November 23, 2018 – Morning Journaling (Incentives)

One of the most important concepts that I was formally introduced to while getting my degree in Economics is incentives. I think we are all familiar with the idea of incentives but it is really a powerful force in human behavior. In fact, you could even say that every decision we make is based on incentives to either avoid pain or gain pleasure. It is how we evolved, and it may be the ONLY way that life can evolve.

Unfortunately, our dumb lizard brains are not necessarily good at judging outcomes, particularly long into the future and we also tend to avoid examining decisions to make sure the perceived results are accurate. In a sense, incentives can be false or out-dated.

For example, there was a time in my life when going to church brought me joy. In fact, I still have sort of a subconscious happy tingly feeling at times when I think about it but I am confident that if I actually went to a church that was similar to my youth I would be very uncomfortable. The wiring in my subconscious has not caught up with the reality of my life today and it takes a conscious effort to realize that the perceived incentives are really a mirage. Incentives can be changed by our perception of them.

After yesterday’s day of gluttony the incentives of food and exercise are on my mind. For years of my life exercise has been treated as sort of a punishment for food consumption. I avoided food because I didn’t want the “pain” of exercise, the incentive to eat better was to avoid pain.

But I think that thinking was distorted, or maybe just too simple. Food is primarily a tool for greater health, but so is exercise. They are no more opposing forces than a hammer and a screwdriver. Both food and exercise complement each other and are necessary for health as both a hammer and a screwdriver are complimentary and necessary for construction. Sometimes you need nutrients and a strong heart, you need a way to put in nails and to put in screws.

Of course, all of these tools can be misused, that is why we need to use our conscious, logical mind to see what incentives accurately reflect the results we want. Sure, we gain pleasure from eating an entire apple pie in one sitting. That sugar tastes hella good. But if we want long-term pleasure then it is better to practice some moderation.

Not only will the negative consequences of bad health not materialize, but we will actually have quantitatively more pleasure from that pie if we eat it over several days. The first bite of any piece of food is stronger and more pleasurable and each bite after that has reduced pleasure. If I get 100 utils from my first piece of pie each day and then 80 utils from the second, 70 from the third, etc. Then if I eat a whole pie then I get 520 utils in a day… or I can get 800 utils by spreading it out over 8 days. My lizard brain wants it all at once but I can fight against nature and those incentives.

(Of course, it is more complicated than all that but I hope you get my point)

When it comes down to it, food should not primarily be a reward for exercise and exercise should not ever be a punishment for eating. Linking healthy behaviors in our mind with “punishment” is psychologically dangerous. Health and punishment should not be synonyms. In fact, I don’t really think “punishments” are a good way to change any behavior, ours or others, at least not in the long term. If they were then parents would only need to spank their children once.

Side note: I did a quick google search about this and it turns out that some research shows that negative incentives work better for younger people but positive work better for older people. I’m going to read into these studies a bit and I’m curious about how much we can actually infer from them.


Today, I added a new book to my morning reading routine. I realize that makes four books that I check out daily… which is starting to feel a little bit much for me, but yolo. The book, “30-Second Philosophies” is pretty awesome. It has 50 different philosophical principles summarized on one page. It really gets my brain juices flowing. I’ll probably do one a day and, when I want, share my thoughts about it.

The first chapter was on “Language and Logic”. I read that all yesterday and am still confused, so I don’t have anything to say about that. Today’s reading started the “Science and Epistemology” chapter and I kind of have more questions than answers, but maybe that’s a good thing.

The topic today is Descartes’ famous maxim, “I think, therefore I am”. Which is basically the only thing he is sure of, that because he is thinking he must exist. “I think” requires an “I”. This mostly makes sense to me, though it doesn’t really help us understand anything else about the world without agreeing to Descartes’ belief that he proved God exists too. Full disclosure, I haven’t read his proof but I’m slightly skeptical.

So, here are my questions and comments:

  • Is our own solitary existence the only thing we can be sure of? Is knowledge necessary binary, only “I know” and “I don’t know”, or is there value in using a spectrum like “I’m 80% sure” and “I’m 30%” sure?
  • Descartes seems to say that nobody can doubt that “I” exists, but I’m not sure I agree. Many Eastern philosophies seem to argue with the existence of “I”.
  • I also think it is possible that there are kind of many “I”s in each of us that may be able to operate independently as well as together. I kind of see it like colors. There is red, yellow, and blue that operate independently but yellow and blue can get together to make green, a seemingly unique color. Where is “I” located? What part can be removed or added to create “I”? Or does it require a mixture of parts that we don’t fully understand? I is convenient for language but I’m not sure that it is 100% grounded in reality or that simply thinking proves its existence. Does the internet exist in the same way “I” do? It is a collection of computers around the world, none of which are necessary for the internet to exist, so where is it?

Now my brain hurts. I love this feeling. Anyone want to chat about Descartes with me?

Feel free to reach out at any of the ways below while I take a Facebook break!

Email address: pjneiger@gmail.com
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Also, I wrote a book about a cross-country bicycle ride I did!
“Wandering Oak: A Rite of Passage”

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