Free Capitalist Network - Community Archive
Mises Community Archive
An online community for fans of Austrian economics and libertarianism, featuring forums, user blogs, and more.

Marginal Insanity

This post has 13 Replies | 1 Follower

Top 50 Contributor
Male
Posts 2,439
Points 44,650
Neodoxy Posted: Mon, Nov 5 2012 2:19 PM

This is a praxeological explanation of procrastination and sometimes it seems like you can't get anything done, as well as how many times people can do things which incrementally lead to negative consequences. It's something that I've been musing over for a while

Whenever he is conscious man chooses between most desired ends in the form of action. He performs this process through the action of valuation, and though he might have clear mental preferences surrounding many things, his options for action are ultimately limited at any moment. I may want a unicorn, but I cannot have one because they don't exist. He also must choose between each obtainable increment at every instant. I cannot job a mile by jogging a mile, I can only take a step, I must then decide whether or not to continue going, until I have either stopped or I have jogged the entire mile.

From this we can derive what I call "Marginal Insanity". This is not to call upon the mystical idea of the "irrational", it is just saying that in the nature of choosing things marginally, man can often be made radically worse off over time, even if he is making himself better off at every available instant. The requirements for marginal insanity to enact itself are thus:

1. One holistically values result Z (which is valued as an end) more than result A (which is not valued as an end at all, rather the outcome of other ends). Action Y and X are the best ways of achieving Z and A respectively.

2. The marginal contribution of an increment of Y is practically without consequence to achieving end Z despite being the most efficient way of achieving the end, and means X gives us a huge contribution towards end X

Let's give an example. Let's make the marginal decision making increment 1 minute (In real life it's not but this will display the point more efficiently). When I make a choice for I receive the benefits of that choice for a whole minute before I once more have to make a decision. If we take two options an irresponsible young college student might face:

Means Y: Studying for a minute and not playing starcraft

End Z: Getting a few solid hours of studying in

Ultimate End Z: Doing well on the test, gaining general information, and the psychic profit and advantageous situation which this results in

Means X: Playing Starcraft for another minute

End and ultimate end X: The pleasure recieved from playing starcraft for another minute

Outcome Z: A night filled with nothing but studying (the result of spending 0 more minutes playing starcraft)

Outcome A: A night filled with nothing but starcraft (the result of spending the all additional minutes that night playing starcraft)

Now what happens here is that although action Y is the only way to achieve end Z, any single increment of action Y will not have any noticeable effect upon achieving end Z because one minute of studying isn't that important. Meanwhile action X yields direct utiliy, even though a night spent doing nothing but A

If our actor could choose between outcome A and end Z, then even if all of the disultility that end Z would entail could be forced upon him in a single instant then he would accept it, because end Z is more highly valued. The problem is that outcome A and end Z never present themselves in choice, only action X and action Y, and action X is more highly valued than action Y because while the results of an extra minute of studying is practically nothing, the results of an extra minute of starcraft are highly enjoyable and matter.

In this way we see a state of affairs where marginalism results in insanity for the individual actor. He would like to choose end Z, indeed outcome A isn't even in his mind something which would bring utility to the point of being and end. Yet due to the options that he has at any particular moment then outcome A is exactly what he will get.

I was lead to this conclusion by performing the seemingly paradoxical comparison between the problem which the masses face with public goods, and actions of individuals. What has always struck me as the heart of public goods, is not what is usually pointed to, the non excludable and non rivalrous nature of these goods, but instead what these things lead to if they are relevant: fact that no marginal contribution matters in the provision of these goods. No one would argue that if someone could choose between defense and no defense, poor relief and no poor relief, environmental reasonability or lack thereof, that almost all individuals would choose to have these things, but they aren't faced with that decision, rather they are faced with actions which have such a small effect upon these outcome that they are practically nonexistent. This means that even the most socially responsible individual would be acting foolishly if he were to contribute to these causes. This means that even though everyone has an incentive to fund public goods, no one does on an individual level.

At any rate, once more linking this back to the problem of marginal insanity we see that the actor is faced with the same problem: While it makes sense for him to spend every individual instant on the most highly desired end, it makes no sense for him to spend any one moment, when the above conditions are present, spending time actually performing the more highly valued goal.

The problem is even more intense when we remove the restriction of acting in minute interval. What is the value of 30 seconds of studying? Why not check facebook for just a moment? But then what about the next moment? Has anything changed? Perhaps, but nothing says that it has to.

Therefore there are only three ways to actually break free of marginal insanity whenever it presents itself:

1. The marginal value of the actions which lead to the more highly valued end increases

2. The marginal value of all actions which were previously more highly valued decrease. For instance if I get destroyed in starcraft and I don't want to start another game, or if there's nothing good going on on facebook.

3. The individual actor recognizes the problem of marginal insanity and values avoiding it entirely as an ends.

To recap:

An individual is faced only ever faced with actions which result in certain states of affairs. States of affairs which are valued are known as ends. The individual will only ever choose actions which will lead to ends. Therefore an end can be more highly valued than another end, but if the end that is more highly valued can only be achieved by actions which are less highly valued at any particular moment (oftentimes because the marginal value of that action to the achievement of the end), then the individual will ultimately perform actions which, despite maximizing utility at that moment, ultimately decrease utility from what it could otherwise have been.

Disclaimer

Here I am defining an "end" as something which is valued, an outcome which someone actually wants. Getting covered in grease is an outcome which I could bring about tonight, but I wouldn't want to, so I am not classifying it as an end (I realize this might conflict with Mises' framework but I feel that this stresses a point in this instance). Meanwhile tonight I could eat sushi or pasta, both are valued outcomes, so both are ends.

Finally here it might look as though I have fallen into the neo-classical trap as regarding utility as something which is tangible and calculable, but this is not my belief or intent.

Thoughts?

At last those coming came and they never looked back With blinding stars in their eyes but all they saw was black...
  • | Post Points: 80
Top 500 Contributor
Male
Posts 128
Points 1,855
Zlatko replied on Mon, Nov 5 2012 2:53 PM

This seems to rest on the assumption that man can only plan ahead for one "period". This is unrealistic.

I think that procrastrination is ultimately a psychological factor that praxeology can say nothing about. At most, you could characterize procrastrinators as people with extremely high time preferences. Praxeology does not try to and can not explain why people do things and should not be applied to every subject under the stars.

  • | Post Points: 20
Top 500 Contributor
Posts 228
Points 3,640
Blargg replied on Mon, Nov 5 2012 3:07 PM

This sounds like the basic tradeoff one must sometimes make between mutually-exclusive short-term and long-term payoffs. I think that if one chooses the short-term one, it's because the long-term one either isn't worth it, or there's perceived risk that outweighs the investment. If one engages in lots of short-term payoffs that prove to be not what was wanted, one either learns to better assess their reduced value such that one isn't enticed, or one has unresvolved emotional issues that are getting in the way of rationality.

At least the above is my experience of these things. It's easy to avoid looking at Facebook etc. over and over, because those are so devoid of anything of value. Establishing that is as simple as looking over the past few weeks of activity and asking yourself what value you would have lost if you hadn't visited, or visited only a couple of times.
 

  • | Post Points: 5
Top 75 Contributor
Posts 1,288
Points 22,350

Well I think that people want to avoid engaging in disutilitous actions that they perceive as not being necessary.  In the example of the exam, the student perhaps feels that he will do well enough even without an enormous amount of studying, so that in both the short-term and long-term, the benefit vs. cost of playing Starcraft is greater than the benefit vs. cost of studying.  That is my experience, anyway.  When you really feel screwed for an exam or assignment, and there is not much time left, procrastination seems to disappear quite easily.

The Voluntaryist Reader: http://voluntaryistreader.wordpress.com/ Libertarian forums that actually work: http://voluntaryism.freeforums.org/index.php
  • | Post Points: 5
Top 50 Contributor
Male
Posts 2,439
Points 44,650
Neodoxy replied on Mon, Nov 5 2012 4:43 PM

Zlatko,

I don't quite understand what you mean. What I'm trying to show is specifically that man doesn't make a holistic single choice in choosing in one "period", at least in a long term sense, merely that long term outcomes are made by instantaneous decision making, and not "periodic" ones. If one were able to choose in periods then this problem would not exist.

Also, I partially disagree with your statement on praxeology. Praxeology cannot state why it is that people value something, but that is not something which I attempted to express here. I did not express why the individual chose a minute of starcraft over a minute of studying beyond the fact that, if the individual only values studying for the value derived from it in terms of increasing his knowledge, then the marginal value of studying can theoretically be very low depending upon the services it is expected to render.

So here I have not constructed something explaining why people value anything, beyond necessary praxeological facts on this subject, rather I have praxeologically deduced the implications of a specific set of conditions. Nor have I explained all cases of procrastination, this is merely a set of conditions which could lead to procrastination, not the only ones which could. For instance one could bring themselves into a panic over how difficult they believe the work be and so on.

At last those coming came and they never looked back With blinding stars in their eyes but all they saw was black...
  • | Post Points: 20
Top 500 Contributor
Male
Posts 128
Points 1,855
Zlatko replied on Mon, Nov 5 2012 7:04 PM

Ah sorry, my bad. It just seemed to me that you implied that man is doomed to always choose a path of action that leads to instant gratification due to only being able to consider the immediate ends. My apologies.

  • | Post Points: 5
Top 75 Contributor
Posts 1,389
Points 21,840
Moderator

I'll be brief because I may be reading this wrong (it's a long post, so it's hard to see if I am coordinating with your thoughts)

Public goods aside for now:

Is your train of thought on how all things require an orientation, expectation, and a plan: and how plans seldom end up the way we wish, and how they are always changing and evolving  (In fact, as a side point, one of the interesting things may be the uninteded by-products of such things)?

 

 

"As in a kaleidoscope, the constellation of forces operating in the system as a whole is ever changing." - Ludwig Lachmann

"When A Man Dies A World Goes Out of Existence"  - GLS Shackle

  • | Post Points: 20
Top 50 Contributor
Male
Posts 2,439
Points 44,650
Neodoxy replied on Mon, Nov 5 2012 7:47 PM

Vive,

I don't think that we are really "meshing" here you described what could be described as a general look at the consequences of what I described rather than what I described.

One more time in a nutshell: You never choose between outcome A and outcome B, rather choice A and choice B which will lead to the two outcomes, and on a marginal level. If the utility of A is very small because it has very little marginal contribution to outcome A whereas choice B contains a very quick payoff in terms of utility. Therefore even if you would choose outcome A over B, you would still end up with outcome B.

At last those coming came and they never looked back With blinding stars in their eyes but all they saw was black...
  • | Post Points: 20
Top 75 Contributor
Male
Posts 1,018
Points 17,760

 Time preference.

Since playing starcraft for 1 hr today will give me isntant pleasure than studying for 1 hr to give me pleasure of a test 1 week due from now, i will play star craft.

Then as the test day approaches and my time preference for each good changes, i will start studying.

“Since people are concerned that ‘X’ will not be provided, ‘X’ will naturally be provided by those who are concerned by its absence."
"The sweetest of minds can harbor the harshest of men.”

http://voluntaryistreader.wordpress.org

  • | Post Points: 20
Top 50 Contributor
Male
Posts 2,439
Points 44,650
Neodoxy replied on Mon, Nov 5 2012 8:31 PM

Buy you have never, and will never choose between an hour of starcraft and an hour of studying. Time preference matters in terms of how much you desire future goods over present goods, but this does not get around the problem in more cases since the more highly valued ends have marginal means which give little contribution to the ultimate end.

At last those coming came and they never looked back With blinding stars in their eyes but all they saw was black...
  • | Post Points: 20
Top 150 Contributor
Posts 664
Points 13,095

Sounds a bit like Zeno's paradoxes. You can break any choice down into indefinitely smaller choices. Playing Starcraft itself can be broken down into smaller choices. How can you ever beat Starcraft if there are singular choices within the game that are more enjoyable than the ones that allow you to win? 

I think Henri Bergson solves this problem in Time and Free Will. He describes time as a heterogeneous multiplicity rather than the homogeneous multiplicity that it is commonly mistaken for. Moments of time interpenetrate each other. The choice of the hour is contained within the choice of the minute. Choices aren't "atoms" that are added to one another, but rather always make up indefinitely larger choices and are made up of indefinitely smaller choices. It is due to a person's ability to conceptualize and synthesize these various moments in time into a singular experience of a singular transtemporal subject that allows one to choose rationally. So I think it does make sense to say you can choose between an hour of something or an hour of something else.

It's interesting that you frame this problem in terms of marginal utility. I wonder if Bergson's theory of heterogeneous multiplicity could be useful in criticizing marginal utility theory. I'll have to think about that.

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world." ~ Ludwig Wittgenstein
  • | Post Points: 20
Top 50 Contributor
Male
Posts 2,439
Points 44,650
Neodoxy replied on Mon, Nov 5 2012 10:29 PM

FOTH,

I genuinely have a hard time responding to what you're saying here. I believe that it's equivalent to what I say in point three as to how to counteract the tendency by appreciating that the tendency will occur and that it is an outcome of consuming another unit of the more instantaneously rewarding action.

At last those coming came and they never looked back With blinding stars in their eyes but all they saw was black...
  • | Post Points: 20
Top 150 Contributor
Posts 664
Points 13,095

Yeah, sorry, that was just my incoherent musings. I probably was thinking along the lines of your third point.

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world." ~ Ludwig Wittgenstein
  • | Post Points: 5
Top 50 Contributor
Posts 2,360
Points 43,785
z1235 replied on Fri, Nov 9 2012 8:46 PM

Neodoxy:

Buy you have never, and will never choose between an hour of starcraft and an hour of studying. Time preference matters in terms of how much you desire future goods over present goods, but this does not get around the problem in more cases since the more highly valued ends have marginal means which give little contribution to the ultimate end.

 
When the contribution of those marginal means to the ultimate end becomes large enough then you will choose them. With four hours remaining before your exam, one hour of studying (vs. playing) presents a meaningful contribution toward your end of passing the exam. 
 
EDIT: After failing your first exam you will perhaps re-evaluate your estimate about how much an hour of studying two days before the exam has toward the ultimate end of passing it. 
 
 
  • | Post Points: 5
Page 1 of 1 (14 items) | RSS