Beeminder Forum

Rebuttal to Sinceriously's "Self-Blackmail"

I just came across a new blog, Sinceriously.fyi, whose second post is about self-blackmail and argues against Beeminder specifically. It’s a thoughtful argument so I wanted to give my rebuttal.

Let me start with the things I like, namely the author’s invention of a self-fulfillingly self-enforcing commitment file:

I once had a file I could write commitments in. If I ever failed to carry one out, I knew I’d forever lose the power of the file. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since any successful use of the file after failing would be proof that a single failure didn’t have the intended effect, so there’d be no extra incentive.

Then the author gives some cautionary tales about committing to the wrong things. I think these are important. Generally my contention is that the version of you making decisions in the face of immediate consequences is a fundamentally compromised version of you. There are people for whom this isn’t true. And those seem to be the people the author is talking about. Like the person who can’t see how awful grad school is from a distance; they only see it from in the trenches.

(Let me pause here with a reminder that we can both be right, namely, Slate Star Codex’s Should You Reverse Any Advice You Hear?)

But I don’t buy the argument that commitment devices mean teaching yourself to be blackmailed. You can call it blackmailing oneself or simply arranging one’s future incentives. Or simply hard-committing to something you’re certain you want to follow through on.

Which is probably the crux of it: Be really dang sure that the thing you’re committing to is something you really want. We harp on this a lot in Beeminderland. Like the Want-Can-Will Test with the first question “How certain are you that want to do this?”.

I should also mention that Beeminder has what I think is a clever way to minimize the consequences of being wrong about what you really want. We lay it all out in our article on Flexible Self-Control but the idea is that you’re only ever committed for the upcoming week. You can change your commitment and the changes take effect a week from now.

But fundamental to all this is my assumption that you can make rational decisions at a distance. I think it’s good to question this and my suspicion is that there are distinct personalities for whom it’s true and not true.

So maybe this isn’t even a rebuttal. I agree that people should think carefully about the possibility that they’re not actually akratic – that their motivation failures are a symptom of a deeper problem with their goals. Whenever someone misdiagnoses their goal problems as akrasia it’s quite an epiphany. They make a more fundamental change in their life and their motivation problems magically go away. And, per the typical mind fallacy, they’re horrified by things like Beeminder which have the potential to mask the underlying problem. So I just want to assure the author that some of us really do need things like this!

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Among the biggest challenges with setting goals for our future selves is that we haven’t met our future selves yet, so we don’t know what we’ll want. When I’m facing this issue, I usually go on the assumption that my future self will have similar motivations and ways of expressing them as my present self, even if the details are different.

The tricky bit is that many people, myself included, struggle to realistically analyze their current/past self. For me, the key to making good assessments is the idea of revealed preference. Once I have a clearer sense of the person I actually am right now, I can make better plans for the path towards being the person I want to be.

As an example: imagine that someone you just met online in a casual context asked “So, what do you like to do with your spare time?” You might start listing off some hobbies you have. But are those actually how you spend your spare time? If you’re anything like me, revealed preference says that the answer to that question is “Spending time on Facebook and surfing the internet.”

At a surface level, that’s not how I think of myself as a person - which is exactly why it’s not what I think to say when someone asks how I spend my time. It seems like an admission that I’m wasting time when I could be productive. But if I poke a bit harder, it’s a way of spending time that’s actually in line with some parts of my life I strongly value. How do I spend my time on the internet? Reading interesting articles, chatting with friends who don’t live nearby, paying attention to causes that are important to me, and having thoughtful conversations like the ones on this forum. So what revealed preference actually says about me is that I like to think, learn, form strong relationships, and make a difference in the world - but that I’ll take the path of least resistance (Facebook) to get there.

Going through this process helps me distinguish whether I want to change who I am (a real struggle that requires more than new habits) or whether I want to change what I do (comparatively straightforward, especially with Beeminder’s help.) In my example, I might decide I’m pretty happy with values that motivate me (who I am), but that I want to find more effective ways of expressing them (what I do).

So what does this have to do with Beeminder? In my life, Beeminder has a twofold purpose. It is definitely instrumental to my success when I’m making changes in the “what I do” realm. But I find its real value, and the reason I keep coming back to it, is that it gives me a concrete, low-risk way of gathering data about my revealed preferences. The escalating pledge scheme means I can put specific bounds on the question of “How much is (not) doing this worth to me?” Sometimes I find it’s worth $10 to avoid doing something for a few days. If I pay attention, that gives me extremely valuable information about what else matters to me. Derailing is also a clear breakpoint, a chance to take a breath and check in with myself about whether I still want to pursue this goal. That’s why I don’t see a derailment as a failure - in fact, what I learn by choosing to derail is often more valuable than staying on the road.

I’d agree with the author more if pledge caps didn’t exist. If my pledges kept escalating, instead of being capped at the level of “Task X is worth Y to me,” they’d eventually reach a point where they did indeed represent a threat to my finances rather than a decision about my values.

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So good! And your point about gathering data –

– is a nice articulation of the QS First Principle.

And the part after that, about what you learn from pledges and derailments – [quote=“gretchen, post:2, topic:2784”]
The escalating pledge scheme means I can put specific bounds on the question of “How much is (not) doing this worth to me?” Sometimes I find it’s worth $10 to avoid doing something for a few days. If I pay attention, that gives me extremely valuable information about what else matters to me. Derailing is also a clear breakpoint, a chance to take a breath and check in with myself about whether I still want to pursue this goal. That’s why I don’t see a derailment as a failure - in fact, what I learn by choosing to derail is often more valuable than staying on the road.
[/quote]

– reminds me of @bee’s post about being nice to yourself.

Your last point about what would happen with uncapped pledges is maybe a whole other debate. I think there are plenty of goals important enough that the right answer is “let the pledge keep increasing until paying it is unthinkable and then you just stay on track for years” – which is exactly how it plays out for some of my goals. The author of “Self-Blackmail” might be particularly horrified by that.

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FWIW I tend to think of Beeminder as a mediator in the negotiation process between my past and future selves.

The metaphor doesn’t quite work of course because by the time the mediator arrives my past self is dead and my future self has become my present self, but it’s still a useful metaphor.

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I think there’s a slippery slope of conservatism baked into that. Over time the fine print and road slope will conspire to ensure that you never derail, but you don’t push the limits either. Exactly the opposite of what I want for a truly important goal.

One thing that I’ve experimented with is down-pledging after a period of time being on track. That keeps my goal in the zone of productive tension.

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Great point, and I partly take back what I said. If there’s some external factor keeping you from making your yellow brick road too easy then what I said can be right. Otherwise, you’re right, a pledge that’s too high will make you too conservative about the rate of progress you’re committing to.

(This is pretty self-serving advice from a Beeminder founder since “keep your pledge at something you’re not totally unwilling to pay and make the goal somewhat aggressive” is kind of revenue-maximizing advice. But I honestly believe it to also be user-awesomeness-maximizing advice. Which of course is the real beauty of our business model – those who pay us most need us most, and benefit most. This is probably a bad thread to say this in, debating someone with philosophical objections to Beeminder, since it has high danger of being interpreted out of context.)

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More discussion is happening in the comments of Sinceriously. I’m really liking the philosophical debate so I’m copying my latest response here so I have my whole counterargument in one place in case I want to make it its own blog post at some point:

Hi Danny,

I read the expanded comment and thread.

I appreciate the depth you go to in engaging with contrary ideas like mine. I saw your remark about danger of misinterpretation, and want to reassure you that what I’ve seen so far from you has moved me in a positive direction from my pessimistic priors about people rationalizing.

I know that some people are blackmailing themselves into doing things it is better for them to do. (I hesitate to say “they want to do the things”, because it’s actually more like parts of them sometimes want to do the things, and other times other parts of them don’t.) Many of them would have a bad time if they were thrown from that local optimum.

I want to highlight what I think is a false dichotomy, between people whose far selves are rational and whose immediate selves are not, and people whose immediate selves are rational and whose far selves are not.

I think all timeslices of a person, and all little sub-processes running and vying for control, often have bits of knowledge that others lack. They are all sort of compromised. In order to act as smart as possible, decisions need to be based on all that knowledge. It’s not optimal to just be really careful as one class of timeslices.

I’m glad to see users in that thread talking about gathering data and negotiation processes. My own process relies heavily on the acting timeslice trusting other timeslices. Other timeslices have a sort of spirit of pacifism and collaboration. This works well because future timeslices remember it.

Many pieces of knowledge are hard to verbalize. Even as the timeslice that has a sub-process that has that knowledge. Some motives are probably set up to be unconscious. (https://sideways-view.com/2016/11/26/if-you-cant-lie-to-others-you-must-lie-to-yourself/) Other pieces of the “spirit” I rely on to deal with this are a deep acceptance of my actual values whatever they may be as the things I want determining my decisions, and the same sort of respect of autonomy as I’d have for other people.

It’s an immensely powerful system. And internalizing the side-channel effects of choices and how you make them that work through your thoughts being read (remembered) or your workings being predicted by someone who knows a lot about you (you) seems to be one of the main things that feeds into it. In the opposite direction of most people I’ve met who talk about using decision theory to avert akrasia.

I also want to clarify what I mean by practicing being blackmailed. By “blackmail” I’m referencing a particular class of games-as-in-game-theory. I’m not just picking the word for its low karma (http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/11/04/ethnic-tension-and-meaningless-arguments/). You can predict what your future self will do. You set up the commitment device because you predict future self will capitulate. For this to work, you need to have the part of you that is in control “in the moment” fail at a central case of what decision theory says it should do.

Good point about the false dichotomy. I’m inclined, though, to double down in favor of the far self. I think the theory on time inconsistency and hyperbolic discounting as well as my experience (I should confess here my highly biased sample of people – those who like Beeminder) support the view that it’s the far self who can make rational tradeoffs. The far self can appreciate the deliciousness of desserts or the agony (apparently, for some people) of grad school and trade it off against health and career prospects. The near self simply disregards non-immediate consequences.

I see that it’s not necessarily that way and there exist people who pathologically hoard their money or feel too guilty to ever have leisure time. I view that as rare hypercorrection. I hate arguments that include the words “most people” but that’s what my argument boils down to. The common case is akrasia, impetuousness, procrastination. Acting blatantly irrationally for failure to think outside of narrow timeslices. [EDIT: when the chips are down, I mean]

Crap, I’ve fallen into the dichotomy again. But here’s my point: the far self has an inherent advantage. It can read about the case of the miserable grad student and heed the warning and adjust the tradeoffs and approximate the ideal wholistic self who’s incorporating the knowledge at every timeslice. The near self can’t do that.

I think you’ve nicely articulated the theoretical ideal, getting all the timeslices in harmony. Have the near self always keep in focus the long-term goals so that every moment-to-moment decision incorporates the right tradeoffs. I think that’s what Nate Soares is also advocating in his blog series on Replacing Guilt but I’ve failed to translate that into concrete steps. Beeminder is theoretically sub-optimal but extremely concrete.

I also like thinking of Beeminder as an insurance policy. Use subtler techniques to make Beeminder unnecessary but also have the Beeminder graph. Use it mainly to quantify and visualize your progress but also to enforce a bare minimum. It’s often easy to pick a minimum rate of progress on a goal such that IF you fell below it then the only possible explanation would be that your timeslice harmony techniques failed. In that hypothetical world, resorting to self-blackmail is better than falling on your face. By all means though, try to stay well above the minimum such that Beeminder’s commitment device is moot.

Finally, your game-theoretic use of the term “blackmail”: If there were literally 2 distinct agents in a noncooperative game then I think you’d be right. Don’t cave to the blackmail, pay the penalty. Because then your adversary loses the incentive to continue to blackmail you. So my objection is that the agents aren’t distinct or adversarial. For the most part I just do what Beeminder tells me to when it tells me to do it and I feel great about that, even in the moment!

4 posts were split to a new topic: Beeminding your way through grad school - actual hours of actual research!

I actually disagree with the argument in that blog post. They seem to be drawing the conclusion that since it’s possible to confuse akrasia with “I don’t want to do this for reasons I haven’t articulated”, then commitment devices are useless. If I understand correctly, they’re actually arguing that commitment devices are worse than useless because you aren’t practicing a self-control muscle. I see no actual reason why that should be the case.

To explain what I mean, I suppose it’s possible to separate out a few different cases of things that look akrasiatic:

  • Idunwanna but I should: arguably the intended point of beeminder, if I’m not being presumptuous, where you want to do something, you know it’s good for you, but in the moment you find it easy to justify not doing it, or put it off, etc. Here commitment devices are helpful because they’re essentially acting as a contract between present self that says DO IT and future self who will have to make the choice of “okay fine” or “I’ll pay the fee that past me set for the right to skip out on this”

  • I don’t want to for legitimate, good, reasons but I still think I should: this is the worst possible case for commitment devices and any other techniques about productivity. Ironically, I’ve been in the position in grad school of trying all sorts of tricks to try and motivate myself when the fundamental problem was that I didn’t trust anyone there anymore after a series of events involving harassment, other inappropriate conduct, and retaliation for trying to report said things. I don’t think trying to make myself keep working through tricks made it take longer for me to figure out that I needed to get the heck out. If anything, trying everything I could made me have to hit head-long against the fact that I could motivate myself for other teaching jobs and projects but not about working in my department, which meant there was a reason

  • I want to but executive function problems, chronic illness, or even just too many projects/etc. are making it hard to set aside time consistently: I’d argue this is the other good case for commitment devices, and one I often live in. You are forcing your own hand in a subtly different way than case one, because the financial penalty is sorta the last kick-in-the-rear to make sure that you make time and push through the non-functional period consistently. This case works best with very modest goals, I think, where a lot of what you’re doing is guaranteeing you’re never completely dropping the ball. You might just barely be dribbling it, but you still are in control.

So while if you accept the idea that there is a willpower “muscle”, then I think the idea of not practicing it could only affect case 1. Of course, there’s also that pesky thing about ego depletion being non-replicable which makes me question the validity of a lot of ideas about willpower and whether it acts like a muscle.

I also think that determining which of the cases of akrasia-like avoidance you’re dealing with is entirely its own problem which is orthogonal to any method used to negotiate the behavior.

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I emailed this to @dreev and he asked me to share here, so this is a cut/paste.

I think it’s interesting to pay attention to the identity that you create for yourself since your identity alone does influence your motivation.

It really all depends on the story and frame you give your use of Beeminder. You can sell yourself on the notion that I am weak and pathetic and I need a system to force me because I have no internal ability to motivate myself or do anything unless I’m being forced to.

Or you can sell yourself on the notion that I am the type of person that looks for every advantage I can get and I will never stop hunting for all the people tools and influences that will help me be more of who I truly am. The fact that I take the time to use this tool and that I put my own money on the line is proof that I care about myself in ways that most everyone else would shrink from.

Both are valid stories and one of them will be disastrous. When I communicate with people I’m always interested in how they view things and try to actively reframe their stories for them when I notice them doing the former instead of the latter. Also a good exercise to do on yourself.

To me this is a lot more interesting than some type of hypothetical. I guess from your perspective you could seed the latter idea in your communication as a form of benevolent influence for users. …just thoughts

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Here’s a theory: This “self-blackmail” critique may not be a legitimate critique of Beeminder, but may be an emotional trap that some users fall into depending on their habits as they get to know how Beeminder works for them.

This is based on my own experience:

I am overly ambitious about what I can and want to achieve on the regular, and have often felt actually oppressed by my idealistic and unrealistic-about-time Past Self’s Beeminder goals. When I have regretted committing to a goal, the ability to archive the goal one week in the future was cold comfort, as I still experienced either (a) a week of frustration spending time doing something it turned out I really didn’t want to do, or (b) paying up to bail out, which I generally processed as a failure (no good for the self-worth), and was often materially difficult, depending on my income at the time.

I’ve learned to do a gut check when beginning a new goal, and ask myself:

  • How confident am I that I really can follow through?
  • Am I in any doubt? Be pessimistic.
  • No, really. Are you being appropriately pessimistic?

If I am in doubt about either my commitment to a goal or my capacity to achieve it, then I’ve learned to set an extremely low bar — often even with flat roads, so I am essentially not committing to anything, simply testing a theory about what I want to do.

You might view this as letting akrasia back in through the back door: I’m short circuiting Beeminder’s imposition of Past Self’s intention. But this is not a problem: Past Self was consciously aware that his own intentions were in question, and the question my Present Self is asking isn’t only whether I want to do this right now, but whether I want to do it at all. When the answer is “yes”, then I increase my commitment to something meaningful after a week or two.

This is an orientation to the Beeminder tool that I have only learned through years of halting experience. I began enthusiastically, became disillusioned with my inability to be realistic, burned out, came back years later, went through a similar but less extreme cycle again, then again, and have recently become a pretty happy user (by which I mean I’ve little to no bad feelings towards my Past Self).

Years ago, I might have been persuaded by the “self-blackmail” critique, because negative feelings toward Past Self’s commitments turn into negative self worth feelings for Present Self — What is wrong with me? Why can’t I act rationally? Is my willpower worth nothing?… (The author of the critique claimed the argument isn’t about bad karma with the word “blackmail”, but… I don’t really believe that.)

These days, I know how to avoid making rash commitments in a self-defeating way. I’ve gone through a maturation process with how I think about and use Beeminder. (To this day, my Past [at time of goal-setting] Self still occasionally forgets to apply this lesson. So this is an ongoing process, and the discipline for me is remembering to be thoughtful and mindful instead of impulsive when creating new goals.)

I suspect that this need for a maturation process is not uncommon. I wouldn’t have come back to Beeminder without investing significant time reading blog and forum posts and dialoging with the founders. It is interesting to imagine how the application could help newbees accelerate this process, and help them avoid a “Self-blackmail Yuck!” phase.

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I experienced the same maturation process in my first year-plus of using Beeminder, and I agree with @mattepp that it’s probably very common among new Beeminder users – possibly even ubiquitous: after all, the prospect of finding that magic bullet that will finally keep us progressing toward our goals is Beeminder’s big draw (at least for the akratic contingent). I think @mattepp is on to something in suggesting BM look at ways to help newbees through it, if only by stating in the user guide [0] that this bump in the road is a natural part of BM use and a sign you’re on the right track.


[0] The long-awaited, desperately missing in-depth user guide. In a related vein: I think one of those tutorial videos where someone draws the stuff the voice-over is explaining would be a highly useful tool for explaining BM to potential users.

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