What Makes Being Persistent So Frustrating?

Farhad Manjoo has a fun story about how people engage (or disengage) with online articles. In short, a lot of people don’t read much of the article, and even those who share a link often haven’t read the whole thing. Manjoo concludes that in the face of competing alternatives it’s too easy to lose interest.

With ebooks and streaming movies and TV shows, it’s easier than ever, now, to switch to something else. In the past year my wife and I have watched at least a half-dozen movies to about the 60 percent mark. There are several books on my Kindle I’ve never experienced past Chapter 2. Though I loved it and recommend it to everyone, I never did finish the British version of the teen drama Skins. Battlestar Galactica, too—bailed on it in the middle, hoping to one day jump back in. Will I? Probably not.

Maybe this is just our cultural lot: We live in the age of skimming. I want to finish the whole thing, I really do. I wish you would, too. Really—stop quitting! But who am I kidding. I’m busy. You’re busy. There’s always something else to read, watch, play, or eat.

What Manjoo is describing is the recent increase in the opportunity cost of persisting in a specific activity. At each moment there’s more and more stuff out there that might be better. By the time you get through the first paragraph of an article you’ll have 10 unread tweets, a text message, and those 23 open tabs that you haven’t looked at yet. Even if something is promising, if it doesn’t wow you right away it’s easy to be drawn into something else. Thirty years ago this was less of a problem because there were fewer ways to entertain yourself and switching activities required more than clicking on a different browser tab.

Manjoo’s article brought to mind a forthcoming paper (pdf) by Penn’s Robert Kurzban, Angela Duckworth, Joseph Kable, and Justus Myers on the sensation we generally refer to as “effort.” The theory they lay out seeks to answer two questions. Why do we experience effort as something negative, and why does effort lead cognitive performance to decline over time?

Many existing theories are based on somewhat vague notions of motivation or the depletion of an actual resource (e.g. “ego-depletion“). Kurzban et al. approached the issue from a more computational standpoint. They reasoned that because cognitive resources are limited, when we decide to dedicate more resources to a particular task we engage in a series of opportunity cost calculations to decide if it’s worth it. This cost is then experienced as the negative sensation we refer to as mental effort, and as a consequence we re-allocate cognitive resources away from the current task.

Real-world tasks that evoke a sensation of effort lead to favorable outcomes in the long run –Many of the persisting on difficult tasks such as writing, doing math problems, and so on – yet the phenomenology is unpleasant rather than pleasant. Further, these sensations seem to be systematically related to performance reductions. Why do these “good” things feel “bad”?

We have tried to sketch one sort of solution to this puzzle. The central element of our argument is that the sensation of effort is designed around a particular adaptive problem and its solution, simultaneity and prioritization. Because some systems, especially those associated with executive function, have multiple uses to which they can be put, the use of these systems carries opportunity costs. We propose that these costs are experienced as “effort,” and have the effect of reducing task performance. This connects the sensation of effort to other qualia, explaining the valence of the experience as a cost of persisting.

For example, reading a book in a barren room will feel more pleasant than reading a book with your smartphone right next you. The standard explanation would be that you have to fight the temptation to check your email, but Kurzban et al. claim something slightly different is happening. Because reading prevents you from checking your email, having your phone nearby makes the act of reading more costly. These costs give rise to stronger negative feelings of “effort” (e.g. frustration, boredom, etc.), and that negativity lead to a reallocation of cognitive resources — for example, you may decide to take a one minute break to check your email. In other words, the presence of an alternate activity does not merely create a conscious temptation that must be overcome, it can lead you to have an increasingly negative experience with what you’re already doing.

It’s a subtle difference, but the manner in which it changes the direction of causality is interesting. The standard way a person thinks about a situation is that when a task feels hard it makes you tempted to do something else. What Kurzban et al. are saying is that when a task feels hard it’s actually a result of an cognitive process that already determined you should think about doing something else. The urge to do something else causes the negative reaction to the task, not the other way around.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing in the Kurzban et al. theory that suggests the behavior Manjoo’s describes will abate. After all, the number of distractions grows every single day. It’s also disconcerting to be told there’s yet another way your experiences with something can be influenced by the presence of extraneous things.

On the other hand, the basis for these negative sensations is that you’ve calculated it’s worthwhile to start doing something else, and thus they’re not inherently a bad thing. If there’s something more important to do, switching tasks is a good decision. Whether or not these cost-benefit calculations are accurate continues to be open to debate. Technology skeptics have long lamented that we’re shortening our attention spans to achieve short-term gains and ignoring the long-term costs. It may seem worthwhile to read 10 news articles instead of finishing a book, but in the long run it may be better to have gotten through the whole book.

I’m relatively agnostic about all of this. Our decisions to persist or abandon a task are generally based on rational calculations, but it’s certainly posible that the reasoning behind such calculations is short-sighted and harmful. It’s also possible that we only think the reasoning is short-sighted because we’re judging optimal behavior for 2013 based on what was optimal behavior in 1995. Perhaps shorter attention spans will allow you to better adapt to the way the world works in 30 years. It’s impossible to know what behaviors will be best in the future, but what we do know is that the empirical data and some psychological theory suggest we’ll continue to be drawn to whatever it is that we’re not doing.
Kurzban, R., Duckworth, A., Kable, J.W., & Myers, J. (2013). An opportunity cost model of subjective effort and task performance Behavioral and Brain Sciences

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