The Importance-Avoidance Effect

post by davidhartsough · 2021-09-16T23:16:21.879Z · EA · GW · 12 comments

Contents

  Effects
  Expectation vs Reality
  Definition
  Side tangent about naming
  Backfire
      Acknowledgement
  Summary by Ting Jiang
  Conditions
    focus, attention, and deep work
    confidence, and self-efficacy
  Strategies
  Perfection
  So what can we do?
    
    
  Feedback
None
12 comments

My current working theory is that one of the worst things someone with a big project can do is to make that project feel extremely important. (This is doubly worse for someone with ADHD.) The more important the project, the more daunting it becomes, and the less it gets worked on.

When a project becomes ultra important, it tends to get in its own way.

The worst scenario is when someone believes that the project is their "one and only" "personal mission". ("This is my magnum opus." "This is my big project." "This is the one to shape my career." etc, etc, etc.)

For people who struggle with the importance-avoidance effect, they tend to follow this pattern:

The more important they make my project out to be, the less they get it done, and the more they procrastinate on it.

Maybe you're the sort of person who tends to think about what the world's most important problems are and wants to contribute to an important cause. (Cough, cough, EA.) Maybe you have a large project or writing in mind, awaiting action.

Effects

See if any of this sound familiar:

The more emphasized and extreme the value/importance of a project becomes, ...

Expectation vs Reality

Expectation vs Reality

We like to think that: the more we emphasize the importance (and value) of something, the more motivated we will become. Yet often the truth is: the more we emphasize the importance (and value) of something, the more likely we are to avoid it.

Definition

The Importance-Avoidance Effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to procrastinate and avoid prioritizing something perceived as extremely important.

Side tangent about naming

On the streets, this cognitive bias effect also goes by the nickname, "The Fainting Goat Effect", so it can fit in with its homies, "The Ostrich Effect" and "The Meerkat Effect", who obviously have cool animal names. And besides trying to take after the ostrich effect's cool name, the fainting goat effect has been tryna jock the ostrich effect's style too by following similar patterns…

The ostrich effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to avoid information perceived as potentially unpleasant. It is believed to be the result of the conflict between what our rational mind knows to be important and what our emotional mind anticipates will be painful.

The importance-avoidance effect (AKA the fainting goat effect) isn't about avoiding information, it is instead about avoiding initiative. And instead of a perception of unpleasantness, it's a perception of extreme importance (which is often accompanied by a perceived need for perfection, which in turn may actually result in feelings of negative emotions, distress, and unpleasantness).

So while the ostrich buries its head when unpleasantness is afoot, the fainting goat is paralyzed when faced with something overwhelming.

Here's another way of thinking about this…

Backfire

When something has the potential to be ultra important, it is usually so overwhelming to contemplate the severity and complexity of it that it is often easier to just avoid and ignore it entirely.

One of the biggest issues with this is that we all tend to assume that emphasizing the importance of something will increase the likelihood that we will prioritize it, whereas this effect shows that this can backfire.

By trying to reinforce the value of something to build the most convincing case of why that thing is important, we think we're going to effectively motivate even more. However, this effect can lead to more procrastination and less effective prioritization.

Acknowledgement

(This of course assumes that the person already believes that the thing in question is at least important/valuable enough to prioritize in the first place. If someone truly doesn't understand the value of something nor its importance, then there ought to be an intervention of this kind of motivation that educates them on the value and importance. This discussion is not dealing with that scenario.)

Summary by Ting Jiang

In the Clearer Thinking podcast episode with Ting Jiang, she explains how this creates a two-part heuristic that leads to avoidance:

[Behavior Change and Interpersonal Connection with Ting Jiang | Spotify @ 8:24 – 10:00]

"The more you emphasize the importance of an action, the more likely someone is going to procrastinate on it and actually decide not to do it.

There's actually lower uptake with the emphasis of importance. (And this is related to the heuristic and bias of the ostrich effect.) So when you think something is important, first of all you have a heuristic of: 'Oh, maybe this deserves more attention. Let me spend more time on it later.'

But on the other hand, because it's important, if you don't have a clear idea of what to do and have enough confidence that you'll arrive at a good decision, you're also afraid of it. And that negative emotion pushes it off even more, or you will try to avoid it.

And so these two coming together makes it that actually emphasizing the importance of improving the attitude or trying to motivate someone even more, sometimes can even backfire — not only that it doesn't work well but not realizing that: oftentimes it's not about motivating people further but it's about getting people to implement their intention successfully."

She effectively explains how we often assume that the solution to a failure to prioritize something is to try to motivate even more by emphasizing the value and importance of that thing.

There are a few key ideas she touched on that I want to highlight:

Conditions

Time, focus, attention, and deep work

When we're faced with something perceived as extremely important, we often believe that it deserves more time and attention than we can give to it right now. This leads us to believe that this task or project at hand will require extreme dedication and prioritization. We start to tell ourselves that we will need two times the amount of time we may have projected before. So suddenly the work-time required just doubled and we are hard pressed to find any time in our schedules to give that level of commitment and dedication. (This is also compounded by the belief that extremely important things deserve more perfection. [More on that later.]) In sum, we start to believe that this task or project will need a degree of attention and time that we cannot muster in normal circumstances. As the importance becomes more extreme so do the conditions of engagement. An extremely important project requires extremely perfect circumstances. And in the end, the extreme conditions may never be met, creating a perpetual avoidance and procrastination.

Clarity, confidence, and self-efficacy

Two of the necessary conditions we need in order to work on something extremely important are: (1) a clear idea and vision of what to do and (2) enough self-efficacy and self-confidence. When both or either of those conditions are not met, we usually feel afraid. And that fear creates a negative emotional response to this extremely important thing, which then further pushes it away. Fortunately, if we can recognize which of these conditions is not met, we can probably work on them, because a lack of clarity or vision and a lack of efficacy or confidence are both problems that are certainly solvable. However, the problem exacerbates when the extremeness of the importance creates an extremeness of these conditions — namely, (1) the extreme complexity of a project can make it feel impossible to gain complete clarity on, and (2) the extreme value of the project can make it feel impossible to have the perfect capabilities to get it right. So the fear might manifest as: (1) "this is too complicated, confusing, and complex" or (2) "this is too difficult to attain".

Strategies

In the end, more motivation is not the solution. Instead, the solution is often about implementation strategies, such as basic behavioral change techniques to prioritize action. Usually the intention is already firmly set, but the mental framing and disposition hinders action and promotes procrastination. So the solution must address both the person's perception and the person's habits and regular routines. Sometimes the simplest solution might just involve effective reminders around a definitive schedule (e.g. setting an alarm to set aside [X] minutes). But personal perception is equally relevant here, so the person must believe that: even a minor moment of intentional dedication is enough and is worthwhile. And changing one's belief can be the trickiest part of the puzzle.

Perfection

On a final note, I want to reiterate an idea that has been personally troubling for me:

Usually, when I believe that a project is extremely important, I then also believe that that project must be perfect. Anything less than perfect will be a regretful shame.

The more important and valuable the project, the more utterly perfect it must be.

And while striving for perfection often leads to outstanding and extraordinary outcomes, a need for extreme perfection can actually just be paralyzing and create a platform of procrastination. So for me, the ideal is to do whatever is necessary to get started on a project, and that might require a rejection of perfection — I can't be perfect; I can't perform perfectly; and I cannot execute the perfect project. If I expect perfection of myself from the beginning, I may never engage with the project at all. This comes back to the concept of self-efficacy and self-confidence as well; in the frame of perfection, my capabilities will never meet the mark.

Expectations of perfection can make a project feel unattainable, especially when that project is even moderately complex and consequential. It is sometimes impossible and even detrimental to try to thoroughly analyze and evaluate all possible factors and outcomes of a project. (Trust me, this is coming from a person who puts "thoroughness" down as his #1 favorite/greatest strength.) If you must make every consideration and every potential consequence perfect, your project may never see the light of day. It's a nearly impossible task to expect of yourself (or anyone for that matter).

So what can we do?

Well, first off, there are many things we can stop doing…

But then I think the next best thing we can start to do is:

Essentially, most of these tips and techniques boil down to recognizing the cognitive patterns and reframing/overriding them with something more productive to prevent the avoidance and to cultivate conditions for actually getting things done.

Notes

Motivation and demotivation are tricky, nuanced things that are rather personal. One of the biggest and most rewarding challenges in life is unraveling the mysteries of your own motivation. (What makes you come alive? What stresses you out? What makes you eager and excited? What makes you feel burnt out?)

Tailor the insights you might gain from this "importance-avoidance effect" to your own understanding of your motivation. (What might be quite motivating for some people could be demotivating for others. [So blanket statements about motivation can be risky.])

Suggestions

Please add in your advice! Discuss your experiences and share what works best for you.

Feedback

This is my first time writing to the Forum. (I've always wanted to get more involved, but I've never tried it before - cuz I get nervous about wanting to make a best first impression. Ironically, this post is basically a glimpse into the reasoning behind why I've never posted to the forum before.)

Please give me your thoughts, reactions, opinions, and (dare I say) critiques. (Thanks in advance! Take it easy on me 😉)

Shout out and thanks to Jarred, Debbie, and Sam for listening to me, reading the first draft, giving me hecka inspiration, and helping me battle this silly effect.


This is a "crosspost" in a sense: OG version here (you can read this in sexy "dark mode" on my website 🌑👌)

12 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by more better · 2021-09-17T22:54:19.442Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Great and articulate post; thanks. Trying to follow 80,000 hours advice and my brain just plays this on repeat:

Replies from: davidhartsough
comment by davidhartsough · 2021-09-22T07:33:04.074Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Haha, I love how you captured the vibe in such a great image! Thank you for the compliment as well :)

(Hopefully some of these strategies will help us navigate the things that truly are "most important" in our lives.)

comment by Khorton · 2021-09-22T07:45:04.923Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Great article on an important and engaging topic :)

If I find myself really paralyzed on a topic I have a thought experiment I go to: What would happen if I HAD to delegate this to someone else? I pick a specific person (say, an intern at my company) and think through how I would adapt the project so that she could complete it, or at least contribute to it. Often when I've finished my thought experiment I realize that the "easy" version of the task I would delegate to someone else is exactly what I should be doing.

comment by Linch · 2021-09-17T01:04:57.388Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

You might also like Aaron Schwartz's notes on productivity:

Assigned problems

Assigned problems are problems you’re told to work on. Numerous psychology experiments have found that when you try to “incentivize” people to do something, they’re less likely to do it and do a worse job. External incentives, like rewards and punishments, kills what psychologists call your “intrinsic motivation” — your natural interest in the problem. (This is one of the most thoroughly replicated findings of social psychology — over 70 studies have found that rewards undermine interest in the task.)5 People’s heads seem to have a deep avoidance of being told what to do.6

[LZ Sidenote: I think I'd want to actually read the studies or at least a meta-analysis of recent replications first before being sure of this]

The weird thing is that this phenomenon isn’t just limited to other people — it even happens when you try to tell yourself what to do! If you say to yourself, “I should really work on X, that’s the most important thing to do right now” then all of the sudden X becomes the toughest thing in the world to make yourself work on. But as soon as Y becomes the most important thing, the exact same X becomes much easier.

Create a false assignment

This presents a rather obvious solution: if you want to work on X, tell yourself to do Y. Unfortunately, it’s sort of difficult to trick yourself intentionally, because you know you’re doing it.7 So you’ve got to be sneaky about it.

One way is to get someone else to assign something to you. The most famous instance of this is grad students who are required to write a dissertation, a monumentally difficult task that they need to do to graduate. And so, to avoid doing this, grad students end up doing all sorts of other hard stuff.

The task has to both seem important (you have to do this to graduate!) and big (hundreds of pages of your best work!) but not actually be so important that putting it off is going to be a disaster.


 

Replies from: davidhartsough
comment by davidhartsough · 2021-09-17T01:39:39.458Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Oooo love these thoughts from Aaron Swartz! I actually hadn't read this bit from him before, yet reading it felt so familiar in that "oh snap, duh, he just put to words that kind of unspoken wisdom we've always been dancing around for probably generations" kind of way.

Thank you for sharing this! I've added some of those tips to the list here.

comment by MaxRa · 2021-09-17T08:24:56.564Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks, I also could relate to the general pattern. For example during my PhD I really tried hard to find and work on things that seem most promising and give it my all cause I want to do it as good as I can, but this was pretty stressful and I think it noticeably decreased the fun and my ability to let simple curiosity lead my research.

Share the load of the project with others. Get some trusted individuals to work with you.

This is a big one for me. Working with others on projects is usually much more fun and motivating to me.

Replies from: davidhartsough
comment by davidhartsough · 2021-09-17T17:33:27.633Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for sharing (and reading)!

Were you able to "share the load" (so to say) in some capacity with your PhD and research?

In what ways do you effectively utilize this insight you've gained into your own social motivation? Do you tend to build teams and recruit people to help you with your projects in specific ways? How do you keep it fun and enjoyable for yourself and your friends?

Replies from: MaxRa
comment by MaxRa · 2021-09-23T13:15:52.936Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Were you able to "share the load" (so to say) in some capacity with your PhD and research?

I was, I started working with a colleague and I got a research assistant which really did a lot of a difference. It was very motivating to have another mind looking at the same problems and finding them interesting/challenging, plus I could focus more on the things that were most interesting to me by outsourcing some tasks. 

And I think I don't have to do much else than just scheduling a meeting every two weeks or so to make it enjoyable and fun, at least for me that is all that is needed.

comment by Ikaxas · 2021-09-17T02:33:49.871Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This is something I'm dealing with right now, so reading this was helpful. Thanks

Replies from: davidhartsough
comment by davidhartsough · 2021-09-17T03:36:04.238Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

So glad to hear it was helpful! Thanks for reading it :)

Lemme know which strategies end up being the most effective for you! I'm keen to know what works best for people. (If you couldn't tell, I'm also a person who struggles with this a great deal, so this is mostly me trying to find answers and solutions for myself as well haha.)

comment by Harrison D · 2021-09-18T19:05:32.726Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think this post was written well and points out a potentially serious effect. I also think there is probably some validity to it—especially for some people it might be very strong—but I also like to wrinkle (or try to wrinkle) neat ideas, so I'll pose some potential objections I had while reading. In short, do you think it's possible there's a lot of correlation-causation confusion going on here? For example:

  1. Bigger and more-complex projects tend to be more important (or else we probably wouldn't do the project), and the complexity and size tend to make it harder to get started or get into a rhythm. For example, I found writing my senior undergrad thesis to be fairly difficult because it was so daunting and complex: I often would ask myself "where do I start or where do I pick up from my most recent work?" My perfectionist streak definitely hurt me throughout the process, but in the end I don't think the importance of the thing was the key issue. However, a large project/task may not necessarily be complex: it might be simple data entry, and I feel that I am decently capable of motivating myself to work on such projects in batches (perhaps even more so when it is more important!)
  2. These bigger and more-complex projects also tend to have longer deadlines, and longer deadlines plays into procrastination habits.
  3. If you notice yourself having to force/motivate yourself to work on something, it's typically because you don't want to do it despite its importance. Is it possible that there is a degree of observation bias in that we might not notice all the cases where the importance of a project successfully motivated us to work on it? Or, perhaps more importantly/clearly, we might not consider all the times we just gave up on a potential project/task when we deemed it not important (rather than unsuccessfully berating ourselves to complete the task)?

 

Ultimately, I'm not disputing that there probably is some degree of importance => avoidance effect, but I think it's possible to overestimate the causal relationship between importance and avoidance due to other correlated factors and observation biases.

Replies from: davidhartsough
comment by davidhartsough · 2021-09-21T06:22:33.717Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you so much for your thoughtful response! I really appreciate your ideas. I'll reply inline here:

"Bigger and more-complex projects tend to be more important (or else we probably wouldn't do the project), and the complexity and size tend to make it harder to get started or get into a rhythm."

Totally agree with this, and these things are compounding.

Most of my claim is that some people struggle with a cognitive bias effect that pushes them to avoid all of this, all together.

So you're right, it's not necessarily always the "importance" of the project that leads to avoidance or a struggle to effectively prioritize it; instead, it can be the complexity or a lack of clarity or vision that keeps the project out of arm's reach.

Curiously, I often imagined that the people who struggle with the Importance-Avoidance Effect have typically already started their project(s) to some degree. And maybe they've even mapped out an outline of steps they need to follow to complete a series of milestones. Yet despite having had some start and having some clarity and vision, they lack the initiative and prioritization. This is very similar to what you describe as struggling to "get into a rhythm." I really like that phrasing.

But anyways, there may be several compounding effects leading to a disruption in getting in rhythm. And it's not always just the "importance" alone that is to blame. But the fact is that sometime it is a major contributor, and for me, that has been something I've neglected to recognize for years! Hence why I want to bring attention to it. (We've known about our inabilities to tackle projects of great complexity. And now I'm hoping to expand on that understanding.)


"I feel that I am decently capable of motivating myself to work on such projects [as simple data entry] in batches (perhaps even more so when it is more important!)"

That is fantastic that you are able to manage such dedication and prioritization. I'll be honest though, this is a major struggle for me and for some of my friends who I wrote this article about.

For us, no matter how little skill is required and no matter how simple the task may be, the more important it becomes, the less it gets reasonably prioritized and worked on. (I have two ongoing projects that have sat around for over a year because they only require about 10–25 hours of menial work to complete. I have tried working on them in "batches" or sessions, but those sessions are shorter and fewer and farther between... No amount emphasis on the "importance" increases motivation and prioritization. It often backfires.)

So whatever it is that you're doing that allows you to be able to muster that motivation and prioritization, please share 😄 (because I for one am not achieving that).


"These bigger and more-complex projects also tend to have longer deadlines, and longer deadlines plays into procrastination habits."

100% accurate. This is another compounding factor.


"If you notice yourself having to force/motivate yourself to work on something, it's typically because you don't want to do it despite its importance."

While this is certainly true in some cases, the people and projects I was thinking of when I wrote this would not fall into this category.

I posted this to the EA forums because the people I know who struggle with this are people who want to do these projects because of the project's importance, and because they genuinely want to do these things. They can't think of anything they would rather do. It really does become a life mission and grand purpose for them. They want to dedicate their lives to it, and they believe it is their magnum opus — their great contribution to making the world a better place.

Yet these same people find themselves needing effective strategies to "motivate" (initiate) themselves to do the hard work involved in getting these projects to fruition.

Hence why I mentioned this thought in the post:

"the solution is often about implementation strategies, such as basic behavioral change techniques to prioritize action"


"Is it possible that there is a degree of observation bias in that we might not notice all the cases where the importance of a project successfully motivated us to work on it? Or, perhaps more importantly/clearly, we might not consider all the times we just gave up on a potential project/task when we deemed it not important (rather than unsuccessfully berating ourselves to complete the task)?"

This is very plausible! Thank you for bringing this potential bias to this discussion.

How might we further explore this? If this is a possible blindspot for me, perhaps others might be consulted to provide more perspective on this.

However, I will note that, even if there are other cases not as readily considered, it might not necessarily change the idea that, in some key cases, this might be a very real problem people face.

The exciting thing about this is that, if we properly diagnose the problem as originating from this sort of avoidance effect, then we can just try out the best implementation strategies/techniques. See where that leads 🙂

"I think it's possible to overestimate the causal relationship between importance and avoidance due to other correlated factors and observation biases."

I agree. I don't want people running around "over-diagnosing" this 😅 especially when other factors might be much more significant, impactful, influential, etc.

But I also do want to bring this factor into our considerations, as I feel it can be easily overlooked and neglected. (Let's give it some of the attention it deserves for a while to see how prevalent and consequential the effect truly is.)