Intrinsic Motivation is Authentic

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation have been coming up in my conversations lately.  The Habit Design folks will say that only intrinsic motivation works.  If that is true, it throws a wrench into the plans of sites like Beeminder that provide people extrinsic motivation to meet their goals by charging them for defection.  I am not sure which side to take there.  Extrinsic motivation can certainly work, but it may not be preferrable.

I have had projects that languished because I didn’t find them interesting and the clients didn’t pester me for status updates.  Left to my own devices, I will only work on projects that are fun or novel.  But when clients do demand project updates, I do get motivated to work on the less fun stuff.  One friend likened this to outsourcing your boss.  Why be your own boss when you can delegate that task to someone else?  But ideally I would be able to find something intrinsically motivating about every project.  If I can’t, I should just pass it along to my associates to handle.  When we say everyone should do work that they enjoy, we are really saying that they should be intrinsically motivated to do their work.  Kurzweil said that he feels that he retired at age 5 since he loves his work.

I heard an interview on the radio with psychologist Madeline Levine a few weeks ago.  She was talking about child development and she made some interesting points about letting kids fail so that they can learn and be independent.  She also talked about teaching kids intrinsic motivation.  One example she gave was asking kids how much they learned from a test at school as opposed to focusing on what the grade was.  She calls this intrinsic motivation authentic.  That’s an unusual way to define authentic, but it makes sense.  Authentic people are more intrinsically than extrinsically motivated.  Of course the line between internal and external can get a bit fuzzy.  Much of what we value is learned from others after all.  We don’t llive in a vacuum.  But I do think that we take ownership of values and goals at some point.

One fellow I was talking with tonight brought up the Buddhist idea that desire is suffering.  Just eliminate desire and they suffering goes away.  That’s sort of like James’ equation:

Self-esteem = Success / Pretensions

As you can see, simply reducing pretensions to a low enough value can give even the biggest loser an enormous sense of self-esteem.  Which is sort of how I feel about that Buddhist idea.  Why bother with life at all if you desire nothing?  But I guess they are trying to escape from some horrid endless cycle of reincarnation or something.  That’s why I like my mindfullness stripped of all that superstitious bullshit.  But introspection might perversely be a way to discover what truly motivates us.  Now I just need to write up some more specific instructions on that and I will have a self-help best seller on my hands.

Evolution of Social Norms via Network Science and Evolutionary Game Theory 1

At the end of Pinker’s “Decline of Violence” talk last week he said that the evolution of social norms was an exciting area of inquiry.  If we accept Pinker’s data, but don’t feel satisfied by the causal mechanisms he speculates about (i.e. Pacification, etc.), it does seem like a logical next step to dig more fully into social norms.  Some of the researchers that he mentioned were: Nicolas ChristakisDuncan WattsJames Fowler, and Michael Macey.

Now I have to admit that I have a bias toward new ideas that can be easily attached to my existing conceptual framework.  (Arguably we all do and no one could learn anything new without attaching it to existing knowledge but this post isn’t about constructivism.)  It’s especially satisfying when new concepts resonate with remote structures elsewhere in the idea tree.

I read Christaki’s Connected when it first came out and it strongly influenced my thinking on human behavior.  I do plan on reviewing the content, but it basically explores the idea that human behavior is partially a network phenomenon.  This seems obvious and uninteresting until you drill down into some of the consequences.  The book shows that you have a higher chance of gaining weight if there are overweight people in your social network with up to three degrees of separation.  Yep, better start keeping track of your  friends’ friends’ friends.  Don’t worry, this tool I saw on Melanie Swan’s blog can make it easier to map at least your LinkedIn network.

Now there was some controversy around the models used in this book.  I didn’t fully examine them and wouldn’t be able to independently evaluate the statistics anyway.  But I guess Harvard has to defend it’s own and bunch of statisticians from the old alma mater jumped to his defense.  I admit that I’m biased and I like the idea.  For the sake of argument, let’s agree that network behavior contagion is a thing. (If any statistics guru out there can show there exists a laymen’s explanation of why we should absolutely reject these findings, please do.)

Wait, sorry, I don’t have an argument yet.  But Christakis is just really cool.  In this video he talks about how he got into social network science and gives the example of caregivers getting sick from exhaustion and that effecting their other family members.  In a sense, he saw a non-biological contagion of illness.  My girlfriend and I experienced this first hand when her sister died of cancer so I deeply empathize with folks in that example.

On a brighter note,  Christakis gets into topology and nematode neuron mapping in the second half of the video.  This was the stuff we were talking about at the Singularity Summit with Paul Bohm this year.  See?  Christakis is cool.

But Pinker’s “Decline of Violence” thesis must also be supported by evolutionary population dynamics somehow, right?  So I pinged my awesome CogSci book club friend Ruchira Datta, and she recommended the following books for me to explore:


Genetic and Cultural Evolution of Cooperation

A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution

I recall that there was a discussion about evolutionary game theory strategies at one of these meetups and it was suggested that there are population equilibria in which a certain percentage of “enforcer” agents (who punish defectors without regard to self-benefit) serve to protect a cooperative majority of nice, contrite, tit-for-tat agents.  So this is why we need tough conservatives around to protect all the cooperating liberals.

I brought this up at the LessWrong meetup tonight and someone objected that this might require group selection or some other troubling theory.  I wonder if it couldn’t be explained more along co-evolutionary lines similar to pollinators and flowering plants.

But anyway, where I’m trying to go with this is that we can take the above scenario and start to examine ways in which the ratios of cooperators and defectors change.  Then we somehow plug that into the whole social network science thing and we will have an awesome blog post or something.  (But I have a bunch more reading to do first.)

Habit Design and the New Behaviorism

I attended my first Habit Design Meetup last night and was introduced to a vibrant scene of Silicon Valley brainwashers, err, behavior designers.  Basically there are a bunch of folks trying to make products and services more engaging by studying the cognitive science around habits and behavior modification.

I developed an interest in this after attending Michael Kim’s presentation at QS 2012.  I want to install some better habits myself, including a daily writing habit.  I was a little disappointed that this particular meetup was more about people trying to modify the behavior of others instead of themselves.  But everyone was very friendly and I did learn a little about an area I was fairly ignorant of.

Michael Kim laid out 4 themes that he wants to explore in his habit design meetings:

  • Intrinsic motivation works and extrinsic motivation doesn’t, but intrinsic motivation is hard to create
  • Seligmans’s PERMA model of well-being is important to habit design: Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and purpose, and Accomplishments
  • Every component of Duhigg’s habit loop is necessary: cue, routine, reward
  • Mobile devices are the optimal platform for captology… you heard me right, captology.  B.J. Fogg coined this term to describe the area where persuasion and computers overlap.

The first point is that a habit is comprised of: trigger/cue, routine, and reward.  BJ Fogg’s behavior model adds in the idea of how motivated you are and how able you are to carry out the routine.  (i.e. if you are not motivated, the routine must be easy for you to respnd to the trigger.)  McGonigal’s book on willpower shows ways to increase willpower (or motivation in Fogg’s model.)  One simple way to increase willpower is just to breate slowly (4-6 breaths per minute).  This triggers the para-sympathetic nervous system and I guess allows blood to flow back into your pre-frontal cortex.

I personally found my friend Robin Barooah’s advice most useful: habit design is just time management.  Simply upgrade less valuable activities in your daily routine with more valuable ones. (It might sound hard to do, but it’s working for me. I stopped reading news and blogs in the evening and found more time for writing.)  Robin is quite skeptical about this whole willpower depletion idea.

I want to read up on this more before making further comment, but I am particularly interested in Seligman’s PERMA idea.  I have been thinking that we shouldn’t seek happiness, but self-actualization.  Seligman seems to be saying that we need both and then some.  I am not sure how engagement or acheivement relate to enactive cognition: the exercise of skillful know-how in situated and embodied action.  But it seems that I should be able to cobble them into my conceptual framework to make something useful.