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Michael Vassar on Willpower in New York

An Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies talk in NYC in May that I missed: Lead Me Not Into Temptation: Folk-Psychological Conceptions of Willpower and Their Implications for Policy. This was at the Human Rights for the 21st Century conference. Vassar offers plausible explanations for the long-standing hostility towards cognitive liberty throughout the world.


"Neither Liberal, Conservative, nor Libertarian political philosophies usually give much explicit attention to the concept of willpower (entirely conceptually seperate from “free will"). However, some examination shows that variation in how it is concieved of appears to be the basis for ideological conflicts between the partisans of different views. Until matters of fact are clarified and resolved, they may appear to be conflicting values, and the apparent conflicts may appear irresolvable. Not only that, the opposing partisans may appear insane. In this presentation I will explain how conceptions of willpowe as abundant, limited, or muscle-like, e.g. limited but renewable and capable of being cultivated and increased, imply different policy proscriptions corresponding to political divides. I will attempt to outline the necessary experiments that should enable us to determine how willpower actually works or to build better metaphors in its place, and will examine the impact of the appearently dominant views with respect to cognitive liberty."

I consider the talk brilliant, and have praised Michael here before, but it's really worth listening to this talk closely and understanding what it means. Practically everyone identifies with one of the well-known political alignments. These alignments are ultimately illusions, based on folk psychological theories of society and individuals. Approaching the issues from a more subtle and academically objective perspective (yes, it's possible) severs the Gordian knot of contemporary political discourse, and brings up the possibility of making actual progress.

Fascinating tidbit: when offered cake in an experiment, those who refused the cake later performing poorly on the Stroop test, involving naming colored words. Michael elaborates on this near 17:00 in his talk.

Again: 99.9% of the people I meet come at political discourse from one of the preexisting camps, and they seem "locked in" - possibly forever, not able to thoroughly analyze the arguments of the opposing side and name why the other side believes these things without creating a straw man. The term "upwinger" has been used to describe someone transcending traditional political polarities. Of course, partisans of the current polarities have a great interest is dismissing even the in-principle existence of such a person, although I think that's radically wrong. We need to consult cognitive science and evolutionary psychology to look at the underlying causal reasons why people believe the things they do, instead of constantly using superficial explanations "because they're stupid" that keep us going around and around in perpetual circles of political conflict and idiocy.

Persistent disagreements are irrational. Rational agents will have beliefs that eventually converge. Bayesian wannabes cannot agree to disagree. Aumann's agreement theorem demonstrates that if people persistently disagree they must not be trying to approximate rationality.

Some of Michael Vassar's papers are hosted on Accelerating Future at this URL.

Comments (18) Trackbacks (2)
  1. Michael wrote:

    99.9% of the people I meet come at political discourse from one of the preexisting camps, and they seem “locked in” – possibly forever, not able to thoroughly analyze the arguments of the opposing side and name why the other side believes these things without creating a straw man.

    I agree with you completely, Michael.

  2. Fascinating tidbit: when offered cake, those who ate the cake (failed to exert willlpower to refuse) later performing poorly on the Stroop test, involving naming colored words. This implies that lower willpower is connected to poor performance on other cognitive tasks involving the exertion of willpower. Michael elaborates on this near 17:00 in his talk.

    Your model takes a hit! Michael misspoke – those who refused the cake did worse on the test. That’s why he cited the experiment as evidence that willpower can be depleted.

  3. Yeah — because blood-sugar levels have no impact on human cognition. :)

  4. I expect that there was a control group in the experiment. Those who refused cake would be compared to those who were not offered cake at all, not those who ate cake.

    I thought I had found the experiment earlier and was going to post it, but as it turns out the page I was looking at did not describe the same experiment Mike V. talked about. Whoops!

    So I called him and he confirmed that he misspoke in his talk. I’m hoping that he will post a link to the actual experiment later.

    Mike A: Ian was obviously being sarcastic.

  5. Sorry, the sarcasm went right over my head… can you post the names of the people involved in the experiment and the paper that reports it, by any chance?

  6. Technological singularities, superintelligences, mind uploads…sure. But the idea of politicians making actual progress?? Ach, That’s just pure fantasy.

  7. If there was a response where my sarcasm wasn’t noted, I never saw it… so… if it’s me that has to recognize the “sorry” — no apologies needed? :?

  8. Sorry. As Peter mentions, I misspoke in the speech, though I had hoped it was intelligible in context. In fairness to Michael, it wasn’t really intelligible in context because like him my priors would have predicted the result I claimed and that he believed (with a sufficient time lag I still expect that result would be true).
    Anyway, I managed to track down a source paper for the experiment.

  9. My model doesn’t take a hit because I never had a model one way or the other… I was just reporting what I thought Michael said, and took his word for it. But now that I know he misspoke, I’ve corrected it mentally.

  10. Agree completely. These are big ideas. Excellent thinking. Super rational, super sane.

    Michael, can you envision any way upwingerism might take root in American politics so that, one day, AGI willing (between 2030-2050) :), it dominates the political landscape …even the whole western civilization?

  11. Yes, eventually, primarily through intelligence enhancement, we will all become upwingers and beyond.

  12. Just an FYI: libertarians have been known to use the term “upwing” to describe a libertarian political viewpoint; this being derived from the Nolan Chart.

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