Sunday, December 5, 2010

Ask for donations for Christmas

Economists are fond of pointing out the dead-weight loss of holiday gifts, and based on personal experience, I have to agree with the complaint. Considering how much suffering can be prevented by a single dollar, it's tragic to consider what the money is used on instead.

The economically ideal approach would be to transfer cash, and utilitarians would most benefit from this as well, since they could then use that cash for the purpose they consider optimal. However, cash donations may not be received well by many people -- cash doesn't feel "gift like," because people tend to put money into a mental category of "cold-hearted greedy stuff" rather than "a sincere expression of caring."

Instead, I suggest asking your family and friends to make a charitable donation on your behalf. I sent an email to those who might give me gifts requesting that, if they do give anything, please make it a donation to Vegan Outreach in my name. I encourage readers to consider trying this as well.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Macro- vs. Micro-Optimization

Suppose you're trying to add up 4,000 numbers. You need to get the answer as soon as possible, so you think about how best to do the task. You might say, "Well, getting the job done quickly is important, so let me squint my eyes, roll up my sleeves, and concentrate really hard, so that I can have as much mental focus as possible while I get through this." You then proceed to use a pencil and paper to add the digits, sweating and wrinkling your brow as you focus your concentration for the next 10 hours until the task is complete. Meanwhile, your friend downloads the digits to a computer, pastes them into Excel, and figures out the answer a minute later.

Ah, the power of macro-optimization! I've noticed a number of instances in which I and other people tend to get overly caught up in thinking about micro-level decisions on a day-to-day basis, without spending enough time improving higher-level structural choices. For instance, Should I procrastinate for another X minutes? Should I keep exercising or stop? Do I go for one more helping of dinner? Shall I spend money on purchasing this small item that I could live without?

These are all important questions, and their answers are not irrelevant. It is important to avoid procrastinating, not to waste money on luxuries, and so forth. There is a place for exerting effort in these decisions. But if you find yourself burning up willpower on such questions on a regular basis, then you're probably doing something wrong. In general, life doesn't have to be a day-in-day-out struggle to "do the right thing" by sheer force of effort. Very often, there are big-picture changes and/or rules that you can put in place such that the micro-optimizations become minor or altogether unnecessary.

One case where this applies is with food choices. I've found that if I buy junk food and have it around the house, the day becomes a constant willpower struggle with the question, Shall I go ahead and eat another cookie or not? But if I don't buy the junk food in the first place, and if I go for a long enough period that my cravings for it subside, then the question vanishes from my mind, and I don't think about cookies at all. Similarly, many people find that going completely vegetarian is easier than going almost-vegetarian, just because the question, "Should I eat meat on this particular occasion?" doesn't constantly arise. (That said, others find that near vegetarianism is easier than complete vegetarianism. And of course, it's important to consider the widely variable impacts of different types of animal foods.)

In other cases, the best solution may be not to set a rule to do the right thing but, rather, to allow oneself to do the wrong thing with the bargain of doing the right thing in another area of higher value. For instance, I sometimes feel guilty about not doing some tangible action that would prevent a little bit of immediate suffering -- e.g., looking for injured worms stranded on the sidewalk that could be put out of their misery on a rainy day. Sometimes I do stop to help the worms, but at other times, I instead promise myself to put in extra effort later toward another action with greater value (like promoting awareness of the general problem of worm suffering in the wild). I also sometimes feel guilty about spending money to buy chewing gum, because it's a "junk food" that I could clearly live without; but I've noticed that there are a number of other areas of my grocery budget where I could more painlessly reduce costs, and I promise myself that I'll make bigger cuts there in return for keeping the gum. Similarly, rather than going vegetarian, some might find it easier to continue to eat meat personally and to instead donate, say, an extra $100 a year to The Humane League, with the latter action having a bigger total impact on animal suffering.

(One complication with "willpower bargains" of this sort is that you have to make sure you actually will do more of the activity that's more efficient than you were going to beforehand. If you feel like you're at the limits of your willpower and may burn out if you work any harder, then optimizing where you expend willpower is the best choice. On the other hand, if you think you can build your willpower muscle stronger by using it more than you already do, then consider doing that first.)

Similar thinking applies in many other areas. For instance, say you're persuaded by Singer's argument in "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" but don't want to live at the level of a Third World peasant. You could probably do better by continuing to live a normal lifestyle in a First World country, taking a high-paying job, and donating your earnings. Chances are that even a spendthrift investment banker will have more cash left over to donate (to, say, Vegan Outreach or The Humane League) than the most frugal of secretaries or farm workers. In addition, rather than hyper-optimizing your own income, it's worth considering whether you could achieve more total donations for a given cause by spending less time on work and more time networking with friends and colleagues who might contribute.

Finally, the same sorts of logic apply with respect to where one donates. To use a slogan of Givewell, "Don't give more; give well." If you can forgo a fifth of your potential donatable funds to spend time on research that will double the cost-effectiveness of your final donation, you will have made more total impact.

The questions about willpower and personal effort may seem different than those about allocation of time and money. On the inside, it often feels as though we should be able to make the right individual choices on every occasion. Sure, we can't blame people for having limited budgets or a finite number of hours in the day, but when they expend money on a product they could have lived without, or when they waste time on a fun activity instead of working more, it sometimes feels like they're blameworthy, because "they could" have done differently. But the fact of the matter is, willpower, energy, and motivation are themselves finite resources, and sometimes "wasting time" on having fun is the right choice. Rather than feeling guilty about every little apparently sub-optimal decision that you make, try to direct your guilt toward those areas that you rationally observe have the highest value.

In many ways, this relates back to the post on salience and motivation. The micro-optimization choices that we face are clear and immediate: It feels morally important to make the right decision in those cases, and we feel bad about ourselves when we don't. Yet -- as the case of adding 4,000 numbers illustrates -- many times there are solutions beyond sheer force of will that can end up making a bigger real-world impact. Moralizing isn't the answer to every problem. And indeed, because willpower is limited, expending guilt should only be a last resort: Sometimes there are other structural changes you can make (to your work environment, your purchasing habits, your topics of mental focus, your social activities, and so on) that will eliminate the willpower dilemmas altogether. In other words, focus on finding the right rules more than on forcing yourself to do the apparently optimal thing in each situation; the latter is a recipe for burnout.

(I suppose this discussion is relevant to the act- vs. rule-utilitarianism debate, among other things.)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Research on Insect Consciousness

An old blog post on the blog "Intelligent Life is All Around Us" drew my attention to a fascinating Discover Magazine article, "Consciousness in a Cockroach." I've included some quotations from that piece below. I wonder: What are the best ways to support further research like this?

"Many people would pooh-pooh the notion of insects having brains that are in any way comparable to those of primates," Strausfeld adds. "But one has to think of the principles underlying how you put a brain together, and those principles are likely to be universal."

The findings are controversial. "The evidence that I've seen so far has not convinced me," says Gilles Laurent, a neuroscientist at Caltech. But some researchers are considering possibilities that would shock most lay observers. "We have literally no idea at what level of brain complexity consciousness stops," says Christof Koch, another Caltech neuroscientist. "Most people say, 'For heaven's sake, a bug isn't conscious.' But how do we know? We're not sure anymore. I don't kill bugs needlessly anymore."

Heinrich Reichert of the University of Basel in Switzerland has become more and more interested in "the relatedness of all brains."


"Attention," says van Swinderen, "is a whole-brain phenomenon. A thing is not purely visual, not purely olfactory. It's a binding together of different parts that for us signify one thing. Why couldn't the fly's mechanism [of attention] be directed to a succession of its memories?" he asks. "That, to me, is just a short hop, skip, and a jump away from what might be consciousness." The difference between the memories of a fly and a human might be a matter of degree. The human can store a lot more memories and can therefore maintain a more sophisticated personal narrative of his past and present. But van Swinderen believes "it could be exactly the same mechanism in a fly and a human." Although there is still no evidence to decide either way, the result could be consciousness.

"Probably what consciousness requires," says Koch of Caltech, "is a sufficiently complicated system with massive feedback. Insects have that. If you look at the mushroom bodies, they're massively parallel and have feedback."

Chemical clues confirm that at least some fundamental brain processes are the same in humans and insects. Van Swinderen and Rozi Andretic, a neuroscientist at NSI, have found that mutant flies producing too little of the neurotransmitter dopamine have impaired salience responses. Feeding the mutant flies methamphetamine—a chemical related to drugs used to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder—relieves the dopamine shortage and normalizes the flies' attention. But give meth to a normal fly and it cannot attend as well. "Similar mechanisms are present in vertebrates and flies," Andretic told me.

When you consider that neurons themselves are strikingly similar across the animal kingdom, it all begins to make sense. "You have the same basic building blocks for vertebrates and invertebrates," says Strausfeld, "and there are certain ways you can put these building blocks together [into brains]." So when it came to building a brain center like the hippocampus that can recognize places, there might have been only one way to wire those quirky neurons together to do the job—and evolution arrived at that same solution multiple times independently, just as the genetic instructions for wings evolved multiple times in distinct lineages.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Salience and Motivation

There are a few basic life activities (eating, sleeping, etc.) that cannot be ignored and have to be maintained to some degree in order to function. Beyond these, however, it's remarkable how much variation is possible in what people care about and spend their time thinking about. Merely reflecting upon my own life, I can see how vastly the kinds of things I find interesting and important have changed. Some topics that used to matter so much to me are now essentially irrelevant except as whimsical amusements, while others that I had never even considered are now my top priorities.

The scary thing is just how easily and imperceptibly these sorts of shifts can happen. I've been amazed to observe how much small, seemingly trivial cues build up to have an enormous impact on the direction of one's concerns. The types of conversations I overhear, blog entries and papers and emails I read, people I interact with, and visual cues I see in my environment tend basically to determine what I think about during the day and, over the long run, what I spend my time and efforts doing. One can maintain a stated claim that "X is what I find overridingly important," but as a practical matter, it's nearly impossible to avoid the subtle influences of minor day-to-day cues that can distract from such ideals.

Needless to say, subtle cues are the reason advertising works so well. They're also why people are correct to warn against corrupting influences -- e.g., when fundamentalists discourage their children from attending liberal colleges. To an individual person, it feels so impossible that her concerns, attitudes, and emotional states could possibly change -- they just feel so right and necessary and inevitable -- but taking the outside view, even with respect to one's own life, clearly proves otherwise.

I have been fortunate that, for the past ten years or so, I've never lost an idealized commitment to the overriding goal of reducing suffering (though I have grown much wiser about how exactly that task is best attempted). Still, on a day-to-day basis, what I accomplish toward that goal has varied quite a bit; there have been days or even weeks when I've found myself completely distracted by other concerns. To some extent, this is necessary and important. For instance, those who take the approach of making money to prevent suffering need to find their alternate occupations intrinsically interesting or else will give up rather quickly. Creating subgoals with their own instrumental payoffs is essential for accomplishing any sort of long-term project. (Hence why people set deadlines, give homework assignments, schedule exams, perform periodic reviews, and so forth.) But from the standpoint of goal stability, it's also crucial not to let these subgoals take over and become ends-in-themselves. (For there's no intrinsic reason they couldn't be ends in themselves -- as I suggested at the beginning, pretty much anything apart from basic self-maintenance can become a person's chief concern.)

In view of the impact of subtle, everyday influences on one's unconscious mind, I recommend the following (to myself as much as to others): Don't just claim to care about reducing suffering in the abstract. Also manipulate your environmental influences toward the same end. Surround yourself with people who share that purpose. Read about altruism when you first wake up and are getting started with the day; Facebook makes this really easy these days. Cancel email subscriptions to irrelevant newsletters and add subscriptions on topics of which you want to be reminded regularly. Same for the blogs you read with RSS. Make regular time to remember why suffering matters -- for instance, by watching videos that depict the seriousness of suffering. Get a picture of a snake eating a live rat for your office wall. (These are just examples; YMMV.)

Even if you think these things are unnecessary ("Of course I care overridingly about suffering -- how could I feel otherwise?"), consider doing it anyway. Emotions can change like the wind, and one day's overriding concern is tomorrow's irrelevant cause.

Because these cues are so fickle and arbitrary, they rarely square with quantitative assessments of situations -- as evinced by, say, the tendency of many in rich countries to help moderately low-income people in their own neighborhoods over those completely destitute in the Third world, or the tendency of people to focus on human suffering even when that of other species preponderates by orders of magnitude. So it's important also to design one's environmental influences in a way that correctly represents the quantitative facts about a situation. Examples of this include hunger banquets or depictions like "If the world were a village of 100 people," in which quantitative data is translated into emotionally digestible form without losing its accuracy. It's for this reason that I hesitated to suggest the snake-eating-rat picture above, because in quantitative terms, the potential suffering of insects outweighs that of other animals by orders of magnitude in expected value. Similarly, it may be that recondite details of physics, cosmology, and anthropics imply vastly non-intuitive conclusions about the distribution of suffering in the multiverse and how best we can ameliorate it.

That's basically the theme of this blog. First do the math, and then come up with the "marketing" (feel-good images and unconscious persuasions) to back it up. But don't neglect the marketing: Math alone can't sustain motivation on a day-to-day basis. We also need the help of appropriately designed social and environmental surroundings to keep our emotions in line with our fundamental values.

[Edit from 12 April 2013:]
I want to qualify the tone of this post. It may have come across as suggesting that some activities are vastly important, while others are completely useless. Over time, I've come to see that the distribution of importance of different activities isn't as extreme as it may seem. Everything you do teaches you something, and sometimes it's the seemingly useless activities that lead you to try something new, as a result of which you "learn things you never knew you never knew." Like in a simulated annealing or multi-armed bandit algorithm, it's sometimes important to take random steps to avoid getting stuck in local maxima.

Also don't neglect the need to be generous to your own selfishness to avoid burnout or negative reinforcement with regard to altruistic activities. Fortunately, my experience is that altruism comes naturally as one of the most fun things I could do, in part because it feels so interesting and valuable, and in part because my friends are doing it too. Friends help you keep the seriousness of these issues alive.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Remembering Why Suffering Matters

By way of my friend Roko, I came across the following video:

It's good to watch things like this from time to time so that we remember why the rest of what we do matters. This is what "Reducing Suffering" is really all about.