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Astral Codex Ten Podcast

Jul 21, 2018

Related to yesterday’s post on people being too quick to assume value differences: some of the simplest fake value differences are where people make a big deal about routing around a certain word. And some of the most complicated real value differences are where some people follow a strategy explicitly and other people follow heuristics that approximate that strategy.

There’s a popular mental health mantra that “there’s no such thing as laziness” (here are ten different articles with approximately that title: 12345678910). They all make the same basically good point. We shame people who don’t work very hard as “lazy”, and think they should have lower status than the rest of us. But actually, these people don’t just randomly choose not to work. Some of them have psychological issues, like anxiety and trauma that are constantly distracting them from their work, or a fear of success, or self-defeating beliefs about how nothing they do matters anyway. Others have biological issues – maybe hypothyroidism, or vitamin deficiencies, or ADHD, or other things we don’t understand that lower their energy and motivation. Still others just don’t want to do the specific thing we are asking them to do right now and can’t force themselves to work uphill against that gradient. When we call people “lazy”, we’re ignorantly dismissing all these possibilities in favor of a moralistic judgment.

A dialogue:

Sophisticus: I don’t believe in laziness.

Simplicio: What about my cousin Larry? He keeps promising to do important errands for his friends and family, and then he never does them. Instead he just plays video games all the time. This has happened consistently over the past few years, every time he’s promised to do something. One time my aunt asked him to go to the DMV to get some paperwork filled out, he promised he would do it, and then he kept putting it off for a month until it was past the deadline and she almost lost her car. He didn’t forget about it or anything, he just couldn’t bring himself to go out and do it. And he’s been fired from his last three jobs for not showing up, and…

Sophisticus: Yes, yes, I’m sure there are people like this. But he probably has some self-defeating beliefs, or vitamin deficiencies, or mental health issues.

Simplicio: Okay. Well, my mother is going to be away for the next week, and she needs someone to dog-sit for her. Her dog is old and sick and requires a lot of care each day. She’s terrified that if he doesn’t get his food and medication and daily walk on time, something terrible will happen to him. She’s willing to pay a lot of money. Do you think I should recommend she ask my cousin Larry?

Sophisticus: No, of course not.

Simplicio: Why not?

Sophisticus: He probably won’t do it. He’ll just play video games instead.

Simplicio: Why do you think so?

Sophisticus: Because he has a long history of playing video games instead of doing important tasks.

Simplicio: If only there were a word for the sort of person who does that!

Sophisticus: Oh, I see. Now you’re making fun of me. But I’m not saying everyone is equally reliable. I’m saying that instead of denouncing someone as “lazy”, we should look for the cause and try to help them.

Simplicio: Hey, we did try to help him. Larry’s family has taken him to the doctor loads of times. They didn’t anything on the lab tests, but the psychiatrist thought he might be ADHD and gave him some Adderall. I would say now he pulls through on like 20% of the things we ask him to do instead of zero percent. We also tried to get him to go to therapy, but the therapist deferred because ADHD has a very low therapy response rate. His parents tried to change the way they asked him to do things to make it easier for him, or to let him choose a different set of tasks that were more to his liking, but that only worked a little, if at all. Probably there’s some cause we don’t understand, but it’s beyond the reach of medical science, incentive design, or the understanding that exists between loving family members to identify.

Sophisticus: See! The Adderall helped! And letting him choose his own tasks helped a little too!

Simplicio: I agree it helped a little. So should I recommend him to my mother as a dog-sitter?

Sophisticus: No, of course not.

Simplicio: Then I still don’t see what the difference between us is. I agree it was worth having him go to the doctor and the therapist to rule out any obvious biological or psychological issues, and to test different ways of interacting with him in case our interaction style was making things worse. You agree that since this still hasn’t made him reliably fulfill his responsibilities and we don’t have any better ideas, he’s a bad choice for a dog-sitter. Why can’t I communicate the state of affairs we both agree on to my mother using the word “lazy”?