Approval-addicted agents

“For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. … For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. … O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” – St. Paul

Roughly two years ago, friend introduced me to the idea that you can get addicted to flow. This was a revelation to me.

I realized that much of my “work” is driven by the desire to get the immediate reward of being in a state where I feel like I’m doing valuable work (ideally fueled by caffeine and good music).

I also started observing that much of my daily frustration comes from barriers to flow. These are often small distractions, but more often, I can trace the obstacle back to a fundamental lack of belief that a piece of work is valuable.

Why do I so often end up “working” on things I don’t find valuable?

My mental image for “working” – Trump trying hard to look busy in front of media


I’ve noticed a pattern where I often start with an intrinsic motivation and, after a short period without getting social approval for this, parts of my mind manage to reframe the goal in terms that is easy to explain socially.

It’s not surprising that a brain evolved for survival in the tribe gets easily addicted to social approval.

The problem starts when your tribe is governed by Moloch and the measures of social approval have only a very weak relation to valuable actions.

Some examples:

Pass the Ideological Turing test on open borders
Write a respectable paper with lots of jargon
Get a good grade in Math 21b
Study physics and AI
Find a respectable paid job that justifies this

(To be fair, these proxies do make sense as a reminder that if you want to leave well-positioned offspring on biologically plausible timescales, you’d better hurry up.)

I don’t have a ready solution. Start-ups seem like a plausible escape route, but there are also strong pressures to modify your objective function to cater to the market’s desires.

End with Carlyle –

“It is well said, in every sense, that a man’s religion is the chief fact with regard to him. A man’s, or a nation of men’s. By religion I do not mean here the church-creed which he professes, the articles of faith which he will sign and, in words or otherwise, assert; not this wholly, in many cases not this at all. We see men of all kinds of professed creeds attain to almost all degrees of worth or worthlessness under each or any of them. This is not what I call religion, this profession and assertion; which is often only a profession and assertion from the outworks of the man, from the mere argumentative region of him, if even so deep as that. But the thing a man does practically believe (and this is often enough without asserting it even to himself, much less to others);the thing a man does practically lay to heart, and know for certain, concerning his vital relations to this mysterious Universe, and his duty and destiny there, that is in all cases the primary thing for him, and creatively determines all the rest. That is his religion…”


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