Cranial Silicosis and Paths of Least Resistance

Thursday, July 16, 2015
By dreeves

An ostrich

For those just tuning in, let’s review the Three Great Beeminder Epiphanies.

  1. The Yellow Brick Road — bringing long-term consequences near (and using the graphs as the basis for commitment contracts)
  2. The Road Dial and the Akrasia Horizon — flexible self-control (getting the most out of commitment contracts at minimum cost)
  3. Anti-Cranial-Silicosis — making the path of least resistance also the path of ever-increasing awesomeness (most notably, precommit to recommit)

These seem so obvious in hindsight that it’s funny to look back at how non-obvious they once were. Our competitor, StickK, pioneered the idea of a web service to facilitate commitment contracts but has nothing like Beeminder’s yellow brick road. The contracts are of the form “I will do thing X by date Y”. Beeminder’s “I will keep my datapoints on track every day” gets much more to the heart of akrasia. We’re quite proud of that insight and discuss it at length in our inaugural blog post and before that in a Messy Matters article in 2010.

But it took us another year to come up with the idea of the road dial and the akrasia horizon. Until then we experimented with all manner of convoluted ways [1] to deal with the flexibility problem and the difficulty in choosing what to commit to. It’s now perfectly obvious that the answer is to decide what to commit to as you go along, subject to an akrasia horizon. As Katja Grace eloquently put it, “you can fine-tune the challengingness of a goal, but can’t change it out of laziness unless you are particularly forward thinking about your laziness.”

Fans of the book Nudge, by Thaler and Sunstein, will find our Third Epiphany especially obvious: defaults are very powerful. But for more than an additional year after coming up with the road dial and akrasia horizon, we were still letting your graphs freeze whenever you derailed and waiting for you to decide to unfreeze them and try again. Lunacy!

“Users don’t read and don’t think, they just fly through interfaces intuiting the minimum they need to do to be off and running.”

As we eventually learned, you can write a whole essay (or two) trying to convince a user to make choice A over B but it won’t be as influential as making A be the default, the path of least resistance, the outcome of the user not thinking about it at all. It’s the first rule of user interface design — users don’t read and don’t think, they just fly through interfaces intuiting the minimum they need to do to be off and running.

Given the uncanny power of defaults, we need to embrace the inevitable paternalism. What’s actually in the user’s best interest? What would they choose if we could reach through the computer screen, grab them by the shirt collar, and hold their attention until they made a considered decision?

They wouldn’t pick cranial silicosis. [2]

The psychology that brings people to Beeminder in the first place tends to go hand in hand with this kind of myopia (or is it optimism?), and makes them put their head in the sand and fail to restart a failed goal. That’s exactly the problem Beeminder purports to solve. So now we try to apply that reasoning everywhere we can. We have an exponential pledge schedule that starts at $0 or $5 so that you don’t have to agonize about how much money to put at stake. We created Pessimistic Presumptive Reports so that you can’t weasel out of a Do Less commitment by putting your head in the sand and simply not reporting data. And of course we have focused on autodata integrations so you can hold yourself accountable without entering data at all.

Lest you think that we’re exploiting the Third Epiphany to line our pockets at our users’ expense [3] we also apply the principle to make sure you don’t pay for a premium plan you’re not using. Namely, if you stop using Beeminder altogether you don’t have to get your head out of the sand to cancel your premium subscription. We notice you’ve left and cancel it for you automatically. In every case we can anticipate, the thing you mean to do is what happens automatically, the path of least resistance.



[1] Like the idea of having two yellow brick roads for each goal, one representing a bare minimum to commit to and one being a more ambitious goal.

[2] Cranial silicosis is our too-clever term for having one’s head in the sand. (And cranial rectosis is the term for people who make up terms like “cranial silicosis”.)

[3] In any case, it turns out that Beeminder making money is quite compatible with making our users awesomer. The following is an idealization but there’s sufficient truth in it: You start beeminding and we keep you on track until your current pledge runs out of motivational power. It runs out of motivational power when Beeminder has provided enough value that you’re not averse to paying the pledge! So you derail, pay, and re-rail at a higher pledge amount. Rinse, repeat. It’s the opposite of what people tease us (not always good-naturedly) about: The more Beeminder becomes a critical part of your life — the more awesome it makes you — the more you pay us. Yes, Beeminder gets paid at moments of failure, but most people re-rail. So those failures are temporary and just serve to reemphasize how valuable Beeminder has been. Maybe that’s too idealized but it’s empirically and anecdotally true that paying money to Beeminder correlates with overall success not failure. Or, as we say, if you never pay Beeminder then you probably didn’t really need it that badly.


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