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There is nothing wasteful in readin old xkcd comics.

Sina - I'm so glad that it took me such a long time to discover them, because there are still so many I haven't read.

I ordered a copy of "Nudge" when it first came out, thinking "I really should make an effort to learn something about behavioural economics and this seems a good place ot begin". I've read any number of other books since it arrived, without even opening my copy of "Nudge". I even brought it with me on holiday in France last year, only to end up reading books on French history I found in the apartment we rented.

There's a word for this sort of thing...

Frances, being distracted by the Internet when on the computer is when I often learn the most. it is similar to when I was an undergrad when I would go into the stacks at the library looking for one thing and emerge hours later with a whole bunch of other stuff.

Frances, a friend of mine recently introduced me to the Pomodoro technique, which has apparently been around for years. I found it very useful for focusing more. Briefly, you work in timed 25-minute sessions with 5 minute breaks, in 2-hour cycles. During the 5 minutes you can check out all the cat videos you want.

My downfall is SMBC, which is tragically ten times more hilarious than xkcd (not really a fan). There are pomodoro apps for Chrome, including a very Germanic-sounding one called Strict Pomodoro that blocks sites. The point of it is that the access is externally controlled (sort of), and after the work period you can flake out.

Regarding behavioral econ, or indeed any empirical approach to individual or group behavior, a common thread seems to be that we always want to overestimate our ability to achieve in short-term activities, and we then react to the failure with the countervailing grandeur (and failure) of huge institutional solutions, executive coaching BS, fad diets, etc. When we learn to tolerate the humbling truth about our abilities, we generally come up with more effective and less coercive interventions.

Until recently, I was a software developer and had been for 12 years or so. The job was to sit in a cube, surrounded by distractions (e.g. sales people on the phone), and concentrate really hard for 8 to 12 hours a day. Over the years I noticed that the one time when developers weren't at least a little distracted (slashdot,xkcd,etc...) was when he had something interesting or compelling to work on. To my mind, this is the compelling argument for getting junior/inexperienced employees to do 'mundane' work: to them it (typically) isn't mundane (it may not be interesting, but they still have something to prove).

"countervailing grandeur (and failure) of huge institutional solutions"

Yup. Uninteresting anecdote: To try to minimize time wasting the company installed (fantastically expensive) web traffic monitoring and filtering at the firewall and sent reports of our individual web traffic to our boss. Of course, that just presented and interesting puzzle to waste time on. It took about an hour for us to setup an tunnel that bypassed everything and was hidden among the rest of the ssl noise on port 443. They thought their system was great because the reports said we did very, very little web surfing. Our boss (who is a good guy) turned a blind eye 'cause our productivity was fine despite the distractions. Then one day he found the filters were blocking him from materiel he needed on a suppliers site. So we got him hooked-up too!

In his book "The Procrastination Equation", Piers Steel describes a very useful technique: reserve your workspace for working. If you need a break and you want to check xkcd, for example, don't check it from your desk--instead, get up and go somewhere else. (Most useful if you have a laptop or a smartphone.)

Apparently physical location is a very strong trigger for habits. (Also see "The Power of Habit", a recent book by NYT reporter Charles Duhigg.)

Steel has lots of other good suggestions, but I thought this was the most powerful one. He writes:

Most usefully, you can make your place of work itself a cue, so that focus comes automatically as soon as you sit down.

This strategy requires dedicating your environment exclusively to labor. To do this, work in your office until your motivation leaves you and goofing off becomes irresistible. At this point, do your web surfing, your social networking, your game playing somewhere else.

... If you keep work and play in discrete domains, associations will build and attention will become effortless--your environment will be doing all the heavy motivational lifting. Three studies have investigated the effectiveness of this technique with students, and found that the use of dedicated work areas decreased procrastination significantly within weeks.

... Without this segregation between work and play, you get conflicting cues every time you sit down at your desk, one indicating that you should research your report and the other egging you on to check your Facebook page.

Your little story nicely illustrates Daniel Kahneman's distinction between the experiencing self and the remembering self. Your experiencing self presumably delighted in getting distracted. It is your remembering self that looks back at the time spent with dismay. It would be interesting to review the utility curves in Microeconomics 101 in light if both selves and consider which utility function the competitive market economy optimises.

Russil - I'm moving into a new office at the beginning of July, and keeping it a work-only office sounds like an excellent idea. You're really right about how powerful environmental clues and triggers are.

Kien - this is the essence of the "libertarian paternalist" argument, that outcomes of competitive markets can be improved if the experiencing self can be just nudged in the right direction. I don't think it's so easy. As you say, the pleasures of the experiencing self have to be taken into account.

In fact, though, I enjoy being completely immersed in an activity more than time wasting. Have you ever seen that spoof trailer for Mine Sweeper - the Movie? Wasted time isn't necessarily good time.

Shangwen - I think your words about "huge institutional solutions" will resonate with a lot of people.

Patrick - interesting story. Doing work that involved concentration while surrounded by distractions sounds really tough.

Livio - Apparently journal publishers devote huge amounts of time/resources to re-creating that experience on their web sites (going to the stacks and finding precisely what you wanted but weren't looking for). Never seems quite the same to me somehow.


okay. Now define "good", "interests" (long and short term) and so on without reference to values and without reference to observed behaviour. Bit tricky, no? So preferences don't reveal, and whose values count. But we knew that, didn't we?

If you are serious about nudges, you will delete this comment ;)

http://xkcd.com/896/

(best xkcd ever)

Shangwen: "My downfall is SMBC, which is tragically ten times more hilarious than xkcd (not really a fan)."

I completely disagree, and feel the opposite way - I am a big XKCD fan, but wasn't interested in SMBC (although I have enjoyed a few SMBC comics, and sometimes XKCD falls flat...). That is the wonder of variety, I suppose.

Chris J - Lovely, inspiring, motivating, spot on true, but not the best ever.

How can I waste my time on xkcd when I just discovered more than 3000 cartoons on SMBC?

Jacques Rene - just think how much this blog brings to your life (though if you consider me and Nick to be your friends, you've just lost points on the male dating market value test).

I need to bring my score down, otherwise I couldn't work...

"...the pleasures of the experiencing self have to be taken into account"

Why? Suppose we conceive of the "experiencing self" and "remembering self" as distinct psyches that happen to occupy the same body, with each dominating behaviour depending on the time and circumstances? The obvious analogy is Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Do J and H have the same rights? Do their preferences merit the same respect? Couldn't we justifiably declare each H a "dangerous offender" and takes steps - even quite repressive ones - to limit his scope for doing damage, as we do with criminals?

Giovanni - I touched on these issues in this post The impossibility of a behavioural welfare economics. This is what I said there:

Some of the best things in life are also somewhat dangerous - like swimming across a lake with only the moon and stars for company. At the same time, I want to live in a world where I'm nudged towards healthy choices - where it's easy to get around by bicycle, for example, and the university cafeteria serves reasonably nutritious meals.

Welfare economics teaches us to respect people's choices. Behavioural economics urges us to protect people from making dumb choices that they'll regret later. I don't know of any way of resolving these two views.

Re Jekyll and Hyde, and behavioral versus welfare: this is a fundamental problem. The ideal version of self-determination includes the ugly consequence of letting people experience the full consequences of their choices. These consequences range from immense happiness to death. This is the kind of white-knuckle philosophy that limits its appeal. I am sympathetic to the libertarian objections to nudging, and equally mindful of the externalities of irresponsible behavior. But lots of people would prefer to continue believing unrealistic principles ("I'm an educated professional and should not be watching cat videos!") than deal more effectively with reality.

We get upset when we think someone isn't playing by what we thought were the agreed rules of the game. The remembering self (new term to me) gets annoyed at the cat video watcher. A rugby player can show up in an emerg department in the same condition as a woman beaten by her husband, but they'll get the same triage and the rugby player might even get treated before the woman. Too often we think there is a moral desert rule, or at least an accepted social norm, but guess what--the system that was sold to you on high principles is actually a free-for-all.

And now, one of my favoriteSMBC cartoons.

"Welfare economics teaches us to respect people's choices. Behavioural economics urges us to protect people from making dumb choices that they'll regret later. I don't know of any way of resolving these two views."

And that's because the standard conclusions of welfare economics are specific to a particular set of tacit psychological and moral assumptions - broadly, the naive preference-utilitarian assumptions that were prevalent among the set of Victorian political liberals who invented academic economics. Go beyond these assumptions just little bit - as behavioural economist try to do - and the very contingent nature of the conclusons quickly comes into view. Go a little further and one begins to see the deeply tendentious and value-laden nature of textbook welfare economics.

Giovanni - sure, welfare econ has some major problems, I agree with you on that.

But as I point out in that previous post, behavioural econ ends up substituting some other, more quantifiable and objectively measurable indicator of well-being, e.g. health, for naive preference-utilitarian assumptions. And I don't think that's the answer either.

It's probably risky for me to ride my bike without having my hands on the handle-bars. But I sure enjoy riding my bike that way, and I wouldn't want anyone nudging me towards healthy choices.

While the subject of behavioral economics is on the table. I am trying to remember the name of a concept/bias that I have come across on this site before (or maybe MR). How do we call the situation when someone either has had a bad outcome or has made arguably bad choices, and after the fact will try to convince himself that this is what they wanted to do all along. Something like backwards-adjustable preferences. Is there a name for this?

Louisp - confirmation bias is the tendency of people to interpret everything in a way that confirms and strengthens their convictions. Habituation means that after a while you get used to things, and losing a leg/a loved one/other bad things are never as bad as you expect. But neither is a precise fit for the situation you describe. Perhaps someone mentioned something in the comments once.

Ok thank you. Confirmation bias is probably what I had in mind/seen. But yes, that seems quite different than the situation I described.

"...behavioural econ ends up substituting some other, more quantifiable and objectively measurable indicator of well-being, e.g. health, for naive preference-utilitarian assumptions. And I don't think that's the answer either."

There is only one answer, and that's for economics to get out of the normative business altogether.

Aside from their preference-utilitarian biases economists have inherited something else from their Victorian ancestors: the belief it is possible to reach prescriptive conclusions without making value judgements. At best this is a misunderstanding, at worst - when it is transmitted to students - a deception. There is no "normative chemical engineering" or "normative paleo-anthropology". If a group tried to establish something akin to welfare economics in either of those fields it would be seen immediately as an attempt to cloak an ideological agenda in the authority of science (as it almost certainly would be). Economics differs only in that the agenda here is now so well-established and so relentlessly pounded into the brains of Little Economists that hardly anyone thinks to questions it.

Giovanni - "The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of a passionate intensity."

- lots of economists agree with you, and stay well out of the normative policy business. They don't make a lot of noise in the media, so you might not be aware that they constitute a substantial % of the profession
- decisions have to be made. If economists aren't giving advice, who will? And will whoever steps up be any better?

"Aside from their preference-utilitarian biases economists have inherited something else from their Victorian ancestors: the belief it is possible to reach prescriptive conclusions without making value judgements." You must know very few economists.

I don't want to be a troll. It is just that this has not been my experience, although I will give you that some do think that way.

"...lots of economists agree with you, and stay well out of the normative policy business"

I want more than that. I'm saying conventional welfare economics should be eliminated from the standard canon of economics. If taught at all, it should be taught as part of broader courses in socioeconomic morality encompassing other approaches (e.g., Kantian, communitarian) to the subject, in which its assumptions will be set out clearly and scrutinized. To teach students to see public policy exclusively and reflexively in preference-utilitarian terms is a form of indoctrination. To teach students that fundamental normative conclusions can be derived analytically without adopting particular psychological and moral assumptions is to teach falsehood.

"If economists aren't giving advice, who will? And will whoever steps up be any better?"

Economists can still give advice of the form "if you do X then Y will occur", advice based on their understanding of causal relationships in the world of economic activity - that is, based on their scientific expertise. I'm also happy to let them say, if they wish, "as a citizen and taxpayer, I think you should do X". What they should never say is anything like "according to economic science, you should do X". If a plumber tells me "according to plumbing science, you should paint your bathroom aquamarine" I know immediately they're peddling BS, trying to have me buy into some personal aesthetic agenda that has nothing to do with their professional knowledge. Same principle applies to economists, even ones with million-dollar textbook deals and Nobel Prize medals around their necks. All the indifference curves and regression equations in the world cannot resolve the fundamental questions of moral choice a society faces...that's why we have politics.

"You must know very few economists."

Louisp - I have known at least one very personally pretty much all my life, another intimately and dozens of others personally-but-not-so-intimately. There are even two of three whom I've made a great effort to forget. And I know many others through their writings.

It seems like there are a few people looking into the situation I was describing before. Here is an example:

http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1266423

"This asymmetry is consistent with our hypothesis that subjects choose beliefs that
match their prior choices in order to avoid the negative affect caused by the admission
of making a mistake. Importantly, this effect is different from confirmation bias (Mynatt
et al. (1977)), which refers to people’s tendency to choose to consult information sources
that can help confirm a particular hypothesis, instead of seeking those that would help
reject it. People acting in accordance with confirmation bias simply have a preference for
how to explore information sources, but when they obtain explicit falsifying information,
they use it to reject incorrect hypotheses. In contrast to confirmation bias, our results
speak to an error in the process of rejecting incorrect hypotheses. Specifically, we show
that individuals underweight or ignore information that is in disagreement with their
past choice."

Frances - you are right; it is this one. But it *will* make you cry.

http://xkcd.com/1048/

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.

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