Author Archives: david

The role of certainty in behaviour change

Disclaimer: This is a “Here are some things” post in which I try to figure out how a bunch of different facts fit together. It’s not terribly coherent.

I wasn’t thinking about this when I wrote it, but it recently occurred to me that, in a certain sense, the solution I proposed to trolley problems is exactly the same as Beeminder.

The sense in which they are exactly the same is that they are both a system for increasing the cost of an action you want to take because you don’t trust your reasoning in the circumstances that you’d want to take it. They’re systems for distorting incentives in order to get you to behave in a certain way.

You can frame a lot of things like this. In a sense the entire justice system can be framed as this (note: I was not explicitly doing so in the trolley problems post because it was expressed in terms of turning yourself in – it’s about what the right moral choice is, not how to get people to choose the right thing to do): You are changing people’s incentives by creating penalties when they behave in ways you don’t want.

My admittedly imperfect understanding of the evidence is that this isn’t a very good model of how a justice system works in practice. Under this theory, increasing the severity of a punishment should significantly increase the incentive to not commit a crime, and thus should decrease the rate of commission of that crime. In practice, rates of committing crimes appear to be relatively unresponsive to this. In particular, the introduction of capital punishment appears to do little to nothing to reduce the homicide rate.

Circling back to Beeminder, how do you square this with the fact that fairly demonstrably if you increase the pledge on a goal you’re less likely to derail on it (at least on an anecdotal basis, but I think this holds true in general from what other people have said and it would make the entire premise of the site fairly questionable if it weren’t true). Increasing the punishment for behaving “wrongly” acts as a good way to make you much more likely to behave correctly.

The difference seems to be certainty. Fundamentally, it appears that at least in the heat of the moment, criminals don’t think they’re going to get caught. If you believe you’re not going to get caught, how much you’re punished when you get caught is basically irrelevant to you and doesn’t force you to consider your behaviour. With Beeminder or a precommitment to always submit yourself to justice, this goes away because you remove the uncertainty.

In general, and this is where my knowledge about the evidence gets super shaky and really needs further research, this seems to hold as a model of criminal behaviour: Increasing the certainty of conviction seems to work much better than increasing the severity of punishment. Essentially you want to cause people’s suspension of disbelief required to think they’ll get away with it until even in the heat of the moment they can’t really believe it. Presumably, once you have managed to consider people that punishment for a crime is certain the severity of that punishment starts to have more of an effect (However, this is entirely theorising and I do not have evidence to back up this claim’s plausibility with regards to the design of actual justice systems, so it should not be trusted too strongly).

(On a social justice note, my understanding is that there’s a lot of things that black people will stringently avoid doing because given the racism inherent in the criminal justice system they are much less likely to get away with it than white people. I don’t have any statistics, only anecdata I have heard, so I don’t want to comment on this further, but people have certainly reported this influencing their behaviour and it is eminently plausible).

The connection between certainty and effectiveness of incentives seems entirely plausible. People who want to do a thing are going to engage in motivated reasoning to allow themselves to do it, which is going to cause them to convince themselves they’ll get away with it if it’s humanly possible for them to believe that (and humans are really good at believing things).

A thing that’s interesting about this is how it’s completely opposite to how rewards work. Rewards are best at changing behaviour if they’re not predictable. It seems that what you want to do is basically only reward people for a behaviour some of the time (I have no idea what the best probability is for this, but that would be really interesting to find out).

I don’t know precisely why this is, but it seems to mesh with my anecdotal experiences of how to create addictions. The most addicting games aren’t the ones that consistently reward you with steady progress but those where you try and fail a lot. Especially when that failure is sometimes because you weren’t good enough and sometimes the game is just like “ha ha. No”.

So there’s a weird sort of duality here: When trying to get you to do less of something you want to do, you want certain costs. When trying to get you do more of something that you don’t want to do, you want uncertain rewards.

Obviously, I’m interested in all of this in the context of behaviour change.

The major source of uncertainty in my attempts at behaviour change is my use of tagtime. It randomly samples me throughout the day and asks me what I’m doing, I reply with various things that I want to track, and these are fed into beeminder goals (I don’t use any tagtime tags that are not hooked up to goals). These are a mix of “Do more” goals (be outside, be in the gym, be doing Anki cards) and do less goals (be on twitter, be sitting down).

The randomness is purely because this is the most efficient way to track things which are fine grained. For example as a result of tagtime I will often squeeze in a couple minutes of anki between things, such as while resting between sets in the gym. It would be inconceivably heavy weight to try to time those in a fine grained way, but tag time just doesn’t care: It works equally well regardless of how my time is sliced up.

The degree of actual uncertainty in tag time behaviour is pretty low in the long run – I have on average more than 300 pings a week, which is enough that the margin of error on most goals is actually pretty low). However, it has the side effect of greatly increasing the amount of perceived uncertainty, which for the purposes of behaviour change seems likely to be what matters.

And my reaction to the pings is correspondingly very different between these behaviours that I’m rewarding and punishing as a result.

With the do more goals each ping is that little surge of pleasure at the reward “Yay, I got points for doing a thing”. It’s not 100% effective for creating behaviour change (in particular recently has been suffering a bit from lack of motivation. In fact this post is only being written because I let my writing time goal suffer so much that I need to write this while on a team offsite in Ibiza to not derail), but it’s been pretty good.

The do less goals my reaction is “Argh, you caught me”.

Fundamentally, tagtime will catch you. There’s no way to beat the system. Yet I still think I can get away with it.

I’m not sure what to do about this. Tagtime is still the best way to track what I’m doing with my time. It’s possible that even just having spelled this out is sufficient, but I’m not convinced it will be.

Still, it’s not like I can’t change my behaviour without the perfect magic set of incentives, but it sure would be nice to have a system that works with the quirks of my brain rather than forcing me to overcome them with sheer stubbornness.

On the plus side, by writing this blog post about motivation I have managed to satisfy my immediate motivation of getting my writing time goal back up to outside of the backpressure zone. So I’ve got that going for me.

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Majority judgement by hand

(Note: Although this will contain a reference to a thing that is happening in Google I have no inside knowledge here and have not talked to the team at all. I know literally no more about this than is present in the linked article)

A couple of days ago I saw a link to this article about how Google ventures are making decisions that avoid the group think of brain storming.

It’s a good system, and well thought out. Basically everyone proposes a couple options and then everyone votes on all the options. I should like this, right? I like voting.

And I mostly do like this. From a psychology and meeting design point of view it’s very well thought out.

Of course, from a voting theory point of view… Well they’re using first past the post.

That’s not to single them out. If you’re doing things by hand, basically everyone uses first past the post. The tallying process is really easy. Some people will use approval voting (same as FPTP, but you can vote for multiple things), which is a big step up, but can we do better?

When we chose our kittens’ names we voted on the sets of names we had using Majority Judgement. This worked really well, and we were rather happy with the end result (our kittens are named Sinister and Dexter), but it’s relatively easy to tally Majority Judgement by hand when you only have three voters. For a larger meeting that’s not going to work so well.

Or is it?

There’s a variant on Majority Judgement that it turns out is quite easy to do by hand. It’s called Majority Gauge. In result it differs from Majority Judgement only in that it can occasionally tie when Majority Judgement would determine a clear winner. This should happen rarely enough that you can just not worry about it and resolve ties however you otherwise would have.

It works as follows:

Everyone casts their vote. A vote consists of assigning a grade from a fixed list of grades. e.g. “Hate / Indifferent / Like”. You can use as many as you want, but to keep this simple for hand tallying you probably want three (it doesn’t get much more complicated with more, but the actual process of counting things up gets more annoying).

For each candidate you count how many votes of each grade each candidate got. Here’s a made up example based on our kitten name choices with three grades and five voters (we actually had 5 grades and 3 voters):

Name Hate Indifferent Like
Sinister and Dexter  0 2 3
Gin and Tonic  2 1 2
Lorem and Ipsum 0  3 2
Kappa and Lambda  2  2  1
Terror and Erebus 0 5 0

The grade is calculated as follows: First you calculate a threshold. This is half the number of voters, rounded down. In this case that’s 2. You now want to find the lowest score that’s supported by at least that many people.

To do this you count from the worst score to the highest, adding up as you go until you exceed the threshold. You then stop and give the candidate that grade. So for the above example, “Gin and Tonic” and “Kappa and Lambda” get a grade of “Hate”, while “Sinister and Dexter”, “Lorem and Ipsum” and “Terror and Erebus” each get a grade of “Indifferent”.

Now every option which didn’t get the top grade gets out. A lot of the time this will leave you with only one option. In this case we get three (in our actual kitten voting we had two, but I needed to fiddle with this to make it a good example).

For each of these candidates we now mark it positive or negative. It’s positive if it has strictly more votes better than its grade than less than its grade. For this example, “Sinister and Dexter” and “Lorem and Ipsum” are both positive, whileas “Terror and Erebus” is negative (because ties are resolved in favour of negative).

This has two effects: Firstly, if any are positive then all the negative ones drop out of the race. Again, if this leaves you with only one option left you stop whether you’re done.

It also matters because it decides how the final round is conducted. There are two options:

If the candidates remaining are positive ones, the final round is counted by counting up the number of votes each candidate got that was greater than their grade. The highest scorer wins. So “Sinister and Dexter” get a score of 2 and “Gin and Tonic” gets a score of 1, leaving our kittens named “Sinister and Dexter”. They’re so relieved.

If on the other hand all remaining candidates are negative, you reverse this. Instead you count up how many votes they got which were lower than their grade, and the candidate with the fewest votes wins.

(In both these cases, if the scores are tied then so is the election).

And that’s pretty much it. It’s a bit fiddly, and you probably wouldn’t want to actually run it without some notes on how to do so until you’d done it a few times, but it should be entirely doable by hand.

Obviously I think this is a good idea, but I don’t have a lot of practical evidence. It would be interesting to see meetings adopt more nuanced voting systems and whether this actually improves the decisions made.

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I don’t trust motivation

This is a general thing I’ve been observing, but it was sparked by a comment from my friend Marcus on my previous post:

I think you missed off the most important thing for me – be happy. I find it way easier to do the things I should do, like exercise, when I’m already cheerful. I tend to exist in the moment more than most people, so maybe it’s just me.

I’ve already replied to the comment:

Yeah, I don’t trust this strategy.

The problem is that happiness is transitory, and too much at the whim of external factors, which means that behaviour changes that rely on it tend to lead to relapses. I agree that it’s much easier to achieve your goals when you’re already in a great mood, but you need to be able to achieve your goals when you’re having a shitty day and really don’t want to as well.

But I think this deserves elaborating on further (and not just because I’m desperately trying to prevent a beeminder goal that requires me to spend more time blogging today from derailing *cough*).

A similar theme I’ve heard a lot recently is the idea that the solution to my exercise problem is that I should find things that are fun to do and I will then want to do them.

I think these are good ideas. Happiness is great, and it makes everything easier, and if you have fun things to do that are good exercise you should definitely do them because they’re fun and you’ll get more exercise.

But as strategies I fundamentally don’t trust them, and believe that following them would actively sabotage my attempts to achieve my goals.

The problem is that they all are ways of making you want to achieve things.

Wanting to achieve the things you’re trying to achieve is also great, and you should do as much of that as you can, but there are going to be times when you don’t want to achieve things, and you’re still going to have to anyway.

I don’t know about you, but my energy levels (both physical and mental) are incredibly variable. I’m aware I’m somewhat atypical on this front, but only in the sense of maybe like a standard deviation worse than average. This means that I will often go for periods of a week or maybe even two where I just can’t be bothered with things because everything seems like hard work. It’s not that I’m unable to function, it just means that my motivation is at a distinct low.

What this means is that on a regular basis I have to assume I will have very little motivation to achieve anything, and that the things that I learned how to get done by being happy about it, or by enjoying them, no longer seem like they’re worth the effort because the effort seems so much greater. Eventually this will pass, but by that time the habit will be broken and I will have lost a lot of ground and have to restart from a much earlier phase.

And what that means is that I have to regard any approach which is built purely on motivation as doomed to failure. This is why I need strategies, and I need to design systems where the response to “I can’t be bothered” is that I go and do it anyway.

This may sound overly specific to me, and your experience of personal experience of energy levels might be different, but there are other things that can cause this too – external variation in circumstances can cause life to get a bit overwhelming, and then suddenly you too can find that you don’t have as much motivation as you once did because you’re spending it all on the current crisis, and then like me all the things that you were relying on motivation for will start to fall by the wayside.

This is of course not to say that you shouldn’t use motivation when you have it. You can always rely on the times where you have motivation to do more of it. I’m certainly planning to try to find some more fun exercise to do (I’m already doing swimming as part of that) for when the motivation strikes me, but you need that baseline habit that carries you through for the rest of the times when you don’t.

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Strategies, not promises

This is a small motto for changing things that you do. I’ve believed in it for a while, and I think I’ve mentioned it once or twice on here, but I don’t think I’ve ever written it up.

The scenario is this: There’s a thing you want to change about yourself. You want to do more of something, you want to do less of something, you want to do something differently, etc. What do you do?

The most common approach people seem to try to take is to apply willpower to the problem: You resolve to do better, and you firmly commit yourself to doing so, and you try your very best to change things.

This is the “Promises” solution. I don’t know if it works for you, but it certainly doesn’t work for me and I’d be surprised if it worked for most people.

The problem is that you are generally already burning about as much willpower as you have to use, just in the course of your every day life. If you had much more to burn you’d probably have found something to fill it up. You might be able to eke out a bit more, but generally if a major behaviour change is required what will happen is that you will end up managing for a few weeks and then will have burned through your reserves and fail to be able to summon the motivation to continue. Worse: The next time you try to do something like this it will be harder because you’ve learned the lesson that you’re not the sort of person who can make this sort of promise and expect to keep it.

So what to do instead? Well, obviously I think the answer is “Strategies”, but what does that mean here?

Essentially it’s that you have to acknowledge that behaviours do not exist in a vacuum. There are reasons for those behaviours. In order to change them you need to address those reasons, either by removing them or providing counterbalances for them.


  • I don’t go to the gym because it’s easy to put off doing it to another day. Solution: Schedule going to the gym for a specific recurring time and day.
  • I drink too much coffee because I don’t get enough sleep. Solution: Get more sleep (easy, right?)
  • I never get very good at this because I always get frustrated at a certain point and give up. Solution: Use some sort of commitment device (e.g. beeminder, but there are others) to push you past that point where you get frustrated.

The specific strategies that you adopt don’t matter that much. What’s important is that you try to figure out specific concrete things you can do to change the underlying behaviour, so that you can solve it without having to throw willpower at the problem.

The obvious reason why this approach is better is that you’re more likely to succeed, which is after all what you wanted.

The less obvious but actually more important reason why this approach is better is what happens if you fail. Which you may. You might have picked the wrong strategy, or at least an incomplete one – you won’t always have correctly identified the reasons for your existing behaviour, or your proposed solution might not be adequate for addressing them. That’s OK.

See, the great thing about failed strategies is that you can fix them. There’s nothing wrong with having failed. It’s not evidence of a character flaw on your part. You just didn’t get it right this time. So you can learn from what didn’t work and from it try to figure out something that will.

It actually took me much longer to realise this second part than the first – long after I originally coined the motto – but I think it’s the more important one. The most important thing about change is to be able to keep it up – promises impede your ability to change further whether they succeed or fail, but strategies improve your ability to change further, when they succeed but especially when they fail.

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Definitely not a Mexican recipe

I feel it’s important to state that this is totally not a Mexican recipe and I make no claims of authenticity, mainly so my friend Paulina won’t be mad at me for perpetuating the various bad imitations of Mexican food that abound (not that this will stop me from sending her pictures when I encounter things like the “Mexican mac ‘n’ cheese” I had in the north of England of course).

Lets call it pseudo-Mexican. Or Mexican inspired. Or we could call it Fusion if we were feeling fancy. I originally made it as an improvisation, but then I made it again because it was tasty.


  • 500g Gnocchi (I told you it wasn’t Mexican)
  • 3 cans red kidney beans
  • 3 medium sized onions
  • 4 medium sweet peppers (I used a mix or red, orange and yellow)
  • 1 small red chilli pepper
  • Ground cumin
  • Dry Oregano
  • Hot smoked paprika
  • Salt
  • Black pepper
  • Vegetable oil for frying

The spice quantities are problematic because I still haven’t measured them out. The ratios are about twice as much cumin as oregano and twice as much oregano as paprika. I’d guess that it’s about 2-3 tbsp of cumin, but I’d recommend tinkering with the levels until it’s tasty.

Cooking is simple:

Dice the onions and peppers (including the chilli pepper), put them into a frying pan with hot oil and salt to fry. Stir, and once the onion has gone translucent, add the spices. Keep stirring for about another 10 minutes, add the kidney beans (drained), stir for another ten minutes, add the Gnocchi, and you guessed it stir for another 10 minutes.

By that point the kidney beans should have broken up a bit but the gnocchi will mostly have kept its structure. The result is a fairly thick mush that will hold together quite well.

The first time we ate this we just had it in bowls with guacamole on the side. The second time we put it in corn tortillas with some salsa verde as well and that worked a lot better, though both ways were pretty good.

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