Feedback Loops | Daniel Gross

There’s a lot of debate about the “time well spent” phenomena right now. The idea is that Facebook is an opiate. Checking notifications feels good for a moment but causes sadness long term. Let’s check Instagram less. Spend more time outdoors. Meditate more. Talk to other humans more, in real life. Sounds virtuous, right? I think it’s futile to just try and “power through” any habit change with willpower alone.

At our core, humans aren’t that complicated. We’re a reinforcement learning algorithm that responds to feedback loops. But we have a bug: when an immediate reward is presented, we forget about any future form of penalty or reward. A fixation on the immediate is sometimes very important. It allows focus: “I must kill this deer that just appeared so I don’t starve! No time to think about how this will affect the global deer population!”. In a culture of excess, this can be exploited by cigarettes, sugar, push notifications and anything else that provides an immediate reward.

What should we do about this bug? Develop more fortitude? Or maybe it’s all innate, per the Stanford marshmallow experiment. If you can pass that test, you’re set for life. Right? I’m not so sure. Take a look at this chart:


The marshmallow test offers a clearly defined benefit. Double the marshmallows if you wait 15 minutes. On the other hand, how will you experience the benefit of not eating sugar? You’ll lose weight. Feel better. Live longer. But wait. Just how much weight will I lose by skipping the donut, exactly? And how many extra months will I live? There isn’t a defined moment in time. This is why saying “no” to donuts is tricky. It’s not really clear why it’s bad. And it needs to be precisely clear. Because the donut is a demanding master.

A final global modifier is your current mood. You’re more exploitable when you’re not mindful. You can’t constantly expect yourself to be perfectly chipper, so you need to invest in an environment that supports the right action. Even with a deficient mood score. The formula is something like this:

P(ease of acquisition) * 
P(pleasure of activity) * 
P(clarity on future reward/penalty) * 

If you want to break a feedback loop, you need to adjust one of those parameters.

Want to quit smoking? Decrease the ease, decrease the pleasure (with villainizing ads or a partial agonist), or increase the penalty (e.g. create a drug that makes you gag immediately on inhalation). Sugar and Twitter are the same problem. Which lead me to a few ideas on how to solve this issue:

  • Re-launch the Sabbath. You’ve got to make it uncool to be connected all the time. You could imagine a fad (encouraged by a book or movie) of “taking Saturday off” from social media.
  • Develop full/partial agonist drugs. What if you felt the pleasure of sugar less? Or felt bad immediately after eating bad food seconds after it hit your tongue? I suspect if you had this condition, you’d adjust your feedback loop. You’d eat less sugar. This is a vastly under-researched area of drug development that I think might have lots of low-hanging fruit for curing Type-2 Diabetes. Crave Crush is an example of this in the wild today.
  • Bootstrap a routine. Depending on your personality, hitting a “streak” of a routine can increase the pleasurability of an activity. Make note of how frequently you’ve accomplished a particular goal and reward yourself for repeatedly accomplishing it. You can fix the cold start issue by starting small (sugar-free afternoon).
  • Use drugs to your advantage. Use drugs to link one unrewarding activity with another, rewarding one. For example, say you wanted to exercise more frequently. Treat yourself to a latte after you run 1 mile. Your brain should link “running” (initially unrewarding) to “creamy coffee” (rewarding). (Also, I find caffeine is a good increaser of mood, so doing anything challenging might get easier.)
  • Get a taste of God mode. Imagine what it feels like to win an Olympic gold medal. I think everyone would become an athlete if they could stand on the Olympic podium and hear a crowd roaring their name, . The “future reward” component of working out just got very clear. How can you give that to everyone? One way to implant these “God mode memories” is through drugs. Many report taking LSD rocketed them to “peak mindfulness”. When they meditate daily, the reward of who they could be is very obvious.
  • just for a moment

I hope this post can shift the conversation a little bit. Instead of blindly hoping that “willpower” saves us, I think we can try to engineer self-regulating mechanisms. We should take a very tactical approach towards building products or routines that help them overcome these modern day exploits.