Is Beeminder Self-Blackmail?

Thursday, June 23, 2022
By dreeves

Bee self-blackmailing, i.e., sending itself a black piece of mail

Beeminder user Parrhesia recently told us about a failed attempt to proselytize Beeminder. The person he recommended it to said they knew about Beeminder and viewed it as self-blackmail. That it degrades trust in your future self. They advocated behavior change by bringing your present self and future self into more direct alignment, with no threat of punishment.

I’m practically bursting with responses to that, from a footnote in our very first blog post about how multiple selves aren’t exactly a thing to a blog post earlier this year (11 years later!) about how Beeminder isn’t necessarily about punishment. But I’m very biased so… let’s see what GPT-3 thinks?

No, Beeminder is not self-blackmail. The whole point is that you’re making a commitment to yourself, and then holding yourself accountable. If anything, Beeminder could be seen as a way of rebuilding trust in your future self.

Mic drop. (I’m still marveling at how this AI, having ingested the whole internet, knows enough about Beeminder to describe it coherently and often correctly in its own words.) But in case you find that unsatisfying, let’s hear from some real live human users whose help I recruited via beemails and the Beeminder Community Discord. Starting with Parrhesia:

Accepting that I can be impulsive, and creating an environment that curtails it is healthy. Changing my personality is a much more difficult task.

Here’s the amazing Beeminder user aliceofbattenberg:

Beeminder allows me to move away from more moral judgements of my behavior because if Beeminder says I’m on the right side of the line, it frees me up to make the best decision for myself in the moment.

(Quick interlude to mention that one of our old competitors actually took the self-blackmail idea as literally as possible. You’d give them embarrassing photos and agree to let them post them to Facebook if you didn’t Get Things Done.)

Continuing the love-fest, this time by our own shanaqui:

I bet some people see it as self-blackmail and find it useful that way. I personally stick to seeing it as making the consequences of going off-track immediate and easy to grasp. “I’ll fail my exams if I don’t study consistently, which means today too” was not very apparent as recently as January. It has become apparent now, with six days to go and no time to go back in time and do 135 hours of study for it. Luckily, I didn’t have to think about that. All I had to know was that Beeminder would charge me if I didn’t do it, and the rest would follow. (To be honest, I’m not sure it was apparent to me even last week. Today, however, a jolt of pure panic has set in… partially soothed by looking at my graph and understanding how much work I have put in.)

Parrhesia again:

If a Beeminder goal is making you feel sad or oppressed or anything you can remove it [after a one-week delay of course]. What Beeminder does is put a barrier between extremely short-term thinking and long-term thinking. That way your deeper values and behavior can align better. So it’s ironically the opposite of what the self-blackmail accusation worries about.

And narthur:

To be consistent, you’d also need to consider educational grading systems, legal systems, library late fees, and parking tickets to be blackmail. [Or any contract, like employment or marriage or agreeing to the terms and conditions of a website, adds shanaqui.]
Using Beeminder to put up guard rails is not fundamentally at odds with doing the work to be at harmony with yourself. I think what people are reacting to is not Beeminder itself but rather how they imagine people relate to Beeminder — the paying-is-punishment, I’m-doing-penance-for-my-guilt camp. Which certainly exists, but is no way integral to how Beeminder works.

Somewhere around here we went off on a tangent about whether a having a sense of thirst counts as internal self-coercion getting you to drink. It was a fun discussion of our various idiosyncrasies. The conclusion: sometimes our physical drives are misaligned with our true goals, film at 11. But the point is, sometimes we can fix that misalignment by creating additional external drives and if that works, that’s great.

User mbork summed that up nicely:

Rebrand “self-coercion” as “self-discipline” and it sounds pretty good.

And alys:

Self-coercion is a victimless crime! But we could also rebrand it to self-encouragement.

Finally, Fred Antell:

The entire reason Beeminder exists is that there is a gap between what higher-you wants, and what in-the-moment you wants. I’m actively choosing to give higher-me more control over in-the-moment me. I love “in-the-moment” me, he’s the one that actually has to show up and do all the work and gold star buddy… you’ve done some good stuff over the years. But he could certainly use some help. Whether that’s Beeminder, shaping the environment, scheduling a focused block of time, it doesn’t really matter. The point is to just set that guy up for success.
I’d invite people who have an issue with Beeminder to see your higher self as a loving benevolent guide creating carrots and sticks so that the two of you (higher and in-the-moment) can succeed together.

The apologetics and heart-warming anecdotes about how life-improving and life-affirming Beeminder is went on and on and I’m so grateful to all of you.

Of course I do worry I’m in an echo chamber here and want to make sure I really understand the anti-Beeminder case. I’ve heard it in a couple parts of the rationality-sphere. A recent Clearer Thinking Podcast episode spends a good part of an hour talking about why self-coercive techniques like Beeminder are no good. (Though when Beeminder is mentioned specifically they kindly point out that they see plenty of use of it that doesn’t count as particularly self-coercive.) Similarly, Nate Soares’s Replacing Guilt series, while never mentioning Beeminder, seems to argue against our approach. (But tons of Beeminder users love that series so our approaches must not be wholly incompatible.)

Also, years ago we had another self-blackmail debate in the Beeminder forum about a rationality-adjacent blogger arguing against Beeminder on similar grounds. I think my challenge to the nay-sayers is to make the alternative to Beeminder more concrete. How, beyond giving yourself motivational speeches, do you bring your short-term and long-term selves into alignment? And maybe also get specific about what’s so bad, psychologically speaking, about creating constraints for yourself. Many of us do so in a way that doesn’t feel coercive at all. Others embrace the self-coercion and feel it’s worth it.

Since I’m still obsessing over what OpenAI has achieved lately, let’s conclude with an image generated by DALL-E 2 of a self-flagellating bee:

Bee self-flagellating

Judging by the expression on that bee, DALL-E feels the same way we do about this self-blackmail question.


Image credit: Faire Soule-Reeves and DALL-E 2

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