Nobody does the thing that they are supposedly doing

I feel like one of the most important lessons I’ve had about How the World Works, which has taken quite a bit of time to sink in, is:

In general, neither organizations nor individual people do the thing that their supposed role says they should do. Rather they tend to do the things that align with their incentives (which may sometimes be economic, but even more often they are social and psychological). If you want to really change things, you have to change people’s incentives.

But I feel like I’ve had to gradually piece this together from a variety of places, over a long time; I’ve never read anything that would have laid down the whole picture. I remember that Freakonomics had a few chapters about how incentives cause unexpected behavior, but that was mostly about economic incentives, which are just a small part of the whole picture. And it didn’t really focus on the “nothing in the world works the way you’d naively expect” thing; as I recall, it was presented more as a curiosity.

On the other hand, Robin Hanson has had a lot of stuff about “X is not about Y“, but that has mostly been framed in terms of prestige and signaling, which is the kind of stuff that’s certainly an important part of the whole picture (the psychological kind of incentives), but again just a part of the picture. (However, his upcoming book goes into a lot more detail on why and how the publicly-stated motives for human or organizational behavior aren’t actually the true motives.)

And then in social/evolutionary/moral psychology there’s a bunch of stuff about social-psychological incentives, of how we’re motivated to denounce outgroups and form bonds with our ingroups; and how it can be socially costly to have accurate beliefs about outgroups and defend them to your ingroup, whereas it would be much more rewarding to just spread inaccuracies or outright lies about how terrible the outgroups are, and thus increase your own social standing. And how even well-meaning ideologies will by default get hijacked by these kinds of dynamics and become something quite different from what they claimed to be.

But again, that’s just one piece of the whole story. And you can find more isolated pieces of the whole story scattered around in a variety of articles and books, also stuff like the iron law of oligarchy, rational irrationality, public choice theory, etc etc. But no grand synthesis.

There’s also a relevant strand of this in the psychology of motivation/procrastination/habit-formation, on why people keep putting off various things that they claim they want to do, but then don’t. And how small things can reshape people’s behavior, like if somebody ends up as a much more healthy eater just because they don’t happen to have a fast food restaurant conveniently near their route home from work. Which isn’t necessarily so much about incentives themselves, but an important building block in understanding why our behavior tends to be so strongly shaped by things that are entirely separate from consciously-set goals.

Additionally, the things that do drive human behavior are often things like maintaining a self-concept, seeking feelings of connection, autonomy and competence, maintaining status, enforcing various moral intuitions, etc., things that only loosely align one’s behavior with one’s stated goals. Often people may not even realize what exactly it is that they are trying to achieve with their behavior.

“Experiental pica” is a misdirected craving for something that doesn’t actually fulfill the need behind the craving. The term originally comes from a condition where people with a mineral deficiency start eating things like ice, which don’t actually help with the deficiency. Recently I’ve been shifting towards the perspective that, to a first approximation, roughly everything that people do is pica for some deeper desire, with that deeper desire being something like social connection, feeling safe and accepted, or having a feeling of autonomy or competence. That is, most of the things that people will give as reasons for why they are doing something will actually miss the mark, and also that many people are engaging in things that are actually relatively inefficient ways of achieving their true desires, such as pursuing career success when the real goal is social connection. (This doesn’t mean that the underlying desire would never be fulfilled, just that it gets fulfilled less often than it would if people were aware of their true desires.)


  1. wanderer2323

    I like the post but disagree with the conclusion: “it gets fulfilled less often than it would if people were aware of their true desires”.

    “Making a different choice is a luxury for people with choices”.

    Awareness would just add a layer of shame.

    • rhainelovesppl

      I would say it depends on what that deep desire is. If you realize you have been saying nasty things to people because you want people to pay attention to you, you can reorganize your behavior to fit the goal but be more moral quite easily in most cases, but if you realize that you crave that feeling of a switch when he other person starts caring about you after not caring about you (and then you lose interest), then you are basically screwed, unless you can find an even deeper desire underneath that can be satisfied

  2. > to a first approximation, roughly everything that people do is pica for some deeper desire

    I tend to assume the opposite extreme: people do random stuff based on environmental contingencies and what they happen to find rewarding, where rewards are based on complex, variegated, idiosyncratic reward networks. Over time, we categorize the emergent behavior as targeted toward high-level goals/desires. For example, I think people socialize because doing so feels rewarding, and deprivation of that reward feels bad. Any “deeper” goal that people may be seeking is an artificial interpretation of lots of messy, low-level brain processes.

    Then the answer to why people don’t track their stated goals is that people mostly do lots of random stuff based on tons of random input stimuli and rewards, and people’s reward systems are only moderately attuned to their explicit, verbalized goals.

    You may not disagree, in which case we’re two blind men touching the same elephant.

    • Joel Kaartinen

      You’re pretty much just saying the same thing as Kaj, just phrasing it differently and in a way that is much much much more likely to be not understood or misunderstood.


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