in reality it just assures the kid knows that the experimenter knows of his study plans.

A week later they have the kids fill out a form to on which days they studied.  Those who’s intentions remained private studied 40% more!

What’s going on?  The theory suggests that we are keeping score on our progress toward achieving out goal.  Naturally we take credit for various steps along the way.  We give our self some credit for opening that business bank account, or buying that sword, or signing that honor code.  The bizarre bit is that these students apparently gave themselves some points toward achieving their goal as a consequence of having it be known to another person that they intended to work on toward the goal, and feeling that they were closer they didn’t work as hard.

This is worse than confusing the means with the end.  Worse than confusing having business cards with being a businessman.  In this case the just telling somebody your going to buy some business cards creates a sufficiently powerful fantasy that you are a businessman that you stop working on the project.

Now if this is all true it suggests that asking students into signing honor codes make them less likely to follow through on becoming honorable.  It suggests that asking your staff to outline their plan for the next week actually makes it less likely they will follow through on that plan.  It suggests that signing a contract undermines rather than increases the chance the parties will do the work agreed.  How weird is that!

It’s interesting that nobody I’ve told this story to finds this particularly surprising.  They all agree, revealing their intentions seems to undermine their follow through.  It’s all just too delightfully weird!

Why Do We Pay Attention?

Why do we read those blogs, email, chats, twitter, voice mails, newspapers, magazines, etc. etc.  Presumably there is some logic to that.  Some motivational schema.  There’s money in the answer to this question.  Will my students pay attention?  Will my novel be a hit?  Will my newspaper survive?  So, surely this question has been extensively studied?  I can think of a few examples.  There are handbooks on teaching, writing, advertising that all look into the question.

Here is an another attempt, coming at this from the currently popular puzzle of what might stop the free-fall of newsprint and it’s codependents (i.e. investigative reporting, PR, local advertising, etc).  He blocks out four reasons why we expend resources to accumulate new information:

  • Entertainment – is everybody animated now?
  • Deciding – in a yellow wood?
  • Staying Expert – sort of a service contract model i guess
  • Paid To – diagnosing, trained,  flattery?

These are not independent.  For example, the author of a highly technical paper targeted at a community of experts will often include a significant amount of entertaining content since he knows that makes the material more memorable or more viral.  But one reason it’s clear these are disjoint categories is how when your goal is drawn from one category it can be  irritating  to have content from one of the others popping up.

I found it disconcerting and then amusing that what I’ve labeled “paid to” he named flattery.

I’m not particularly comfortable with this framework.  Why do fans pay attention?  But, it is fun to compare it various other schemes: story templates, selling scripts, etc.  For example in the  typical  fairy tale our hero is cast out of one’s home, goes on a quest, and then returns home.  That has all four elements.  For example when we are influenced by the use of social proof in a situation that has elements of deciding; but helps to highlight how there is a social aspect to all four.  When we tell a story by opening with a mystery to hook our readers, a standard bit of teaching advise which I used in this posting, then we are pulling on a few cords from all four.  And where does the phrase “breaking news” fit into that framework?

And what’s up with cliff hangers?  People do pay to have those resolved.  Did Ben find a job yet?  Tune in tomorrow!

based on The 4 reasons anybody ever consumes information…

QA: Impulse Control

People lose control and act impulsively all time.  It is important to forgive ’em.  If you never act  impulsively  then you seem humorless, uptight, officious,  bureaucratic.  When professionals act impulsively we wonder: should let this guy steer the ship? One scheme to temper impulses is to smooth things a bit using a group.  When your managerial team act out impulsively it’s a signal to go short.

Here is an example that is kind of meta.

“I have a friend who works in a small company who have just put the three testers on notice of redundancy. The developers have been told that they will have to do all the testing. The testers have been told they have five days to write a letter justifying why they should be kept.

I need as many reasons possible why getting rid of the testers is a bad idea in a scrum environment please.”

The managers in question probably should have run that idea thru a bit of quality assurance.

Boy is that bad personal management, totally unprofessional.  It’s going to be impossible to get much enthusiasm for the job going forward.  I’d file that under “examples of trying to control behavior by raising the stakes.”

Whenever you do layoffs the remaining staff is soured.  Dissipating the emotional cloud that falls over the team critical.  It is really hard.  The people laid off are the most  susceptible.  That is one reason firms try to get them out of the building as quickly as possible.  That bum’s rush is another example of what the public health guys call social distancing, and the tactic outlined above just about assures maximal infection.

It also signals that management lacks much clue about the role of QA, or that things are much worse than they are saying.

I can’t help thinking that these poor testers have been invited to write their own obituary.  It could be like one of those scenes in a comedy of bad behavior where the lawyer reads the will that  going on for pages as the  deceased  enumerates each and every flaw of his  descendants.  But yeah, here’s a impulsive suggestion:  Once they are gone, who will fill the role of canary for their code miners?

Raising the Stakes

A little article on the idea that behavioral change can be achieved by raising the stakes.  This is an idea that economists and lawyers like; so it’s unsurprising that the boffins referenced include one of each.  To my mind and as a fan of the work on hyperbolic discounting this is just another example of the business model behind most gyms.  You sign up when your interest in good health is dominate, but later it’s status  among  your assorted interests  plummets, but your left with the subscription.  This is an ethical danger with all subscription based businesses.  The unethical vendor takes advantage of the enthusiasm of one moment to lock in a long term commitment.  While there is some sort of power/erotic subtext in this idea, this also part of a pattern where we try to negotiate between our interests by creating alliances amongst groups of them.  If we have a strong interest or success in one area of our interests then the hope is that by linking them to one of other other desires, say to loose weight, we can bring success in one domain.  That’s what we do when we make public promises to follow thru on a given interest, tie our reputation to that interest.

These often fail.

me sue me

So I was inordinately fascinated by a paragraph in Schelling’s paper “Enforcing Rules on Oneself”.  This is a paper about personal rules, i.e. the rules we all adopt to reign in our behavior against the pest that is  hyperbolic discounting.  Since  Schelling’s wrote the  paper for a law journal he needed to outline why the usual tools of lawyering aren’t applicable.  Why won’t the courts help you enforce your personal rules?  Why can’t you make a contract with your self to say, go to bed at 10pm everyday?    Why can’t get the courts to enforce a contact you made with your self?  He writes:

“Legal means are not easy to come by. On another occasion (1984a) I looked  at the question, Why can we not make legally enforceable vows – promises oriented toward no one in particular, intended to commit ourselves to the behavior we now wish to demand of ourselves?  Why is it that certain constitutional rights are inalienable and we cannot contract to be held against our will until we have killed a drug habit, lost thirty pounds, or survived the full moon during which we acquire an urge to commit heinous crimes?  Contracts are enforceable, subject to certain safeguards – not under duress, not between minors, not for involuntary servitude; promises are tantalizingly unenforceable unless they can be construed as part of an exchange.  I cannot make a will that I cannot change; and it requires extraordinary ingenuity – is usually  impossible – to get the state to tell me to do what I wish to be compelled to do, to intercede physically or to sanction with penalties the behavior that I now wish to avoid in the future.”

My first guess:  it would be silly if the  courts got into the business of adjudicating contracts we made with ourselves.  They probably tried it and it did serious  damage to the court’s gravitas.  The litigant would be running from one side of the bench to the other like a child playing chess with himself.  Would he change hats each time?  I became less certain of that guess upon recalling the aphorism “The man who represents himself has a fool for a client.”  The court could force these disputes into the usual form and require that both sides be represented by council.  More work for lawyers!

But hold on.  There are cases where society has created mechanisms for enforcing vows outside of an exchange, aka vows directed at no one in particular.  Don’t want to drink – move to the dry town.  Want to repress your urges to paint the house bright colors?  Live on Nantucket.  If you don’t know Nantucket’s is a wealthy vacation enclave where zoning rules that limited the color you can paint your house.  Recognizing that zoning and condo agreement is a means to enforce personal rules was new to me.  The  literature  on zoning complains, actually, that there isn’t as much zoning diversity as buyers would probably like.

Further there are many cases down through time and space of much more exacting attempts to enforce personal vows.    For example: in Arizona you can sign away your right to enter a gambling den.  In France there was a time when a family could petition the courts to punish family members who are doing damage to the household’s reputation. 

The line between what the courts will get entangled in and what they stay out of, the inalienable rights, isn’t as bright as we often suspect.  Subordinate groups (non-citizens, children, fools, the convicted, etc.) often find the court drawn into enforcing their vows.  There is currently a fad for having students and parents sign pledges of various kinds.  I assume there must be examples where these are enforced by 3rd parties.

Notice that inalienable rights are not entirely about the individual.  They are also about what the disputes the courts are willing to entertain.  I.e. freedom of speech is a class of disputes that the courts/society may well have just decided to throw up their hands and walk away from.  Further there are inalienable rights, such as freedom to travel, which as technology shifts, the courts may revisit and decide “sure we can adjudicate that at reasonable cost; bring ’em on.”


Here’s a nice clean example of “preparation of emotion” – one of Anisle’s broad categories for counter acting our hyperbolic nature.

I have a friend who taught me a rule.  To chuckle quietly when every anybody says “just.”  As in “The job is just dealing with the machine crashes.”  It’s a good rule.  In particular the quiet part!

There is a curiousity.  It has two parts.  First, that people who don’t understand the work often underestimate it’s complexity.  So they say things like “We should just slap a new Ajax UI on this thing.”  Meanwhile, the people who are competent in a given craft can actually do magical things in short order; which oddly encourages the folks in the first bucket.

This is also a good example of one unfortunate side effects of all methods for impulse control.  They all suck the spontaneity out of life and turn you into an old fart.

Will Power

This post is a table of contents for finding the postings I’ve written over the years on the topic of pico-economics, i.e. George Ainslie’s model of what a horribly difficult time we have with impulse control.

  • This posting explains how tremendously overvalue temptations that are closer v.s. further away; and how this annoys us.  Experiments show it annoys even pigeons.  Control of Appetite
  • The competing interests in your head can be thought of as a gang consisting of each interest.  They are caught in a kind of prisoner’s dilemma.

Ainslie enumerates a very short list of techniques for gaining rational control over your irrational selves.  His name for this is intertemporal bargaining.

  • The surprising one is the use of emotions to buttresses our defenses.  He calls that preparation of emotion (never talking to her again!). similar
  • but more rational, are long lived personal rules (never ever drink before 5pm),
  • on a more moment to moment basis is the manipulation of attention (don’t look at her!)
  • what we do outside our head, or extrapsychic commitments (e.g. moving to a dry town)

When I’m a good boy all these are included in the category pico-economics and I have a little wiki about pico-economics.

Self Trading

When hanging out in the world of ideas created by Ainsle’s work Emerson’s cliche “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” offers a nice perspective. Possibly Emerson’s point was that given a larger mind you can house yet more than one hobgoblin.

In related news I see that when they cleaned up the data from Google prediction market they discarded some trades, including “self-trades (which resulted from the fact that the software allowed traders to be matched with their own limit orders).” I wonder how much of that goes on in real markets. It’s clearly a sign of the temporal inconsistency which Ainsle’s work focuses on.

These trades took place between the hobgoblin that decided to place a limit order, and a later hobgoblin that decided to make a trade at that moment. It isn’t clear to me exactly why it’s best practice to remove the trades between these hobgoblins just because they were housed in the same person’s corporal body.

There is a wonderful classic poem, Goblin Market, here’s a bit of one of the many beautiful illustrations it’s engendered over the years. In this scene the heroine, after attempting to act as a middleman, has drawn down upon her the rage of the merchants.

Preparation of Emotion

I continue to be fascinated by Ainslie’s Breakdown of Will; which argues that the core challenge of our existence is a struggle between our various preferences over time. Our long-term and near-term preferences are continually churn to create inconsistencies of behavior that are totally irrational.  We tackle this frustrating inconsistency by attempting to strike bargains between our various preferences. He calls this intertemporal bargaining. I love this idea that the inside of our head is like disputatious committee meeting; i.e. it’s a governance problem.

Ainslie, et. al. have found only a very few tactics for the problem. Of which I find preparation of emotion fascinatingly perverse. It puts our nominally irrational self to work to achieve improved rationality. Since we know we can not trust ourselves to stick to our earlier agreements we roll up a bundle of emotion to deploy at the moment the temptation arises to break our earlier agreement.

A simple example of this might be the angry choice break off from a prior commitment, say a lover. Knowing we will be tempted to fall into the old pattern and it’s pleasures we prepare a knot of anger which can be deployed to counteract that temptation. Or we might learn to fear something we know will tempt us; and certainly we are all familiar with the seemingly irrational passion that others will bring to bear on avoiding something things – things which we do not find tempting or possibly enjoy. Or consider the situation were we are tempted by a near term lesser good (a lousy cookie for example) v.s. a distant but significantly better one (a fine dinner); in that situation winding up a emotional disgust to make it easier to shun the near term temptation.

I love that: it’s can be entirely rational to emote.