Replace guilt with science

My cliff notes from “Don’t steer with guilt”, arguably the heart of this series:

Guilt works in the same way as a threat: You want to avoid it. Feeling guilt steers you toward a future without more guilt in it.

Being threatened with an ultimatum (say, “I’ll break your leg if you steal from me”) steers you away from a future where the threat is realized. If you need to make good on a threat often, the threat isn’t doing its job effectively of steering someone else’s behavior in a direction you prefer.

Similarly, if you find yourself experiencing guilt often, then it isn’t being effective at steering your behavior. You should ideally not feel guilt; conversely if you feel guilt often, guilt isn’t serving you.

Experiencing guilt is costly, and can be demotivation. It can lead to failure spirals: Guilt leads to more failure leads to more guilt… This can lead to boom/bust productivity/failure cycles, that lead to lower productivity over time than intrinsic motivation (lack of external, guilt-based motivation).

If you regularly behave sub-optimally, assigning guilt to that behavior will not be useful.

If the situation occurs regularly, then guilt is not the tool to use! You’re welcome to feel guilty if you ever kidnap a baby or punch a homeless person, and you can tell that the guilt is working in those cases because you never do those things. But if you repeatedly find yourself in a situation that you disprefer, then guilt is just not the tool to use. That’s not where it’s useful.

Employ science, rather than guilt, to sub-optimal ways in which you regularly find yourself behaving. Look for patterns and hypothesize about conditions that lead to your sub-optimal behavior, then experiment with changing conditions. If your behavior changes, you’ve confirmed the hypothesis. If it doesn’t, what else have you learned from the experiment that can inform your next hypothesis? And how else can you gather more data that will eventually lead to your improved behavior?

“Don’t bemoan individual failures.” Focus on the pattern.

Recognize that there are infinite ways you can improve yourself, and you have to prioritize which to focus on. Then let the others go. There’s no need to feel guilty about them, as you are spending your finite energy wisely on more important things.

[I]f you lack the time to change the pattern, then the occasional failure is a fair price. Trust yourself to fix the pattern if the costs ever get too high, trust yourself to understand that investing in yourself is important […]

Each failure is new data. Each success is new data. Feeling guilt is nonsense, as it has no positive (only negative) bearing on your science experiments.

Shift the meaning of a failure from “I am terrible, and should feel bad”, to “time to update my tactics”.


This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

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