Propagating Urges

The New York Times recently ran a piece entitled The Happiness Code which I came across because several people I follow on Facebook posted a link to it, including one of the interviewees. In the feature, the writer Jennifer Kahn describes her experience at a “self-help workshop” that promotes rationality as a way of improving one’s life.

The organisation that runs the workshops, the Centre for Applied Rationality (CFAR) is an organisation that I’ve been familiar with for a while. One of its founders, Julia Galef, runs the excellent Rationally Speaking Podcast which I recommend everyone checks out.

I’m not going to discuss the article in depth; I’d recommend you read it for yourself instead. I do want to talk about one of the techniques mentioned in it though, that of ‘propagating urges’.

Before discussing what exactly the technique involves, let’s look at what it intends to solve. I was about to write “Have you ever found yourself doing something that you know is a waste of time but lacking the motivation to do what you know you should do?” but I guess I should really be asking how many times a day you experience that. Not because I think you’re lazy but because that feeling is a universal human experience.

This is the result of a phenomenon known as hyperbolic discounting. In other words, we place greater value on rewards that we don’t have to wait a long time for than rewards that are far in the future. This is not simply a matter of us assigning a lower probability to the latter, instead the waiting around actually subtracts from how much we value the reward itself. The major downside to this is that our present-self makes decisions that our future-selves will regret.

If you’re like me then you’ll also have found yourself wishing for some easy way to jolt you out of this reverie whenever you find yourself in it, to give yourself a mental kick in the backside if you will.

This is where CFAR and their ‘propagating urges’ come in. The idea is simple: when you’re doing whatever it is that you really want to be doing, reinforce that with a fist-pump and by exclaiming “YES!” like an athlete celebrating a victory. They also recommend that you picture yourself succeeding in the goal that you’re working towards (again this sounds similar to what a lot of athletes do at the advice of their sports psychologists).

For example, Kahn describes how she gets trapped checking her e-mails until it becomes too late to go to the gym. Personally I often find it difficult to find the time and motivation to write a blog-post because unlike say, a project for my course, there are no ramifications if I fail to write one. CFAR would advise me to start making the aforementioned “victory gesture” whenever I actually do sit-down to write a post and when I finish it so that my brain gets a pleasant sensation and grows to look forward to the writing instead of shying away from it.

In essence, instead of trying to force my brain to value the far-future reward more than the near-future one (which conflicts with our tendency for hyperbolic discounting), I should train my brain to develop urges to work on the steps towards that far-future goal. Those urges will (hopefully) then propagate down the temporal chain until I achieve my objective.

To be honest, the idea of the victory gesture is a bit much for me. I’m willing to try it but I’m also going to experiment to see if there are any alternatives I can use. However, it’s important that they be equally fast because the whole idea is that the action and the reward have to be close in time to one another so that our brains learn to associate them.


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