There is No Akrasia

I don’t think akrasia exists.

This is a fairly strong claim. I’m also not going to try and argue it.

What I’m really here to argue are the two weaker claims that:

a) Akrasia is often treated as a “thing” by people in the rationality community, and this can lead to problems, even though akrasia a sorta-coherent concept.

b) If we want to move forward and solve the problems that fall under the akrasia-umbrella, it’s better to taboo the term akrasia altogether and instead employ a more reductionist approach that favors specificity

But that’s a lot less catchy, and I think we can 80/20 it with the statement that “akrasia doesn’t exist”, hence the title and the opening sentence.

First off, I do think that akrasia is a term that resonates with a lot of people. When I’ve described this concept to friends (n = 3), they’ve all had varying degrees of reactions along the lines of “Aha! This term perfectly encapsulates something I feel!” On LW, it seems to have garnered acceptance as a concept, evidenced by the posts / wiki on it.

It does seem, then, that this concept of “want-want vs want” or “being unable to do what you ‘want’ to do” seems to point at a phenomenologically real group of things in the world.

However, I think that this is actually bad.

Once people learn the term akrasia and what it represents, they can now pattern-match it to their own associated experiences. I think that, once you’ve reified akrasia, i.e. turned it into a “thing” inside your ontology, problems occur:

First off, treating akrasia as a real thing gives it additional weight and power over you:

Once you start to notice the patterns, it’s harder to see things again as mere apparent chaos. In the case of akrasia, I think this means that people may try less hard because they suddenly realize they’re in the grip of this terrible monster called akrasia.

I think this sort of worldview ends up reinforcing some unhelpful attitudes towards solving the problems akrasia represents. As an example, here are two paraphrased things I’ve overheard about akrasia which I think illustrate this. (Happy to remove these if you would prefer not to be mentioned.)

  • “Akrasia has mutant healing powers…Thus you can’t fight it, you can only keep switching tactics for a time until they stop working…”
  • “I have massive akrasia…so if you could just give me some more high-powered tools to defeat it, that’d be great…”   

Both of these quotes seem to have taken the akrasia hypothesis a little too far. As I’ll later argue, “akrasia” seems to be dealt with better when you see the problem as a collection of more isolated disparate failures of different parts of your ability to get things done, rather than as an umbrella term.

I think that the current akrasia framing actually makes the problem more intractable.

I see potential failure modes where people come into the community, hear about akrasia (and all the related scary stories of how hard it is to defeat), and end up using it as an excuse (perhaps not an explicit belief, but as an alief) that impacts their ability to do work.

This was certainly the case for me, where improved introspection and metacognition on certain patterns in my mental behaviors actually removed a lot of my willpower which had served me well in the past. I may be getting slightly tangential here, but my point is that giving people models, useful as they might be for things like classification, may not always be net-positive.

Having new things in your ontology can harm you.

So just giving people some of these patterns and saying, “Hey, all these pieces represent a Thing called akrasia that’s hard to defeat,” doesn’t seem like the best idea.

How can we make the akrasia problem more tractable, then?

I claimed earlier that akrasia does seem to be a real thing, as it seems to be relatable to many people. I think this may actually because akrasia maps onto too many things. It’s an umbrella term for lots of different problems in motivation and efficacy that could be quite disparate problems. The typical akrasia framing lumps problems like temporal discounting with motivation problems like internal disagreements or ugh fields, and more. Those are all very different problems with very different-looking solutions!

In the above quotes about akrasia, I think that they’re an example of having mixed up the class with its members. Instead of treating akrasia as an abstraction that unifies a class of self-imposed problems that share the property of acting as obstacles towards our goals, we treat it as a problem onto itself.

Saying you wan to “solve akrasia” makes about as much sense as directly asking for ways to “solve cognitive bias”. Clearly, cognitive biases are merely a class for a wide range of errors our brains make in our thinking. The exercises you’d go through to solve overconfidence look very different than the ones you might use to solve scope neglect, for example.

Under this framing, I think we can be less surprised when there is no direct solution to fighting akrasia—because there isn’t one.

I think the solution here is to be specific about the problem you are currently facing. It’s easy to just say you “have akrasia” and feel the smooth comfort of a catch-all term that doesn’t provide much in the way of insight. It’s another thing to go deep into your ugly problem and actually, honestly say what the problem is.

The important thing here is to identify which subset of the huge akrasia-umbrella your individual problem falls under and try to solve that specific thing instead of throwing generalized “anti-akrasia” weapons at it.

Is your problem one of remembering to do the thing? Then set up a Getting Things Done system.

Is your problem one of hyperbolic discounting, of favoring short-term gains? Then figure out a way to recalibrate the way you weigh outcomes. Maybe look into precommitting to certain courses of action.

Is your problem one of insufficient motivation to pursue things in the first place? Then look into why you care in the first place. If it turns out you really don’t care, then don’t worry about it. Else, find ways to source more motivation.

The basic (and obvious) technique I propose, then, looks like:

  1. Identify the akratic thing.
  2. Figure out what’s happening when this thing happens. Break it down into moving parts and how you’re reacting to the situation.
  3. Think of ways to solve those individual parts.
  4. Try solving them. See what happens
  5. Iterate

Potential questions to be asking yourself throughout this process:

  • What is causing your problem? (EX: Do you have the desire but just aren’t remembering? Are you lacking motivation?)
  • How does this akratic problem feel? (EX: What parts of yourself is your current approach doing a good job of satisfying? Which parts are not being satisfied?)
  • Is this really a problem? (EX: Do you actually want to do better? How realistic would it be to see the improvements you’re expecting? How much better do you think could be doing?)

Here’s an example of a reductionist approach I did:

“I suffer from akrasia.

More specifically, though, I suffer from a problem where I end up not actually having planned things out in advance. This leads me to do things like browse the internet without having a concrete plan of what I’d like to do next. In some ways, this feels good because I actually like having the novelty of a little unpredictability in life.

However, at the end of the day when I’m looking back at what I’ve done, I have a lot of regret over having not taken key opportunities to actually act on my goals. So it looks like I do care (or meta-care) about the things I do everyday, but, in the moment, it can be hard to remember.”

Now that I’ve far more clearly laid out the problem above, it seems easier to see that the problem I need to deal with is a combination of:

  • Reminding myself the stuff I would like to do (maybe via a schedule or to-do list).
  • Finding a way to shift my in-the-moment preferences a little more towards the things I’ve laid out (perhaps with a break that allows for some meditation).

I think that once you apply a reductionist viewpoint and specifically say exactly what it is that is causing your problems, the problem is already half-solved. (Having well-specified problems seems to be half the battle.)

Remember, there is no akrasia! There are only problems that have yet to be unpacked and solved!



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