Attractor Theory

[Attractor Theory is a hybrid model that tries to reconcile the effects of internal and external factors on motivation. It suggests that an important additional consideration in decision-making is how the action affects your ability to take future actions.]

The Model:

Attractor Theory is basically a qualitative model, a way to think about yourself and actions. I’ll first introduce the three parts of the model, then I’ll go over the implications of the model.

First, there’s you. Imagine that you are in a hamster ball:

As a human inside this ball, you can kinda roll around by exerting energy. But it’s hard to do so all of the time — you’d likely get tired. Still, if you really wanted to, you could push the ball and move.

Second, there are all these Attractors that pull you towards them. And every action you can take is represented as an Attractor. Actions are Attractors. Attractors are like valleys, or magnets, or point charges. Or maybe electrically charged magnetic valleys.

(I’m probably going to Physics Hell for that.)

Third, these are Utilons. They represent productivity hours, lives saved, HPMOR fanfictions written, or anything else you care about maximizing. As a human in a hamster ball, you are trying to roll around and collect as many Utilons as possible.

That’s the gist of this model. It also has two rules:

1. Attractors Can Change:

Attractors affect one another.

Once you’re being pulled in by one, this actually modifies other Attractors. This usually manifests by changing how strongly other ones are pulling you in. Sometimes, though, this even means that some Attractors will disappear, and new ones may appear.

This basically means that taking actions can affect how you feel about other actions.

For example, the set of things that feel desirable to me after running a marathon may differ greatly from the set of things after I read a book on governmental corruption. (EX: drinking water vs starting a socialist revolution.)

2. Direct Path ≠ Optimal Path

As a human, your goal is to navigate this tangle of Utilons and Attractors from your hamster ball, trying to collect Utilons.

Now you could just try to take a direct path to all the nearest Utilons, but that would mean exerting a lot of energy to fight the pull of Attractors that pull you in Utilon-sparse directions.

Instead, given that you can’t avoid Attractors (they’re everywhere!) and that you want to get as many Utilons as possible, the best thing to do seems to be to strategically choose which Attractors you’re drawn to and selectively choose when to exert energy to move from one to another to maximize your overall trajectory.

The default view of scheduling seems to be something like viewing actions as time-chunks that we can just slot into our schedule. But with Attractor Theory, it becomes clearer that switching actions has costs.

As such, you might want to think about ways to strategically order things in your schedule to minimize problems caused by starting and stopping very disparate actions.


Properties:

Attractor Theory as a model contains several useful concepts: Auxiliary Actions, Starting and Stopping Costs, Precommitment, and Meta-Effects.

Auxiliary Actions:

When you start seeing your actions in terms of, not just their direct effects, but also their effects on how you can take further actions, I think this is very useful. It changes your decision algorithm to be something like:

“Choose actions such that their meta-level effects on me by my taking them allow me to take more actions of this type in the future and maximize the number of Utilons I can earn in the long run.”

By phrasing it this way, it makes it more clear that most things in life are a longer-term endeavor that involve trying to globally optimize, rather than locally.

(While it’s arguable that a naive view of maximization should by default take this into account from a consequentialist lens, I think making it explicitly clear, as the above formulation does, is a useful distinction.)

This allows us to better evaluate actions which, by themselves, might not be too useful, but do a good job of reorienting ourselves into a better state of mind.

I think it ends up creating a new class of auxiliary actions, actions which are easy to do and also make it easier to take other actions. You can sort of think of them as stepping stones, which bridge the state between where you are and where you want to end up.

For example, spending a few minutes outside to get some air might not be directly useful, but it’ll likely help clear my mind, which has good benefits down the line, in how I’m able to do work in the immediate future.

Other potential auxiliary actions for you might include drinking water, stretching, doodling, meditating, and going for a short walk.


Starting and Stopping Costs:

Attractor Theory also does a good job of modeling how actions seem much harder to start than to stop. Moving from one Attractor to a disparate one can be costly in terms of energy, as you need to move against the pull of the current Attractor.

Once you’re pulled in, though, it’s usually easier to keep going with the flow. So using this model ascribes costs to starting and places less of a cost on continuing actions.

By “pulled in”, I mean making it feel effortless or desirable to continue with the action.

(I’m thinking of the feeling you get when you have a decent album playing music, and you feel sort of tempted to switch it to a better album, except that, given that this good song is already playing, you don’t really feel like switching.)

This is where willpower comes in. Remember that rolling takes energy, and you probably only have a finite amount of it. You want to pick and choose when you apply willpower.

The Attractor Theory model suggests that the best opportunities to try “extra hard” are the ones where you predict that things will be smooth sailing once you’re pulled into the Attractor.

For example, if getting started on reading a book is difficult, but you know that you’ll likely find yourself engrossed in the book conditional on your starting, then this is a good place to put in willpower.


Precommitment:

Attractor Theory views all actions and situations as self-reinforcing slippery slopes.

As such, it more realistically models the act of taking certain actions as leading you to other Attractors, so you’re not just looking at things in isolation.

This view allows you to better see certain “traps”, where an action will lead you deeper and deeper down an addiction/reward cycle, like a huge bag of chips or a webcomic.

These are situations where, after the initial buy-in, it becomes incredibly attractive to continue down the same path, as these actions make reinforce themselves, making it easy to continue on and on…

In this model, we can reasonably predict, for example, that any video on YouTube will likely lead to more videos because the “sucked-in-craving-more-videos Future You” will have different preferences than “needing-some-sort-of-break Present You”.

Our model better reveals how things like YouTube are being deceptive by tricking your brain with the promise of a small action (“I’ll watch just one video…”).

The reality is that watching YouTube is a monstrously large Attractor.

If there’s a time to be scared, it’s when considering something like this.

The vast variety of suggested videos coupled with the inertia associated with switching actions means that it’s never actually just one video.

You thus want to find ways that you can avoid specific actions which you could lead you down bad spirals, even if the initial actions themselves may not be that distracting.


Meta-Effects:

When most people consider actions, I claim that they consider basically two things:

1. The cost of the action.
EX: “How many hours will it take to drive to Los Angeles?”

2. The effects of the action.
EX: “What are the benefits of going to Los Angeles?”

If you’re smart, you might also consider the tradeoffs and opportunity costs, by comparing the action to other choices.

With Attractor Theory, I think you also now consider a third very important property of the actions available to you:

3. The effects of the action on you.
EX: “How will going to Los Angeles change the set of actions that feel yummy to me?”

It’s obvious, for sure, but I think that most people’s defaults either only have this as an implicit consideration. Otherwise, they actually just don’t really think it about it all.


Summary:

Attractor Theory tries to explain how we’re not always directly in control. Our actions appear to affect how we take other actions. Still, we do have willpower, and it’s best to try and strategically use energy when considering which decisions to make.

It’s not perfect, but I think Attractor Theory is a hell of a lot better than our naive models of how internal and external motivating factors interact.