On Human Behavior

(Epistemic status: Probably not universal, maybe not fully endorsed. Incomplete model.)

If you know me in real life, you know I have several catchphrases, especially when I’m talking about how to get what you want. One of those catchphrases is particularly salient when it comes to predicting how people will act. Quite simple, “Humans will generally do what is easiest.” This statement seems simple, trivial even. It also doesn’t seem quite 100% accurate. However, within those 7 words a deep secret is held. Habits can be changed with condition manipulation.

To see how this works, we must first break down what easiest means. Easy tends to exist on several dimensions. Broadly speaking, you have physical impediments, social impediments, value impediments, mental impediments, and temporal impediments. Physical impediments are the easiest to understand – it’s unlikely you will find the easiest path to work to be driving in a straight line – you’ll run into walls and all sorts of mischief if you do that. By designing a system of roads, the state makes it easiest for you to get to work by following a somewhat confusing series of twists and turns.   After that series of twists and turns, though, you make it to work!

Let’s keep going through this hypothetical day – it’s unlikely you’ll find it easiest to sit down and play video games all day at work (depending on the workplace). What’s stopping you though? If you’re working at a computer, it should be trivial to find something interesting to do, better than whatever irrelevant thing you’re typing away to accomplish for some distant boss. In this case, several impediments raise the cost of the “play video games” action – social impediments are highly salient – you can’t be seen slacking off so overtly by your coworkers because you’ll be sold out. It’s easier to work than to navigate being backstabbed. Value impediments also come into play here – it’s wrong to take money and not provide value (for most value systems); value is an illegible metric, but something having Wrong valence increases the difficulty of the task by a surprising amount.

Well, I guess you actually worked at work today. Easier than doing something useful or fun, right? Speaking of fun, though, it’s time to head home – you’ve been meaning to try the new Stellaris expansion, right? Oh, no? It’s too hard? We run into a mental impediment – it turns out, a hard day typing away at work takes a lot of concentration. Something that should be very easy, such as playing a video game, has increased cost due to the mental impediment of having spent the day concentrating. Much easier to sit back and watch something passively, so you do that. Mental impediments can also take the form of anxiety or other mental illness – something that should be very easy can sometimes be almost impossible if you’re anxious about it, or feel guilty about what you’ve done with your day thus far.

It’s getting late, you start to think maybe you’ve watched enough Netflix – but then the call comes. Sounds like your partner is feeling lonely! Sounds like something very easy to do, doesn’t it? Oh, but it’s 2300, and you’re getting up for work at 0600 the next day. You’ve run into a temporal impediment – the time it takes to…visit your partner is not time you have available. It’s easier to go to bed so you’re fresh for the next day. This one’s a bit tricky – some people might well choose their partner because their temporal impediment is more against going to bed.

Now, that was a very quick illustration of how you might choose things that aren’t aligned with what you want to do due to various impediments making the “easiest” thing harder – the issue is it mostly goes in broad strokes. The real importance of the maxim is that your day’s flow is largely overdetermined by easiness on the moment to moment level – and as such, if you want to change your habits, you need to change the calculation for your moment to moment. This can take many forms – maybe you discover a new macro at work that lets you automate things such that your moment to moment flow is easier to handle, which reduces the mental impediment of playing video games later. Maybe you get rid of your video games so you aren’t thinking about them so much and do something else you value more – take up parkour or something. Maybe you decide the company you work for is getting way more value than it should out of you, and shift your values so that you steal a few moments checking on a browser game or doing your shopping or peeking at social media. There are a lot of ways to reframe or change things so that a previously existing impediment no longer holds for you, and a desirable action becomes easiest.

The real question is what actions do you want to make easiest? This requires you to work from outcomes – what outcomes do you want in your life? If you want to get enough money to retire early, maybe you shouldn’t hack your values to reduce the impediment to slacking off. If you want to reserve your mental energy for living a full life outside of work and have a lot of good experiences, making some social deals at work to cover each other’s slacking might be easiest, even if it seems harder in the moment (you’re countering a social impediment with a value impediment towards other actions.) If you don’t start from outcomes, however, any intervention you do to adjust your “easy action” calculus is effectively noise.

Overall, I try to live by the assumption in myself that I will do whatever is easiest – my productivity workflow depends on this being true. There are implications for how this can affect your behavior towards other people and setting up situations such that desirable outcomes for you are easiest for them – I will likely visit this in a future post.

Discussion Questions: Does this way of viewing behavior make sense to you? What sorts of impediments do you notice in your life that get in the way of your desired outcomes? How would you rearrange impediments such that you are more aligned with the person you want to be?

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