Attractor Theory: A Model of Minds and Motivation
[Epistemic status: Moderately strong. Attractor Theory is a model based on the well-researched concept of time-inconsistent preferences combined with anecdotal evidence that extends the theory to how actions affect our preferences in general. See the Caveats at the end for a longer discussion on what this model is and isn’t.]
I’m going to present a model about decision-making that I hope will be useful. The model is called Attractor Theory, and it brings together ideas from Optimizing Your Mindstate, behavioral economics, and flow.
Attractor Theory is my attempt to provide a way of looking at the world that hybridizes ideas from the Resolve paradigm (where humans Actually Try and exert their will) and the “click-whirr” paradigm (where humans are driven by “if-then” loops and proceduralized habits).
In a nutshell, Attractor Theory states that when making decisions, in addition to the costs and effects of the action, you should also take into account how it affects your local preferences. These can be seen as meta-level effects on changing your perception of which actions feel desirable.
Here’s a metaphor that provides most of the intuitions behind Attractor Theory:
Imagine that you are in a hamster ball:
As a human inside this ball, you can kinda roll around by exerting energy. But it’s hard to do so all of the time — you’d likely get tired from all the pushing! Still, if you really wanted to, you could push the ball and move.
These are Utilons. They represent productivity hours, lives saved, HPMOR fan-fictions written, or anything else you care about maximizing. You are trying to roll around and collect as many Utilons as possible.
But the terrain isn’t actually smooth. Instead, there are all these Attractors that pull you towards them. Attractors are like valleys, or magnets, or point charges. Or maybe electrically charged magnetic valleys. (I’m going to Physics Hell for that.)
The point is that they draw you towards them, and it’s hard to resist their pull.
Also, Attractors have an interesting property: Once you’re being pulled in by one, this actually modifies other Attractors. This usually manifests by changing how strongly other ones are pulling you in. Sometimes, though, this even means that some Attractors will disappear, and new ones may appear.
As a human, your goal is to navigate this tangle of Utilons and Attractors from your hamster ball, trying to collect Utilons.
Now you could just try to take a direct path to all the nearest Utilons, but that would mean exerting a lot of energy to fight the pull of Attractors that pull you in Utilon-sparse directions.
Instead, given that you can’t avoid Attractors (they’re everywhere!) and that you want to get as many Utilons as possible, the best thing to do seems to be to strategically choose which Attractors you’re drawn to and selectively choose when to exert energy to move from one to another in order to maximize your overall trajectory.
You can think of actions you take as Attractors. Your agency is represented by the “meta-human” that can roll around.
Thus, actions pull you in but you still have some limited control when it comes to choosing which loops you dive into and which ones to pop out of.
While the default view of humans and decisions seems to be something like viewing actions as time-chunks that we can just slot into our schedule, Attractor Theory attempts to present a model that moves away from that and shifts our intuitions to:
a) think less about our actions in a vacuum / individually
b) consider starting / stopping costs more
c) see our preferences in a more mutable light, changing in response to actions
It’s my hope that thinking about actions in as “things that draw you in” can better improve our intuitions about global optimization:
My point here is that, phenomenologically, it feels like our actions change the sorts of things we might want. Every time we take an action, this will, in turn, prime how we view other actions, often in somewhat predictable ways. I might not know exactly how they’ll change, but we can get good, rough ideas from past experience and our imaginations.
For example, the set of things that feel desirable to me after running a marathon may differ greatly from the set of things after I read a book on government corruption.
Actions affect my local preferences.
(I may still have core values, like wanting everyone to be happy, which I place higher up in my sense of self, which aren’t affected by these, but I’m mainly focusing on local preferences for this model.)
When you start seeing your actions in terms of, not just their direct effects, but also their effects on how you can take further actions, I think this is useful. It changes your decision algorithm to be something like:
“Choose actions such that their meta-level effects on my by my taking them allow me to take more actions of this type in the future and maximize the number of Utilons I can earn in the long run.”
By phrasing it this way, it makes it more clear that most things in life are a longer-term endeavor that involve trying to globally optimize, rather than locally. It also provides a model for evaluating actions on a new axis — the extent to which is influences your future, which seems like an important thing to consider.
(While it’s arguable that a naive view of maximization should by default take this into account from a consequentialist lens, I think making it explicitly clear, as the above formulation does, is a useful distinction.)
This allows us to better evaluate actions which, by themselves, might not be too useful, but do a good job of reorienting ourselves into a better state of mind. For example, spending a few minutes outside to get some air might not be directly useful, but it’ll likely help clear my mind, which has good benefits down the line for other actions I’ll take.
Along the same lines, Attractor Theory suggests you view actions, not as one-time deals, but a sort of process that actively changes how you perceive other actions. In some sense, these effects should perhaps be as important a consideration as time or effort when looking at a task.
Attractor Theory also conceptually models the idea of precommitment:
Humans often face situations where we fall prey to “in the moment” urges, which soon turn to regret. These are known as time-inconsistent preferences, where what we want quickly shifts, often because we are in the presence of something that really tempts us.
An example of this is the dieter who proclaims “I’ll just give in a little today” when seeing a delicious cake on the restaurant menu, and then feeling “I wish I hadn’t done that” right after gorging themselves.
Precommitment is the idea that you can often “lock-in” your choices beforehand, such that you will literally be unable to give into temptation when the actual choice comes before you, or avoid the opportunity to even face the choice entirely.
An example from the above would be something like having a trustworthy friend bring food over instead of eating out, so you can’t stuff yourself on cake because you weren’t even the one who ordered food.
There’s seems to be a general principle here of “going upstream”, such that you’re trying to target places where you have the most control, such that you can improve your experiences later down the line. This seems to be a useful idea, whether the question is about finding leverage or self-control.
Attractor Theory views all actions and situations as self-reinforcing slippery slopes. As such, it more realistically models the act of taking certain actions as leading you to other Attractors, so you’re not just looking at things in isolation.
In this model, we can reasonably predict, for example, that any video on YouTube will likely lead to more videos because the “sucked-in-craving-more-videos Future You” will have different preferences than “needing-some-sort-of-break Present You”.
This view allows you to better see certain “traps”, where an action will lead you deeper and deeper down an addiction/reward cycle, like a huge bag of chips or a webcomic. These are situations where, after the initial buy-in, it becomes incredibly attractive to continue down the same path, as these actions make it very easy to keep going.
Under the Attractor Theory paradigm, your goal, then, is to focus on finding ways of being drawn to certain actions and avoiding others. You wan to find ways that you can avoid specific actions which you could lead you down bad spirals, even if the initial actions themselves may not be that distracting.
The result is chaining together actions and their effects on how you perceive things in an upstream way, like precommitment.
Exploring, Starting, and Stopping:
Local optima are also visually represented by this model: We can get caught in certain chains of actions that do a good job of netting Utilons. Similar to the above traps, it can be hard to try new things once we’ve found an effective route already.
Chances are, though, that there’s probably even more Utilons to be had elsewhere. In which case, being able to break out to explore new areas could be useful.
Attractor Theory also does a good job of modeling how actions seem much harder to start than to stop. Moving from one Attractor to a disparate one can be costly in terms of energy, as you need to move against the pull of the current Attractor.
Once you’re pulled in, though, it’s usually easier to keep going with the flow. So using this model ascribes costs to starting and places less of a cost on continuing actions.
By “pulled in”, I mean making it feel effortless or desirable to continue with the action. I’m thinking of the feeling you get when you have a decent album playing music, and you feel sort of tempted to switch it to a better album, except that, given that this good song is already playing, you don’t really feel like switching.
Given the costs between switching, you want to invest your efforts and agency into, perhaps not always choosing the immediate Utilon-maximizing action moment-by-moment but by choosing the actions / situations whose Attractors pull you in desirable directions, or make it such that other desirable paths are now easier to take.
Summary and Usefulness:
Attractor Theory attempts to retain willpower as a coherent idea, while also hopefully more realistically modeling how actions can affect our preferences with regards to other actions.
It can serve as an additional intuition pump behind using willpower in certain situations. Thinking about “activation energy” in terms of putting in some force to slide into positive Attractors removes the mental block I’ve recently had on using willpower.
(I’d been stuck in the “motivation should come from internal cooperation” mindset.)
The meta-level considerations when looking at how Attractors affect how other Attractors affect us provides a clearer mental image of why you might want to precommit to avoid certain actions.
For example, when thinking about taking breaks, I now think about which actions can help me relax without strongly modifying my preferences. This means things like going outside, eating a snack, and drawing as far better break-time activities than playing an MMO or watching Netflix because the latter are powerful self-reinforcing Attractors that also pull me towards more reward-seeking directions.
I see Attractor Theory as being useful when it comes to thinking upstream and providing an alternative view of motivation that isn’t exactly internally based.
Hopefully, this model can be useful when you look at your schedule to identify potential chokepoints / bottlenecks can arise, as a result of factors you hadn’t previously considered relating to how actions can affect you.
Attractor Theory assumes that different things can feel desirable depending on the situation. It relinquishes some agency by assuming that you can’t always choose what you “want” because of external changes to how you perceive actions. It also doesn’t try to explain internal disagreements, so it’s still largely at odds with the Internal Double Crux model.
I think this is fine. The goal here isn’t exactly to create a wholly complete prescriptive model or a descriptive one. Rather, it’s an attempt to create a simplified model of humans, behavior, and motivation into a concise, appealing form that your intuitions can crystallize. (Similar to the Kahneman System 1 and System 2 distinction.)
I admit that if you tend to use an alternate ontology when it comes to viewing how your actions relate to the concept of “you”, this model might be less useful, and I guess that’s okay.
This is not an attempt to capture all of the nuances / considerations in decision-making. It’s simply an attempt to partially take a few pieces and put them together in a more coherent framework. Attractor Theory merely takes a few pieces that I’d previously had as disparate nodes and chunks them together into a more unified model, which I think can be useful for some subset of people.