Towards intrinsically motivated systems of decision and action

I am going to talk about moti­va­tion, and I am going to talk about goal-set­ting. The two are relat­ed, of course. But when we aban­don instru­men­tal and deter­min­is­tic approach­es, it gets a lit­tle complicated. 

(If this post’s title sounds kind of scary, don’t take it too seri­ous­ly. I invent­ed it while role­play­ing an aca­d­e­m­ic, after writ­ing this in one pass.)


Because of my work at Hub­bub I read about moti­va­tion a lot. I remem­ber dur­ing the orig­i­nal gam­i­fi­ca­tion debates, a lot was said about intrin­sic moti­va­tion, and how arti­fi­cial exter­nal incen­tives actu­al­ly dimin­ish moti­va­tion. The evi­dence in sup­port of this keeps grow­ing, as described for instance in this recent piece in the New York Times. Here’s a quote:

Help­ing peo­ple focus on the mean­ing and impact of their work, rather than on, say, the finan­cial returns it will bring, may be the best way to improve not only the qual­i­ty of their work but also — coun­ter­in­tu­itive though it may seem — their finan­cial success.

Self-Deter­mi­na­tion The­o­ry (SDT) says that a basic human need is to feel autonomous. Extrin­sic incen­tives dimin­ish this sense of auton­o­my. In a work­place con­text, I can imag­ine that a dimin­ished sense of auton­o­my will lead to dimin­ished moti­va­tion to do good work.

I’ve been involved with quite a few work­place “gam­i­fi­ca­tion” projects (I con­tin­ue to dis­like the word but I’ll use it here for clar­i­ty’s sake). Our biggest chal­lenge was to get clients to decrease the amount of con­trol­ling feed­back already in place, in stead of adding even more under the guise of “fun”. This is the same thing that Kana­ga talks about when he talks about “soft gam­i­fi­ca­tion”.

The NYT arti­cle also talks about the dif­fer­ence between “inter­nal” ver­sus “instru­men­tal” motives. Inter­nal motives are inher­ent­ly relat­ed to the activ­i­ty at hand. Instru­men­tal ones are not. They lat­er dis­tin­guish internal/instrumental motives from internal/instrumental con­se­quences. If an activ­i­ty has instru­men­tal con­se­quences, it does not auto­mat­i­cal­ly fol­low that the per­son engaged in the activ­i­ty is moti­vat­ed by them. 

Going back to SDT, anoth­er need described is com­pe­tence, the sense of which is increased by offer­ing pos­i­tive feed­back. The study dis­cussed in the NYT arti­cle makes the impor­tant point that we should be look­ing for the inter­nal motives peo­ple have for engag­ing in a task, and help­ing them have a sense of inter­nal con­se­quences. It’s often eas­i­er to use instru­men­tal con­se­quences as the basis for our (dig­i­tal, gam­i­fied) pos­i­tive feed­back sys­tems, because they are ofte read­i­ly quan­tifi­able, and com­put­ers like stuff you can count. But this would actu­al­ly backfire.

In many ways, I am just rephras­ing stuff that has been said much bet­ter and more elab­o­rate­ly by Sebas­t­ian, and prob­a­bly also oth­ers. But it helps to hash these things out. It makes the con­cepts stick more.

Let’s shift.


In the land of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, goal set­ting, par­tic­u­lar­ly of the SMART kind, is king. Indeed, in my own prac­tice at Hub­bub, one of the things we did when Alper became part­ner was to adopt Google’s OKR approach to goal set­ting to help us focus on what we want to achieve, and to pro­vide our­selves with feed­back on how we are doing. It’s not per­fect, but it works well enough and we con­tin­ue to use it.

But there’s a dan­ger to goal set­ting, or maybe a par­tic­u­lar kind of goal set­ting, which is nice­ly artic­u­lat­ed by Scott Adams, of all peo­ple, in a blog post titled “Goals vs. Sys­tems”. A quote:

My prob­lem with goals is that they are lim­it­ing. Grant­ed, if you focus on one par­tic­u­lar goal, your odds of achiev­ing it are bet­ter than if you have no goal. But you also miss out on oppor­tu­ni­ties that might have been far bet­ter than your goal. Sys­tems, how­ev­er, sim­ply move you from a game with low odds to a game with bet­ter odds. With a sys­tem you are less like­ly to miss one oppor­tu­ni­ty because you were too focused on anoth­er. With a sys­tem, you are always scan­ning for any opportunity.

Adams talks about set­ting your­self up to ben­e­fit from unex­pect­ed out­comes of the things you do. When we plan, and when we set goals, it can be tempt­ing to be very deter­min­is­tic in our approach. Adams sug­gests not focus­ing on goals but in stead cre­at­ing sys­tems that are gen­er­a­tive. When he says sys­tems, I sort of hear him say “habits”.

I think it’s more com­pli­cat­ed than aban­don­ing goals, though. Because the kind of sys­tems Adams sug­gests embrac­ing still serve goals, but like I said, in a less deter­min­is­tic way. He talks about increas­ing odds. And I think when he’s think­ing about those odds, he also has some poten­tial con­se­quences in mind.

This is basi­cal­ly a Talebian approach to goal-set­ting. It’s about mak­ing what Venkatesh Rao describes as “rich moves” (I can’t find the link to the par­tic­u­lar arti­cle I had in mind, alas).

The way I think about it for my own prac­tice of goal set­ting is to keep a loose cou­pling between the goals I want to achieve and the ways in which I expect to do so. I am basi­cal­ly look­ing for activ­i­ties (sys­tems) that get me clos­er to those goals, with­out decreas­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty of oth­er good things hap­pen­ing too. It’s a game of trade-offs that starts from an accep­tance of the unpre­dictabil­i­ty of reality.

But what about motivation?


This is what I want to think about more. If we accept that moti­va­tion is best served by focus­ing on inter­nal con­se­quences. And if we believe that it is smarter (as in risk-savvy, not as in SMART) to focus on sys­tems in stead of goals, then how do we stay moti­vat­ed to dili­gent­ly walk through our sys­tems, in the absence of imme­di­ate pay­offs, or track­able progress towards a mea­sur­able goal?

This is per­son­al­ly rel­e­vant for me, as I am try­ing to get back on the blog­ging horse (sec­ond post of 2015, but it’s already week 4). It is also rel­e­vant because I want the OKRs we set at Hub­bub to be generative.

Maybe the moti­va­tion flow­charts Matt talked about way back when are help­ful here. And maybe Sebas­tian’s engage­ment loops are also use­ful. For now, the recipe I will be fol­low­ing for set­ting up “Adams sys­tems” that are intrin­si­cal­ly moti­vat­ed looks a lit­tle like this:

  • Under­stand the intrin­sic motives for engag­ing in the activ­i­ty at hand 
  • Deter­mine desired out­comes, both intrin­sic and instrumental
  • Brain­storm sys­tem-like activ­i­ties (habits) which increase the chances of these out­comes happening
  • Select the activ­i­ties which are most like­ly to have unex­pect­ed out­comes (or the least like­ly to have only expect­ed outcomes)
  • Invent ways of mak­ing appar­ent intrin­sic out­comes and reflect­ing on them
  • Loop back to your intrin­sic motives and adjust sys­tems accordingly

It’s a first stab, heav­i­ly inspired by Boy­d’s OODA-loop, which like I said before I am deeply into at the moment.

Let’s see how it works out, and let me know if it makes sense.

This game is rigged, man.”

I am going to try my hand at the occa­sion­al blog­ging again. And I have decid­ed to do this not at my tum­blr, but back here. It was fine to post things to Tum­blr occa­sion­al­ly, but I have start­ed to dis­like not hav­ing these notes on my own serv­er. And per­haps more impor­tant­ly, I start­ed to get real­ly annoyed by Tum­blr’s lack of a func­tion­ing search. So, I’ve import­ed all the things I post­ed to Tum­blr over the past few years into this blog, and we’ll con­tin­ue where we left off.

In this first post of the new year, some things relat­ed to inequal­i­ty under late cap­i­tal­ism. To begin with a bit of video from Adam Cur­tis for Char­lie Brook­er’s enjoy­able end-of-the-year review Wipe 2014.

I was point­ed to this by Hans de Zwart and on Twit­ter I respond­ed that the idea of non-lin­ear­i­ty reminds me of the ideas on war­fare devel­oped by John Boyd, which I am cur­rent­ly knee-deep in. And Boy­d’s ideas of win­ning by decreas­ing mis­match­es between your mod­el of exter­nal real­i­ty and real­i­ty itself while increas­ing those mis­match­es for your oppo­nent in turn con­nects with James C. Scot­t’s con­cept of leg­i­bil­i­ty.

Mean­hwile, James Bri­dle has been chart­ing tech­no­log­i­cal infra­struc­tures of con­trol for The Nor, a project com­mis­sioned by the Hay­ward Gallery. The essays James has writ­ten on his chart­ing of sur­veil­lance cam­eras, radar and high-fre­quen­cy trad­ing infra­struc­ture are huge­ly enjoy­able reads because James has gone out there and done the leg­work. This isn’t idle the­o­ris­ing, these are ideas ground­ed in lived expe­ri­ence of today’s real­i­ty on the ground. While recount­ing his expe­ri­ences trac­ing these tech­no­log­i­cal infra­struc­tures, James makes many inter­est­ing con­nec­tions to lit­er­a­ture, as well as non-obvi­ous obser­va­tions about how these tech­nolo­gies relate to today’s social injus­tices. Long sto­ry short: you should go and read the lot of them.

Inequal­i­ty is engi­neered, and delib­er­ate. It is an arbi­trag­ing of social con­di­tions, a per­pet­u­a­tion of the exist­ing sit­u­a­tion by those who seek to prof­it from its differences.

Low Laten­cy, James Bridle

The rea­son I am blog­ging these things is that I con­tin­ue to be inter­est­ed in new forms of resis­tance against the non-lin­ear war­fare described by Cur­tis and Bri­dle’s tech­nolo­gies of con­trol. The first step is to become aware of these strate­gies, but to return to Boyd, the ques­tion then is how to oper­ate in such a way that you can sur­vive on your own terms, by using tem­po and agili­ty and basi­cal­ly a bet­ter under­stand­ing of reality. 

To close things off, a few recent things I read which are all about cap­i­tal­ism, and its instru­men­tal­i­sa­tion of every­day life. First off, Andres O’He­hir on the per­ceived death of adult­hood, a phe­nom­e­non which I sort of recog­nise, and which he apt­ly describes not as some kind of con­scious lifestyle choice or mega­trend, but as a thing emerg­ing from the demands put on us by the mar­ket and the cul­tur­al industry. 

The suit-wear­ing, gin-drink­ing 35-year-old Orga­ni­za­tion Man of 1964 and the couch-bound, action-fig­ure-col­lect­ing 35-year-old fan­boy of 2014 are dialec­ti­cal mir­ror images of each oth­er, eco­nom­ic arche­types called forth by their respec­tive eras.

The “death of adult­hood” is real­ly just cap­i­tal­ism at work, Andrew O’Hehir

It’s curi­ous to think that “becom­ing an adult” is some­thing the mar­ket does not want you to do. 

And final­ly, two pieces on the shar­ing econ­o­my. One, by Avi Ash­er-Schapiro, clear­ly describ­ing how Uber’s blue­print makes the liveli­hood of work­ers even more pre­car­i­ous, while at the same time forc­ing them to tell their cus­tomers they love their jobs. The oth­er, by the infa­mous Evge­ny Moro­zov, right­ly points out the shar­ing econ­o­my alle­vi­ates some of the pains of liv­ing under late cap­i­tal­ism, while doing noth­ing to solve the root caus­es of those ails.

But under the guise of inno­va­tion and progress, com­pa­nies are strip­ping away work­er pro­tec­tions, push­ing down wages, and flout­ing gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions. At its core, the shar­ing econ­o­my is a scheme to shift risk from com­pa­nies to work­ers, dis­cour­age labor orga­niz­ing, and ensure that cap­i­tal­ists can reap huge prof­its with low fixed costs.

There’s noth­ing inno­v­a­tive or new about this busi­ness mod­el. Uber is just cap­i­tal­ism, in its most naked form.

Against Shar­ing, Avi Asher-Schapiro

There’s no deny­ing that the shar­ing econ­o­my can – and prob­a­bly does – make the con­se­quences of the cur­rent finan­cial cri­sis more bear­able. How­ev­er, in tack­ling the con­se­quences, it does noth­ing to address the caus­es. It’s true that, thanks to advances in the infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy, some of us can final­ly get by with less – chiefly, by rely­ing on more effec­tive dis­tri­b­u­tion of exist­ing resources. But there’s noth­ing to cel­e­brate here: it’s like hand­ing every­body earplugs to deal with intol­er­a­ble street noise instead of doing some­thing about the noise itself.

Don’t believe the hype, the ‘shar­ing econ­o­my’ masks a fail­ing econ­o­my, Evge­ny Morozov

I blog these things as a reminder to myself of some of the argu­ments against the cur­rent vogue of dig­i­tal­ly medi­at­ed ser­vice deliv­ery plat­forms. They can be so seduc­tive and many clients and peers seem blind­ed by their promis­es. I am inter­est­ed in sal­vaging the good bits of these ser­vices, they are after all poten­tial­ly empow­er­ing, while com­ing up with solu­tions to the injus­tices they per­pe­trate and enlarge.