numbering some pies

I was drawing some pies. (Or, to give them their fancy name, lotteries).


The idea was I picked 6 important problems:

  • shame at work
  • shame about altruism
  • isolation & treating friends badly
  • not being awesome
  • anxiety over paperwork
  • guilt or discontent over lifestyle (mainly diet and exercise)

For each of these I was imagining a lottery where I would have some % chance of that problem getting fixed, and some chance of getting a neutral outcome where everything’s basically the same as it is now.

The picture would represent the assertion that a 50% chance of fixing altruism is equivalent to a 100% chance of fixing friendships or a 100% chance of fixing paperwork. It would assert that I’d choose between these outcomes with complete indifference.

I’m not saying the picture is right. The point of this is that making the comparisons this is hard.

It’s part of this idea that I had that I should at least try to determine what I actually cared about and how much. Expressing this as a utility function, once I know which things I prefer over which other, is not hard at all – the math to turn consistent preferences into a nice function is really very simple. But working out what you would actually prefer is not.

When judging the relative value of these pies, a couple of interesting thoughts came up.

The first is that the low-value pies seem “cheap”. That is: I expect to be able to obtain what they represent more easily, or by expending fewer resources, than the more expensive pies. For example, fixing paperwork feels cheaper than fixing friendships in this sense.

This isn’t supposed to affect my perceived value of the pie – but it does, and here’s why.

My mental prompt for evaluating these was to imagine some magical entity offered me one of other of these outcomes for free. I would just press one button or the other, and that’s what I’d get. Pretty sweet huh.

The reason for this is that if I think in terms of which outcome to strive towards, I’m going to be biased against the expensive ones. I’ll look at “become more awesome” or “fix my paperwork” and think *man* that sounds like a slog. In my mind, I wouldn’t be able to see through that to the value of what I’d get in return.

Imagining being handed them on a plate has the exact opposite problem. I’m going to be biased against the cheaper options, because I think “wow, if the genie gave me this other expensive thing, I can go off and then get that cheap thing by myself anyway”. I’d choose the more expensive one even if they both had equal value to me.

I don’t know how to prompt myself to make decisions in a way that’s completely neutral to this. I think the best thing is to order them the way I described – imagine being handed them on a plate by a genie – and come up with a score that way but also evaluate how “cheap” or “expensive” it feels at the same time. That can act as a sort of correcting factor.

An alternative would be to combine the genie prompt with the “which do I strive towards” prompt, on the basis that at least they’re biased in opposite directions. The problem is I’m not sure the “striving towards” prompt wouldn’t include other biases as well.

There’s also a feeling of “is that all?”. I was imagining taking where I am now – which as I’ve said before is far inferior to where I feel I “should” be – and adding a slice of one or other kind of goodie. While different slices of different things can be preferable to each other in some sense, I still end up feeling that I want more. In preference puzzles like this of course that isn’t the point – in your thought experiment you choose between the options that you’re given. But it’s at least worth noting the feeling in case it’s going to screw up the outcome somehow.

Another thing was that the different outcomes are not all independent. Some of them seem to imply each other. Being awesome seems like it would directly fix the altruism thing and make fixing all the rest a lot easier. Having better friendships will also help me towards my other goals. When I’m judging each outcome separately it’s hard not to be confused by this – I’m not sure how much I’m including all these crossovers in my assessment of things. Again, some extra numbers to note down (how much each outcome implies each other) and move on.

It’s also possible that I’m not listening to my whole self, that I’m letting one part of my personality dominate when making these decisions. In general of course it’s hard to avoid that, or at least I don’t have a fully developed strategy for it. But I have developed a trick for making decisions I feel ambivalent about: score each one 1-5 according to various different factors and add each factor up, only stopping when it feels like the right choice is winning.

I’m not sure that this will work here. These lotteries, where the outcome is not certain but carries some risk, are hard to judge emotionally because all of the parts of you need to be correctly calibrated in terms of what the probability number means.

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