Monthly Archives: July 2013

I Regret X Again and Again

“I never want to do X again. I’ve decided it before, but this time is different. This time I really mean it, I feel it so strongly, I’m definitely never doing X again.”

Two potential models of regret:

  1. Hydraulic model of regret: regret builds up over time. The first time you regret doing X, you won’t stop doing it. But as the weight builds up over time, as you keep doing X, you start feeling more and more strongly that you really should quit. Eventually you feel so strongly that you just stop, out of willpower.1
  2. Memoryless model with black swans: almost every time you regret doing X it feels the same as all the previous times. You feel equally strongly every time, but you keep failing–keep relapsing. Then, one day, something changes. You feel regret and you change your situation or drastically change your outlook and all of a sudden, it’s not a struggle any more–you just Don’t Want To Do X or Set Up Your Life So That X Doesn’t Fit. Now, if only you knew what was different those times, you’d be set, but they seem to appear randomly.

I think that my experience is more consistent with model 2. Thoughts?

UPDATE (7/22/13, 5:48 PM):  Two alternative models of regret have emerged from the pundit sphere.

The first, from @EMGurevitch: “you regret x, repress x, unconsciously reenact x. cf Freud’s “remembering, repeating, and working through” “. Interesting, though I don’t quite what this predicts in terms of doing (or refraining from) X in the future.

The second, from @letthemeatfood; “You do X and regret it but the short-term benefit outweighs the regret to the extent that you do X again and again.” I like this point a lot. Regret doesn’t mean that you made a bad decision–the regret could be an acceptable cost. In fact, suppose that regret for doing X gets weaker over time as you become habituated more and more to doing X. Then weaning yourself off these unhelpful emotions could be an active planned consequence of what you do. Point well taken!

  1. Note: This is consistent with a Bayesian model–every time you feel regret you update your priors a little bit until the evidence is strong enough. []

Should You Interrupt?

Some processes can be interrupted and restarted at little-to-no cost, while others suffer greatly from interruption.

For example, if you cook a steak halfway, let it return to room temperature, and then finish cooking it, either the outer layers will be overdone and dried, or the middle will still be raw, or both.

Gratuitous picture of steak, taken by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

On the other hand, if you’re making a stew, feel free to stop and restart–it’ll be just fine.

This is the core of the distinction drawn by Paul Graham between the maker’s schedule and the manager’s schedule. Makers–writers, programmers, designers–need long uninterrupted stretches of time to do productive work. Managers, on the other hand, work in much smaller chunks of attention–sending emails, scheduling meetings, going to meetings–and so interruptions (such as meetings) have virtually no cost to them.

A third example is the difference between running for distance and lifting weights. At the gym, runners are scornful of the people standing around between sets chatting. That’s because running 2 5ks is not the same–is much easier–than running a 10k. But taking a 5 minute break between sets is not all that much worse than taking a 2 minute break. (Though as with all nutrition and exercise guidelines, I’m sure there’s a huge amount of disagreement.)

I can’t decide if there are many other things in the world that break down along these lines, but either way I would like a word to capture the distinction. Suggestions?

How Large Institutions Screw You Over

Have you ever caught your bank making a mistake? Maybe they levied a fee in error, or maybe they penalized you twice for the same overdraft, or so on. I had this happen once–my account was “automatically” switched from a student no-fee no-minimum account, and so I immediately started racking up penalties for failing to meet the minimum account requirements. When I complained, I was treated nicely, the mistake was fixed, and I got various perks.

Now, have you ever not caught your bank when they made a mistake? We all have limited time and limited attention so it would be easy to miss small occasional mistakes.

This could be due to malice. After all, there must be a profit-maximizing point when you think about balancing the cost of dealing with complaints compared to the benefits of collecting unearned fees. Banks could be setting out to look for this point or simply stumbling upon it by accident–since supervisors get mad when the level of mistakes is sub-optimal from a profiteering perspective.

But either way, the bank is earning money because it is cheaper for them to catch mistakes than it is for you. They can have one full-time person looking for mistakes in hundreds or thousands of similar accounts; in other words, large institutions have economies of scale of attention.

"bank error in your favor"


Two possible solutions to this:

  1. Regulation: penalties for bank errors could be set much higher by statute, so that the equilibrium number of mistakes is set to maximize overall welfare and not just the bank’s profit.
  2. Automation: It’s plausible that the cost to consumers of finding mistakes will drop dramatically using services like If This Then That.

What are some other examples of large institutions bullying you around through mere attention?

(Inspired by a conversation with @JoshHenryKatz)

Why Does Anyone Live in NYC?

What is it about snakes that makes people so jumpy and uncomfortable? There seem to be certain long-held and deeply human instincts, and Donald Norman’s Emotional Design (pp. 29-30) discusses how we can use these immediate affective responses–good and bad–in design. (A previous post about Emotional Design)

What are the situations that trigger positive affect?

warm, comfortably lit places

temperate climate

sweet tastes and smells

bright, highly saturated hues

“soothing” sounds and simple melodies and rhythms

harmonious music and sounds


smiling faces

rhythmic beats

“attractive” people

symmetrical objects

rounded, smooth objects

“sensous feelings, sounds and shapes.

Meanwhile, the conditions that “appear to produce automatic negative affect”:


sudden, unexpected loud sounds or bright lights

“looming” objects (objects that appear to be about to hit the observer)

extreme hot or cold


extremely bright lights or loud sounds

empty, flat terrain (deserts)

crowded dense terrain (jungles or forests)

crowds of people

rotting smells, decaying foods

bitter tastes

sharp objects

harsh, abrupt sounds

grating and discordant sounds

misshapen human bodies

snakes and spiders

human feces (and its smell)

other people’s body fluids


Since I live in New York, I experience a lot of these latter triggers regularly. Can cities be designed to minimize these problems?

HT @davisk1000

Two More Tidbits About African History

From my notes about John Reader’s Africa, two fascinating and poetic tidbits to go along with my two previous posts (here and here).

  1. Vasco da Gama, famous Portuguese explorer, would never have finished his voyage were it not for the helpful intercession of Ahmad Ibn-Madjid, “the most famous Arab pilot of his day”. However, Da Gama’s “arrival inaugurated an age of European maritime power in the [Indian Ocean] region…fellow-countrymen and co-religionists [of Ibn-Madjid] cursed his memory; and in his old age, Ibn-Madjid himself bitterly regretted what he had done.” (359)
  2. An earlier Portuguese voyage led by Bartolomeu Dias brought along six previously-captured African slaves to be dropped along the coastline as scouts for the location of raw materials. However, “the fate of the Africans who had been set ashore, dressed in European fashion, and bearing samples of gold, silver, and spices, is not known.” (347)