Self loyalty

My cliff notes for “Self-signaling the ability to do what you want“:

The sunk cost fallacy can lead us to failures like overeating, where if there’s too little prepared food left to save after we are full, we eat it all, without recognizing that the costs of the food are the same whether we overeat or throw away the leftovers.

Willpower based solutions to this kind of problem, being manual, are weak; better to create a new pattern that consistently lets us see what’s in our best interest. For the above example, pre-committing to save the leftovers, no matter how small, can be an effective pattern interrupt. This worked for Nate (the author) by giving what the side of him urging him to overeat really wanted — food storage to stave off fear of scarcity — thus aligning all of himself toward the same goal.

Failing with abandon — “I’ve already failed a little so I may as well fail all the way and enjoy it” — is related to signaling failures.

The technique I’m describing — self-signalling an ability to do the right thing even if it seems too late — can address this failure mode in general.

Failing a little is a self-signal that you can’t succeed. By stopping after you’ve failed a little, before failing with abandon, you can send a new self-signal: That you can stop and do the right thing, even when it might seem too late.

Consistent self loyalty — doing the right thing by yourself in these situations (for example, being loyalty to the part of you that values not wasting food, over judging looks from waiters and other social norms pressuring you not to take home small amounts)  — builds self-trust. This is a virtuous cycle that disarms the impulse to fail with abandon.

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.

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.