Monday, November 10, 2014

I See You Shiver With Procrastin...

via Adam the G., Heath and Anderson on the dragging of one's heels. I assume, Adam, that you ran across this on the References page for this paper on gamification and eudaimonia. I assume further that you, as did I, got the heebie-jeebies from the phrase "eudaimonic design," appalled perhaps by the idea that eudaimonia could be the product of [central] conscious design rather than the messily informed trial and error conducted by ordinary men and women who have virtuous intent but imperfect will. I am sure, my dear Adam, that you share my conclusion that humans are learning creatures, striving towards improvement, but stumbling along the way, and ever bound by the shackles of opportunity cost.

So I also assume that you share with me a somewhat subtle understanding of what opportunity cost really means, and in the case of procrastination, what it implies. I assume that you, like me, don't conflate pen-and-ink game theoretical predictions with contextual decision calculus made in the face of a mighty array of tempting choices. I assume that we two fellows are of like mind on the topic of prudence: that it is the routine exercise of this virtue that strengthens it and that without such exercise it tends towards flab in the median human.

Procrastination provokes ex post regret. Therefore procrastination is not euvoluntary. Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today. The "Protestant work ethic" is characterized by its antipathy toward sloth. Be thrifty, be industrious, create capital. Don't be lazy, don't give in to the pleasure of sin. The ant survives the winter; the grasshopper freezes to death (without the charity of those more prudent).

Procrastination sure seems irrational. It's nuts to give up big future gains just so you can be content to sit back, maybe watch a little Mork and Mindy on channel 57. Maybe kick back a cool Coors 16-ouncer. And yeah, maybe that means that the dishes pile up in the sink (to pick one of the benign examples from the H&A paper) or maybe that tumor in your colon grows another few centimeters (to pick a less-benign example from the paper), but hyperbolic discounting is just one way to model this decision. Maybe it's satisfactory enough for analytical purposes, but analysis has an unsettling tendency to show up uninvited, particularly in policy settings, where Calculation Problems and Public Choice Issues have already taken up residence. Put another way, procrastination is a private problem, and overcoming it requires private solutions. Consider instead that we might model procrastination not as a failure to properly consider the future, but rather as choice paralysis or even as a profit opportunity for a clever entrepreneur to reap rewards in a missing market.

Look people, traditional technologies for overcoming procrastination exist, and they include sermonizing, peer pressure, nagging, folklore, inspirational speeches & al. But for reasons too numerous (and uncertain) to list here, they've lately become increasingly obsolete. A more modern tech would include gamifying. After all, how do you get players to continue clicking in an otherwise unrewarding MMO? Meter out little dopamine rewards stretched out as time progresses. If the ordinary procrastinator can make the performance of unpleasant tasks immediately rewarding, they can convert dull, onerous work into a pleasurable little voluntary addiction, one they can walk away from at a moment's notice with no hard feelings.

It is important therefore to distinguish anti-procrastination gamification from state-run choice architecture. In both cases, the EE condition fought is regret. The difference is clear from a virtue ethics standpoint: by voluntarily opting into gamifying anti-procrastination, the player intends on his own behalf to oblige himself to pursue his eudaimonia; if he decides ex post that his earlier decision was a mistake, he has no one to blame but himself; his regret creates no public strife. If, contrarily, a bureaucrat has modified his choice set for him, his inconvenience will, rightly or wrongly, be directed at agents of the state, at the gently coercive choice czar appointed to be the Jiminy Cricket to his Pinocchio. With a sufficiently large constituency, this would introduce more long-tail risk than I think is prudent for a nation. Add to this the nearly intractable knowledge problem faced by the bureaucrat (how to distinguish deleterious procrastination from welfare-enhancing choice at a great distance) and the pernicious risk of regulatory capture by people whose interest lie in their own pocketbooks rather than in the public trust.

Given the heritage of Western Civilization, I think many of my readers could be pressed to agree that procrastination as described in the Heath and Anderson paper is a vice rather than a virtue. I hope that upon reflection, my same readers will agree that the sensible, prudent solution to the erosion of the traditional checks on procrastination is to allow new technologies to emerge from the maelstrom of ideas and be tested in an environment where bad ideas can be rejected and discarded. It is not in the nature of the typical government-run program to dissolve in response to the failure of obtaining favorable results.

Related remarks here.


No comments:

Post a Comment

Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?